Michael Knaapen

The Israelis Are Coming, the Israelis Are Coming!

Filed By Michael Knaapen | January 21, 2014 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: book review, Israel, Middle East, Noah Beck, nuclear war, Persian Gulf, The Last Israelis

Iran recently acquiesced to stalling its nuclear program in exchange for the loosening of sanctions by nations like the United States. Whether this tactic is a step toward peace in the Middle East or merely politics as usual is a question The Last Israelis answers with catastrophic certainty.

The Last Israelis, a novel by Middle East observer Noah Beck, tells the story of the Dolphin, an Israeli nuclear submarine charged with a dangerous, deadly mission that could change history. A sister ship has gone missing in the Persian Gulf just as Iran acquires nuclear weapons from Pakistan and moves its own nuclear program to a fortification where it can safely produce weapons, and the 35-man crew of the Dolphin is hastily dispatched to replace the missing sub in the Strait of Hormuz, where it will act as Israel's primary counterattack force against a nuclear threat.

Additionally, the Israeli Prime Minister has suffered a medical emergency and fallen into a coma. Regional tensions are at an all-time high as the Dolphin makes its way from Israel's western shores, down and around the Arabian Peninsula, and into hostile waters.

last-israelis-noah-beck.jpgBeck writes in tight, clipped prose; at its best, this style is succinct, delivering concise descriptions and dialogue with a minimalist freshness that moves the story forward at a breathtaking pace. He has a gift for verbal frugality, choosing just the right word rather than spinning out convoluted explanations.

This tactic occasionally works against him; when, for instance, he uses conversations between loved ones to provide backstory, cramming intimate details and entire family histories into a few short sentences, readers sense that things are said for their benefit instead of the speakers'. At times, too, the readers' enjoyment of the story is stymied by an almost relentless urge to advance the plot, leaving no mysteries about characters' pasts or ambiguity about their states of mind.

Fortunately, his characters are rich totems of times and places - Russian Jews, Vietnamese immigrants, Druze - which the author treats with intelligence and understanding that smooths over any instances of wooden dialogue or abrupt storytelling. Their diversity contributes to both the emotional richness and regional tension as the Dolphin makes its way to the Strait of Hormuz.

Among the most challenging characters is a gay submariner named Bao. Despite the Israeli military's well-known acceptance of gay and lesbian service members, Bao remains closeted. Coming out is, of course, a very personal matter, but Bao's explanation of this to his boyfriend, a prominent Israeli medical researcher, reads like standard self-loathing.

He makes a number of arguments in favor of unit morale and cohesion which sound eerily similar to the objections made by some higher-ups in the US military prior to DADT repeal. He contends that his coming out could cause discomfort among the men he serves so closely with. His boyfriend inquires, "So you need to be uncomfortable so everyone else can be comfortable?" But Bao denies any discomfort. It is hard to know if he is telling the truth, for at the same time he promises to come out on his next mission, never expecting it to be the fraught adventure that it is.

It is through the lens of the diverse submarine crew that we learn about the challenging geopolitical situations in and around Israel. Through casual conversations, Beck adroitly summarizes enough information that even readers without extensive knowledge of world history and affairs can enjoy.

Different characters voice perspectives on central issues - from Palestinian statehood to Jewish orthodoxy to democratic values - in a humanizing way, giving readers of all stripes a horse to back. These discussions are usually random crew banter, but the nearer the Dolphin approaches her destination, the more vital these discussions become as the crew, cut off from headquarters, must ultimately decide the fate of their devastating cargo.

Most of The Last Israelis takes place aboard the Dolphin. Vivid descriptions of the technology, procedures, and day-to-day submariner life enhance the story, and the confined quarters - especially the pressure they exert on the human psyche - act as a vast metaphor that connects the international and domestic dramas which form the novel.

Dialogue is uneven at times, sacrificing naturalness for clarity. Too many fine moments are spoiled by a need to explain themselves which comes across as both unrealistic and patronizing. Once the submarine recovers the black box from a torpedoed sister sub, a crew member mutters, "yeah, we've entered the shark pool," and then needlessly adds, "these waters are full of enemy ships."

The extensive research undermines the storytelling at times too, as when one of the weapons specialists pulls out a long list of anti-Israel quotations by Islamic leaders...during a poker game. The game pauses while a litany of anti-Semitic remarks is recited, ostensibly because the submariner needs heinous reminders of anti-Semitism in order to perform his duties. The other characters listen attentively, and they occasionally chime in with their own pet quotations along the same vein.

Beck manages to keep the curtain drawn most times, but this occasional slip into proselytizing distracts from an otherwise enthralling narrative. Mercifully these digressions are few, brief, and surprisingly eloquent.

middle-east-map.gifBetter used, the author's thorough understanding of the region contributes to the formulation of a highly probable doomsday scenario involving weapons of mass destruction in the hands of radical Middle East regimes in the absence of healthy diplomatic relations. Beck makes apparent the vital role of diplomacy and aid by laying out a not-unlikely parallel universe in which U.S.-Pakistan ties deteriorate after the 2011 slaying of Osama bin Laden, drone strikes, and subsequent Pakistan-Afghanistan border skirmishes to the point that Pakistan makes a Faustian bargain with Iran over atomic weapons.

Humor balances the apocalyptic storyline nicely. One chapter starts, "There is never really a good time for a fight on a submarine." The understated tone works well as both dry, journalistic recounting of global catastrophes and subtle topical stand-up. Both have a place aboard the Dolphin.

When the intrepid Israeli submariners reach Oman, things really begin to heat up. Headquarters sends intermittent communications updating the crew on the political escalation in the Middle East, including capitulation by the United States that allows Iran to claim Bahrain. News of the Israeli Prime Minister's coma reaches the media, and the geopolitical situation reaches crisis level. Still, the ship slides quickly and silently toward its goal, all the while running weapons drills for torpedoes and the nuclear submarine's eponymous cache of atomic bombs.

The dispassionate tone of the WMD launch sequence drill titillates and chills like a Hitchcockian crescendo of tension. The simple step-by-step pattern delivered so evenly understates that the final product is total annihilation.

The Last Israelis appeals to our love of adventure, but more deeply it stokes our fears that the world is in imminent peril. Among his pithiest observations, Beck writes, "The fortune of individuals is often tied unfairly to their state."

Even as we read in the news about opportunities for peace, we are reminded that one misstep from a single actor could result in the annihilation of many innocent lives.

To purchase this thrilling, thought-provoking novel about geopolitics in action, camaraderie under fire, and impossible decisions, click here.

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