It’s already public knowledge that 58-year-old Israeli journalist, editor, and author, Dov Alfon, was connected to intelligence gathering for Operation Opera, a surprise Israeli air strike carried out in June 1981 which destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor just miles outside of Baghdad.
But when asked if he can cite specific examples concerning any operations he’s carried out in the Israel Defense Force’s Unit 8200 as a young man, Alfon retreats from the conversation with guarded hesitancy. “I cannot be quoted on things I’ve done or haven’t done [in Unit 8200],” Alfon tells The Times of Israel with James Bond-like coolness, from an undisclosed location in Paris.
Unit 8200, or Shmoneh-Matayim as it’s called in Hebrew, is considered by most intelligence analysts to be one of the most sophisticated— if somewhat controversial— espionage units on the planet. A 2014 Guardian investigative piece showed, for instance, that it spies on Palestinian civilians in the West Bank.
Moral discrepancies notwithstanding, as Unit 8200 is the largest single military unit in the IDF, comparisons to the US National Security Agency (NSA) are not uncommon.
“Unit 8200 concentrates on existential threats to Israel,” Alfon explains. “For example, nuclear deals with Iran, or possible [security] issues with Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and so on.”
In January, Alfon published what is being marketed as a “Unit 8200 thriller”: “Layla Aroch B’Paris” (“A Long Night in Paris”), was originally published in Hebrew in 2016 and recently hit the shelves in French. The espionage thriller begins with the news that an Israeli tech worker — who was last seen with an attractive leggy blonde dressed in red — has mysteriously vanished from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
Most of the book’s action flips between fast-paced scenes in Paris and Tel Aviv. This subsequently results in a great deal of confusion and suspicion between the Israeli intelligence services and the foot soldiers in the French police force, who are both dealing with the missing person case.
As the novel’s plot unfolds these diplomatic exchanges turn into a poker game in the subtle art of international relations.
Alfon says the book’s interconnected global scope — where events always evolve in real time via the most sophisticated technology — attempts to reflect how contemporary espionage actually works.
Yet, the author started on an early draft of the book long ago.
“The first chapter of the novel was written 30 years ago, immediately after my military service when I was just 28,” Alfon explains. “I initially put the novel aside, but the notebooks still stayed with me on various continents and various life phases I went through.”
“I only went back to it very recently, but the plot, characters, and the description of places all sprang from my own personal experience,” he adds.
The novel topped the Israeli book charts as a bestseller for a number of weeks upon its release. The English version, “A Long Night in Paris,” came out this past January in the UK and the US, receiving favorable reviews from the likes of the FT and The Guardian.
Alfon subsequently undertook an extensive UK book tour that included an appearance at London’s global literary festival, Jewish Book Week, in March.
Anybody with a passing interest in espionage novels knows that the best selling authors don’t come upon their success by coincidence — most of them are former spies who reveal the double life they once led through the realm of fictional stories.
James Bond creator Ian Fleming was a former naval intelligence officer, while John le Carré, who penned Cold War classics such as “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” worked for British intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6.
But having an awareness of the roots of your own literary tradition is very different from being imprisoned by it.
“When I read most espionage fiction I think, ‘How strange, this is not the way things function in the actual world of espionage,’” says Alfon. “And so it was important for me to try and give readers some inclination of how the real world of espionage actually works.”
The Israeli writer says he wanted to move away from penning Cold War pastiche parody, a style he believes is stunting the creative energy of many 21st century espionage novelists. Geopolitically and technologically the world is a very different place, the author stresses, and espionage fiction must move swiftly alongside history.
“Most spy novels still tend to be written about HUMINT — that is, human intelligence gathering,” Alfon explains. “But this is just a very small part of the espionage world these days.”
“In the US, for instance, the official statistics give the NSA or other electronic intelligence organizations credit for about 80 to 90 percent of important intelligence given to Congress and the president,” Alfon says.
“I suspect it must be the same in Israel,” he adds.
Forget cliched descriptions of middle aged men standing suspiciously on the bridge of picturesque Central European cities drenched in the fog with the collar of their trench coats upturned, Alfon says. These days, the location of spies is really irrelevant — primarily because most of the time enemies no longer meet in person.
Put simply: it’s all about the technology. The better and faster the network, the better the spy you can become.
“In today’s interconnected world you can be spied upon from someone who is 4,000 kilometers [roughly 2,500 miles] away,” Alfon says. “So for example, if an Iranian is spying on [an Israeli], the chances are it’s probably being done by algorithm, but more importantly, they are probably doing the spying in Tehran.”
“I wanted to reflect this [relatively] new aspect of espionage in my novel,” says Alfon. “Not only is the world a very small place [nowadays] but distances are no longer important to intelligence services.”
Alfon’s fast-paced global thriller isn’t all techno gadgets and silicon-chip driven action. And it certainly isn’t literary fiction — though there are small pockets of character development and emotional dramatic conflict. Principally, this focuses around two main protagonists, Colonel Zeev Abadi, a high-ranking officer in the military’s top-secret Unit 8200, and his female deputy, Lieutenant Oriana Talmor.
Talmor, the novel’s hero, spends much of her time fighting an uphill battle against her male colleagues and the hierarchical chain she’s working in. In public meetings the young intelligence officer finds herself being patronized and even humiliated on occasion. In these verbal public spats Talmor gives as good as she gets though, having no problem defending herself from potential bullying, either professional or personal.
Her confident no nonsense blunt attitude is pretty typical to the Israeli way of life, Alfon believes.
“This is something that foreigners who come to Israel very quickly learn about — that Israelis have this chutzpah,” he says. “Oriana speaks to her superiors in a way that, say, no American junior officer would do.”
“This is something very particular to Israeli [culture]. It’s a directness, a toughness, and a way in conversation of going straight to the point,” Alfon says.
But it also makes life easier to say exactly what you think, Alfon points out. Indeed, standing up for one’s own character in front of superiors is central to the cultural ethos of Unit 8200, the writer explains.
“If your superior officer gives a power point presentation, for instance, and you don’t agree with it, you are entitled to say you don’t agree with it,” he says. “This would not be the same in an American military organization.”
Away from his current writing project and former espionage life, Alfon has another professional credential on his CV worth mentioning.
As editor in chief of Haaretz between 2008 and 2011, he made a number of crucial decisions that were central to the Anat Kamm-Uri Blau affair, which involved the leaking of thousands of classified IDF documents by former Israeli soldier Kamm. These were subsequently published in Haaretz by investigative reporter Blau.
They revealed that the IDF chose to purposely assassinate potential Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank, even in cases when arresting these men instead would have proved just as efficient.
“The story disclosed a number of shocking killings in the Palestinian territories,” Alfon explains. “The army then decided to find a source for Blau, and even though it failed for a year, it was then decided that the secret service should continue this inquiry after Anat Kamm was arrested and charged with [espionage].”
“Uri Blau was on honeymoon in China [at the time] and the army wanted him investigated upon his return,” Alfon continues. “I decided that [Blau] should stay abroad until assurance of his well-being was received.”
“This was well reported all over the world at the time, and I suppose this was the major event that marked my editorship of the newspaper,” Alfon says.
These days Alfon still works for the left wing Israeli broadsheet, although his job title has been changed from editor in chief to Paris corespondent.
Alfon has a great personal and professional affiliation with the city where he has spent much of his life. But he tends to eschew sentimentality about place, especially since there is always the prospect of another move when professional opportunities loom on the horizon.
Born in Sousse, Tunisia, in 1961, Alfon’s family then moved to France. His own family story he says, is typically Jewish: urban, unrooted, cosmopolitan and peripatetic.
Some years ago Alfon began to research his own family tree, he says. “I found that as far as I can go — which is the middle of the 19th century — not one generation was born on the same continent as the next one. In a way this reflects a very Jewish story.”
“And later in life it also turns you to be a better spy than others,” he adds with a mischievous smile.
But short term at least, Alfon’s future remains based in Paris — where there is some unfinished creative business to take care of: a TV series about his novel that is currently being planned between Keshet International and Elephant, who are working together on a co-production.
“There is a huge demand for a follow-up to ‘A Long Night in Paris,'” Alfon says. “I haven’t yet started to write it, though, because I have other [professional] commitments.”
“I really want to be involved in this forthcoming TV series,” he says. “But I believe there will a second book.”