Howard Kaplan’s Israeli Spy Thrillers, “The Damascus Cover” and “Bullets of Palestine”, Should Not Be Missed

review by Patrick H. Moore

I was recently contacted by a liberal Zionist novelist and humanitarian named Howard Kaplan who wrote two first-rate Israeli spy novels back in  the 1970s and 1980s. To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Kaplan is a religious man, and like most Zionists, strongly believes in the cause of modern day Israel. On the other hand, Mr. Kaplan is by no means a right-wing Zionist reactionary and he decries the wickedness and cruelty that all too often emanates from factions among both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Mr. Kaplan’s stance on this seemingly intractable problem is that the fighting and terrorist acts coming from the radicals on both side must stop, and in its place, a spirit of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians must arise.

This is not a new stance on Mr. Kaplan’s part; he is the author of two Israeli spy thrillers in which the message of the need for reconciliation between the Jewish and the Arab worlds is subtly woven into his texts. His first thriller, The Damascus Cover, was published in 1977 and was on the Los Angeles Times best seller list for 3 months. His second novel Bullets for Palestine, was published 10 years later.

Both novels have recently been re-released and The Damascus Cover has just been made into a movie called Damascus Cover, which is directed by Daniel Zelik Berk and stars Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Olivia Thirlby, Sir John Hurt and Jürgen Prochnow. The film, Damascus Cover, is scheduled to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2016.

Here are the links to both re-released novels:

The Damascus Cover

Bullets of Palestine

dam1In The Damascus Cover, Dov Elon, a young Israeli spy is being held prisoner by the Syrian Secret Police and is being viciously tortured in a Damascus prison. He has valuable information that his captors want, and if he doesn’t provide it, his torturers will shoot off each of his limbs one at a time.

Ari Ben-Sion, is a tired, middle-aged, burnt out Israeli spy who was once a respected member of Mossad. The one thing he still excels at is seducing (or being seduced by) women, and as the story begins, he is in bed with a woman on Cyprus when Dov Elon sends a message asking for help. Ari is, shall we say, preoccupied, and doesn’t respond to Dov’s desperate call for help. He is then recalled to Jerusalem and is essentially cashiered by the Colonel, the leader of Mossad. Like many an adrenaline junkie, Ari flails helplessly when not on the job out in the field. Before long, desperate to get back in the game, he takes an assignment he would have scoffed at in his prime — smuggling Jewish children out of the Damascus ghetto. His cover is Hans Hoffman, an ex-Nazi lieutenant at Dachau, now in the import-export business. As we might expect, once Ari arrives in Damascus, complications abound and things are hardly as they seem. Ari soon realizes he’s being followed and his assigned partner is nowhere to be found. What initially appeared to be a routine assignment unravels to reveal a string of murderous conspirators. Ari discovers he is marked for death and caught in a maddening puzzle, and he must race for survival as Kaplan’s tautly drawn novel proceeds to its highly disturbing climax.

Much of the strength of this work stems from the author’s intimate knowledge of the Middle East, where he traveled widely as a young man. In a review, the Los Angeles Times stated: “In the best tradition of the new espionage novel. Kaplan’s grasp of history and scene creates a genuine reality. He seems to know every back alley of Damascus and Cyprus.” The American Library Association wrote in in a starred review: “A mission inside Syria, a last love affair, and the unfolding of the plot within a plot are handled by the author with skill and a sure sense of the dramatic.”

In conceiving of this skillfully executed thriller, the author was inspired by the tragic story of Eli Cohen, an actual Israeli spy, who in real life worked his way high up in the ranks of the Syrian government and was publicly hanged after his cover was blown.

The theme of reconciliation in Kaplan’s novel is subtle and is driven by the concept that even when two perennially warring nations seem to want nothing more than to destroy each other, there are always wise individuals on both sides who see the fallacy of nationalistic antagonisms and are willing to risk their own lives, against all odds, to bring about some form of mutual understanding and cooperation.

Thus, The Damascus Cover is, in a sense, emblematic of the current struggle on the West Bank, where certain Palestinian and Jewish men and women of reason and good conscience dedicate their lives to bring about fair play and mutual respect between the two groups, even as right-wing Jewish elements and radical Palestinians elements are convulsed with hatred which they foist upon one another in the form of endless violence and cruelty.

As a pure spy thriller, The Damascus Cover is exceptional, the characters are vividly drawn, the setting is entirely believable, and the reader is soon brought to the edge of his seat and remains there throughout the story.

Bullets of Palestine

dam3Bullets of Palestine is a novel in which fictional characters intertwine with real-life events. A real life terrorist named Abu Nidal finds Yasser Arafat’s PLO too conciliatory and targets PLO officers, Israeli officials, synagogues and airlines across Europe. In the opening scene, Abu Nidal’s men gun down Shlomo Argov, the Israeli Ambassador to Great Britain, in a recreation of the actual assassination.

The same Colonel who ran Mossad in The Damascus Cover is now retired and is growing old gracefully on an Israeli kibbutz. He devises a plan in which a middle-aged Israeli agent, Shai Shaham, is sent to win the trust of a moderate Palestinian agent, Ramzy Awwad. Although Abu and Ramzy are ostensibly natural enemies, the former being an Israeli spy, the later a Palestinian agent, they have common ground in that they both decry the blind hatred and useless destruction that Abu Nidal is wreaking on both Palestinian and Israelis. Their common goal is to eliminate Abu Nidal, no small task, and in order to do so they must trust one another with, literally, their lives. Things are complicated by the disturbing fact that Shai has secret orders from the present head of Mossad to eliminate Ramzy after Abu Nidal is killed. Ramzy’s own choice to cooperate is tested when he is trapped in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps (another recreation of an actual event), where Christian Phalangists, who are supposed to kill only the PLO fighters in the camps, instead massacre the old men, women and children who have remained there after the fighters fled.

The plot of this novel is excellent and tightly drawn and most readers will find Bullets for Palestine a completely satisfying reading experience. Personally, I was a bit disappointed because as the plot, which is genuinely thrilling, builds to a fever pitch, the personal relationship between Shai and Ramzy does not develop sufficiently to allow them to truly find their common humanity despite their cultural and political differences.

Nonetheless, Bullets for Palestine is a first-rate spy thriller and should be read in tandem with The Damascus Cover.

Given Howard Kaplan’s obvious talent as a writer of spy thrillers combined with his humanitarian stance, I would like to see him forego making a living and raising a family (or whatever he has been doing since Bullets for Palestine was first published in 1988) and get back to writing fiction. With all the seemingly unsolvable problems that are facing Israel, Palestine and the rest of the Middle East today, a new work of fiction focused on these issues by a writer of Kaplan’s talent and stature would be most appreciated.

HOWARD KAPLAN, a native of Los Angeles, has lived in Israel and traveled extensively through Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. At the age of 21, he was sent on a mission into the Soviet Union to smuggle a dissident’s manuscript on microfilm to London. His first trip was a success. On his second trip, he transferred a manuscript to the Dutch Ambassador inside his Moscow embassy. A week later, he was arrested in Khartiv in the Ukraine and interrogated for two days there and and two days in Moscow, before being expelled from the USSR. The KGB had picked him up for meeting dissidents and did not know about the manuscript transfers. He holds a BA in Middle East History from UC Berkeley and an MA in the Philosophy of Education from UCLA.

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