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Spies in the Basement

The extraordinary true cloak-and-dagger tale of how a chance encounter in a London bookstore made peace possible, on the 25th anniversary of the Israel-Jordan accords

Haim Be’er
October 25, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Whenever I leave my home in Israel to visit London I make a pilgrimage to the four-story bookstore on Gower Street, next to University College London. A visit to the store satisfies my book hunger, but also accords with the practice of returning to the scene where one experienced a miraculous transcendence of the natural order of the world. You see, in the early 1980s, one of the most perplexing and unimaginable things that ever happened to me occurred in the cluttered and claustrophobic basement of this bookstore.

The truth is our story begins more than 15 years earlier, sometime in 1964. I was then doing my army service, assigned to the office of the chief rabbi of the IDF as a journalist for the army’s magazine, Machanayim, which surveyed Jewish affairs in Israel and worldwide. Officially the editorial offices were on the base of the Military Rabbinate in Jaffa, but in reality we sat in the building of the Davar newspaper, at 45 Sheinkin St. in Tel Aviv. That is, I sat there—the editorial assistant, copy editor, proofreader, printer’s assistant, packager, and delivery boy all wrapped up in one! Davar had won the tender to serve as the outsourced printer for the Department of Defense and made a third-floor walk-through office available to the “visiting editors.” Our story begins in this room.

Toiling away, I sat editing an article by professors Dov Sadan, David Flusser, or Hugo Bergmann, when in walked a bespectacled, civilian-clad man of around 30. He had a pleasant demeanor, wore his Anglo-Saxon appearance lightly, and introduced himself as Efraim Halevy, part-time editor of a monthly magazine for army officers put out by the Chief Education Office. We hit it off immediately, perhaps because of our common religious background—he hailed from a distinguished British Orthodox family; his grandfather, a London rabbi, was son-in-law of the esteemed Rabbi Chaim Berlin. Perhaps it was on account of our being the only young men tucked away in that warren of offices. Either way, we shared many pleasant conversations until one day a young redhead showed up to replace Halevy. When I asked, with some disappointment, what became of Efraim, he answered, “Who knows? He’s been reassigned.” No further explanation was ever provided. End of Chapter 1.

Years passed, and in 1980, or perhaps 1981, I traveled to London for a few weeks. As one for whom bookstores are sacred spaces I quickly made my way to the large flagship shop of Dillons Booksellers on Gower Street (when Dillons went the way of all things the store was taken over by the Waterstones chain). The prestigious establishment was a mecca for all book lovers in the greater London area. After scouring the shelves on the three above-ground floors I descended to the basement. There, in a nook dedicated to volumes on anthropology, who did I see but my friend from bygone days, Efraim Halevy! He stood with intent focus, his head slightly bent, listening to the whispers of a short, solid, broad-shouldered, mustachioed man—the type we call Levantine-looking. My first impulse was to rush up and embrace him, and pick up our conversation where it had been interrupted years earlier. However, common sense told me, “Leave him. If he wants, he’ll approach you.” I politely mumbled “pardon me,” shooting him a glance as I pushed passed them in the crowded space. Indeed, it was Efraim Halevy, but he returned a glassy-eyed stare, and like Joseph in Egypt he did not reveal himself to his brethren. End of Chapter 2.

A brief intermezzo. Years passed and I discovered that Efraim Halevy had become a significant player in the Israeli intelligence community, serving as the deputy director of the Mossad (later, in 1998, he became its director). Now I understood what had happened. Surely I had caught him in the middle of an operation with one of his secret sources in the basement of Dillons. God Himself had prevented me from blowing his cover or causing some other blunder which could not be repaired by all the king’s men.

Chapter 3. Sometime in mid-1994 my wife and I were meeting friends at Café Apropos in our hometown, Ramat Gan. Sitting near the entrance I spied two men locked in whispered conversation—Eitan Haber, the veteran Yedioth Ahronoth journalist, who was then serving as chief of staff to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Efraim Halevy. “Now you can say hello,” whispered that old common sense. “Hello, Eitan,” I said to Haber while extending a hand to Halevy and asking if he remembered me.

Halevy smiled and asked if I still visit the basement of the Gower Street bookstore when in London. “You remember that?” I asked with genuine amazement. “Can one forget such circumstances?” he replied, and thanked me for my discretion on that occasion. We chatted for another moment, and then I moved on since they appeared engrossed in some important matter. Before I reached the table where my wife and friends were waiting Haber shouted, “Be’er, come back here and bring your diary.”

The prime minister’s chief of staff asked me to mark off Oct. 26. “Leave it free. Don’t make any appointments that day,” he instructed.

“It’s a long time off,” I said. “The Messiah might arrive between now and then.”

“Did you hear what I said?” his voice bellowed, and Halevy added that just as I had kept silent in London, so must I seal my lips now. “Not a word to your wife or friends, Be’er,” Haber commanded.

Chapter 4. A few months later the news arrived with great fanfare: Peace with Jordan! A treaty with the Hashemite Kingdom would be signed at the Arava Valley border crossing on Oct. 26, 1994. The very date Haber had told me to reserve in my diary! Things began to become a bit clearer, but I hadn’t heard a thing from him or his office. At 2 a.m. on the night between the 24th and 25th of October a military police motorcycle screeched to a halt in front of our home, just like in an old thriller. The courier hand delivered an envelope from the prime minister, addressed to my “eyes only,” with a personal invitation to the Peace Treaty ceremony.

Epilogue. Standing by the edge of the stage, before the ceremony began, Efraim Halevy was once again engrossed in whispered conversation with the short, solid, broad-shouldered, mustachioed, Levantine-looking man. The very same man I had seen him with 15 years earlier in the London basement. It was Crown Prince Hassan bin Talal, brother of King Hussein. His back was a bit more stooped, and his hair now had a touch of gray. As soon as I could get Halevy alone I approached him with a warm greeting. He asked why I thought he and Haber had found me worthy of an invitation to this historic event, which capped countless secret meetings held over many years. “Why, indeed?” I answered his question with one of my own, in inimitable Jewish fashion. Halevy answered, “Because on that very day in London you were witness to the first contact between me and Prince Hassan, and on that afternoon at Café Apropos you caught me fresh from my return from Amman where the king and his brother and I settled on the date to sign the peace treaty. Since I didn’t want to inform the prime minister by telephone—everything was still secret, and you know how things leak—I made a date to pass the information via Eitan, who lives near the café. By fate’s guiding hand you were there at the start and also at the finish line. That’s why we thought it was only right to invite you to be here today.”


Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Saks from Masa Dilugim, Haim Be’er’s new collection of stories and vignettes. Saks’ profile of Be’er’s exquisite literary style, “The Language of the Jewish Bookshelf,” appeared last year in Tablet.

Haim Be’er is an Israeli novelist and literary critic. He is the 2018 recipient of the lifetime achievement Agnon Prize in Literature.

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