Smiley & me? No, no, no! Ex-Mossad chief on his non-link to le Carré’s antihero

UK-born Efraim Halevy was rising in the Mossad while a possible fictional doppelganger was ascending in the ‘Circus.’ But Halevy knows the author’s inspiration came from elsewhere

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Alec Guinness in the role of George Smiley (left); ex-Mossad chief Efraim Halevy (Combo photo: Acorn Media and Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Alec Guinness in the role of George Smiley (left); ex-Mossad chief Efraim Halevy (Combo photo: Acorn Media and Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“… the king summoned Efraim Halevy. Hussein had come to trust this quiet, intelligent, bespectacled Israeli whose signature feature was the strip of hair he combed across his balding scalp, and who, having grown up in London, spoke the King’s English. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to John le Carré’s master spy, George Smiley, Halevy had an immense capacity for discretion, a rare commodity among Israelis.”

— Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel, in his 2014 book “Innocent Abroad”

John le Carré introduced readers to George Smiley, the bespectacled, self-effacing, and rapier-sharp British overseas intelligence officer, in his novel “Call for the Dead,” published in 1961. At precisely that time, in the real world, Efraim Halevy, the bespectacled, self-effacing, and rapier-sharp British-born intelligence officer, was just starting his career in the Mossad.

As le Carre’s fictional antihero — later immortalized on TV by the late, great Sir Alec Guinness — made his betrayal-paved path to the helm of “The Circus” (the author’s thinly veiled MI6), Halevy was making a similar, albeit considerately more sedate, ascent: Smiley was running the Circus by the end of 1973’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”; Halevy, having left the Mossad as its deputy chief in 1995, was urgently called back by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to head the agency in 1998 in order to salvage Israel’s relations with Jordan. A furious king Hussein was threatening to rupture the then-four-year-old peace treaty because the Mossad had embarked on, failed, and, worst of all, got its agents caught in an attempt to assassinate Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal in broad daylight on the streets of Amman.

Author John le Carré, real name David Cornwell, at his home in London, August 28, 2008. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

With the death at 89 of Smiley’s creator, The Times of Israel spoke Monday with Halevy, who is 86 and thriving, to discuss any similarities between le Carré’s fictional spymaster and himself.

I once happened to find myself standing behind Halevy in a line at passport control at Heathrow Airport, and chuckled to myself at the notion of this avuncular, silver-haired gentleman passing quietly into the country of his birth — by all appearance a most mild and unremarkable fellow, with a hidden history whose details may not be fully known for a few more decades yet.

Efraim Halevy (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

I’ve also long wondered whether Halevy and le Carré (real name David Cornwell), whose 1983 “The Little Drummer Girl” revolved around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, had any kind of connection — whether, that is, there’s any of the gracious, lugubrious and calculating Smiley that came from our own ex-Mossad chief. The short answer to that question, Halevy told me firmly, was no. Still, he acknowledged, I’m certainly not the first person to make the connection.

The Times of Israel: I wanted to know what you thought of le Carré, how well you knew him, and what he based on you.

Efraim Halevy: No, no, no! First of all he [Smiley] was not based on me. Secondly, I met him [le Carré] only once briefly. So I’m sure he’d never remembered me.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Courtesy)

Le Carré was the product of the Cold War. He served in a not very senior position in MI6. [In his writing] he reflected the issue of clandestine activity in the Cold War, which was a very, very important element in the war between the West and the East, with an emphasis, of course, on Berlin and the story of divided Berlin. His work well reflected the mood at the time, although none of what he wrote was anything but fiction. [Still,] he was very economical with giving credit to real successes on both sides. Certainly not on the West side.

When he came to dealing with areas in which he had less personal involvement, like the terrorist war —  he had this book he wrote about Palestinian terror, “The Little Drummer Girl” — well, that was, in the eyes of an Israeli, a very poor reflection of what really was happening.

The Little Drummer Girl (Courtesy)

But the name Smiley is, of course, interesting. Last year, a biography of Smiley was published — [The Clandestine Lives of Colonel David Smiley] — written by a man called Clive Jones, who is a professor of Middle East history at Durham University, and by the way, a very close friend of mine. And David Smiley was to some extent the character that le Carré used [as his inspiration for George Smiley]. David Smiley was in World War II, he was in Albania, and after that, he was also active on behalf of the British towards the War of Independence. He was one of a group of people who tried unsuccessfully to mine one of the ships which were going to bring olim, immigrants, over to Israel. But he later changed his approach.

Colonel David Smiley pictured with Sultan Said bin Taimur of Muscat when he was commander of the Sultan’s Armed Forces in the late 1950s (Wikipedia)

When the time came for events in Yemen to suddenly become prominent in the 60s, when the Russians moved into Yemen, and set up the People’s Republic of South Yemen, as it was called, and loyalist forces in Yemen rebelled against the Russians, Israel was active in providing the loyalist rebels with military equipment. The Israeli Air Force flew 14 sorties of IAF transport planes, who parachuted weaponry, which was quite valuable for the loyalist forces.

And David Smiley was on the ground there. And one of the interesting things was that not only was Smiley there, with the cover of a journalist, but he met another friend there who had a cover of a journalist. This was a young Russian whose name was Yevgeny Primakov, who much later became the head of the KGB.

In this Feb. 28, 2011 file photo, former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov speaks at a news conference in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, File)

So you had Smiley on the one hand, talking to Primakov on the other, and Israel parachuting weaponry into the camp of the loyalists.

And you had the Egyptian army fighting a losing battle in the Arabian Peninsula, and using chemical warfare in a vain attempt to change the fortunes of war. The Egyptian army suffered a very, very severe setback there, which had a serious effect on the capability that they exhibited in the Six Day War against Israel. So you have it all in one package now.

David Smiley also served in Oman, in a senior position. And he ultimately became a commander of the mounted troops who accompany the Queen on her official journey from Buckingham Palace to parliament. There’s always a trooping of the guard, and the colonel who was the commanding officer of that was David Smiley.

David Smiley was also part of a [kind of British equivalent] to Sayeret Matkal [the IDF’s elite special reconnaissance unit].

Take me back to le Carré, and your one brief meeting.

It was a few minutes. I met him at a reception and he didn’t show much interest in me. To the best of my knowledge, there was no Israeli who had a real intimate relationship with him. He was not a great Zionist or something like that, not like Lawrence of Arabia for instance.

But he was pretty positive on Israel in some of the things that he said. I saw an interview that he gave 20 years ago…

Maybe he was repentant. (Laughs)

I always thought there was something of you in George Smiley.

No, no. Often, when I used to come to various places and began talking, all kinds of people said to me, ‘You’re like Smiley,’ but I don’t think…

Martin Indyk’s Innocent Abroad

There’s a book written by Martin Indyk, twice the American ambassador to Israel, “Innocent Abroad,” which relates to this. (Halevy directs me to the paragraph quoted at the top of this article.)

Understated, self-effacing, unruffled — these are qualities that I see in you, and they’re certainly characteristics of Smiley. And then, of course, there’s the British thing.

Right. You can quote Indyk.

You don’t see it yourself?

Well, it’s difficult for me to assess myself (laughs), but I know that many people…

The way I operated, I was always a soft-spoken, always trying to minimize my presence and role, and trying to influence my partner by saying things which were of value to him. Not overbearing, and having a lot of patience. Patience is what you have to have. David Smiley was a man of few words. He didn’t brag about anything. He was the best model of discretion.

As Indyk was saying, I think discretion is [important]. If you’re discreet, you’re trustworthy. Many things [King] Hussein told me I never told [then prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin because I didn’t think it was important for [Rabin] to know that he confided in me. [You need] to develop a relationship which encourages your partner to confide in you.

This clandestine world that le Carré wrote fictionally about, and that you actually lived in for decades, how vital has it been in world events, and especially where Israel is concerned?

In international affairs, you have the relationships at the top between the political masters — the prime minister, the president, whatever it is — and then he needs a person who can represent him in a variety of matters…

Finally, let’s talk about the normalization processes taking place, in which the incumbent Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, one of your successors, has played quite a significant role.

Some of the figures involved in this are people who I’ve known for a long time.

I knew the current leader of Bahrain. I met him 20 years ago. We had a very good relationship.

Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said al-Said during a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Beit Al Baraka Royal Palace in Muscat, Oman, January 14, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP)

I met [the late] Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman in 1975, when he was in his forward command post in the south of Oman on the Omani-Yemenite border.

I met with him in scorching heat; we met on a lawn. He actually went to Sandhurst [military academy] when he was in London, like many others from the Middle East, and he maintained a lawn where he used to have afternoon tea. I arrived in the afternoon and we sat on the lawn and he served those watercress sandwiches, triangular sandwiches.

I had to have High Tea, with milk, otherwise it wouldn’t be the right thing. When we had the peace with Jordan, Rabin called me and said, ‘I want one other country [to indicate support for this]. I don’t want Jordan to be alone.’ I traveled to [the sultan] and he agreed to receive Rabin. The direct flight from Israel, by the way, flew over Saudi airspace — without the knowledge and without the approval of the Saudis.

And he agreed that once the meeting was over, it could be published, and that’s what happened.

So we should assume that Oman will be joining the normalization process?

I think so, yes. It will take time, but yes.

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