Spy Games

The latest leaks by the US government regarding Israel were intended, presumably, to embarrass the Israeli Minister of Defense and Prime Minister. The tension between the Obama administration and Netanyahu continues and meanwhile, in Syria, the Russians are moving ahead with their military operation to re-consolidate the Assad regime. Amir Rapaport's column

יעלון וקרטר (צילום: אריאל חרמוני, משהב"ט)

Since 2012, hundreds of employees of the Israeli defense establishment encountered a strange phenomenon: the staff of the US embassy in Israel refused to grant them visas to enter the USA.

The applicants included IDF servicemen and employees of IMOD, Israeli defense industries and such intelligence agencies as ISA and Mossad. Numerous testimonies indicated that the US embassy had a list of Israeli defense operatives, and entrance was denied to many of them despite the fact that they never encountered problems obtaining a visa in the past.

According to those testimonies, since 2012, some of the applicants received visas for just a few weeks after they had been 'given the runaround', while others were questioned upon their arrival in the USA. Some absurd situations arose. For example, members of the Israeli delegation to the USA were forced to leave the USA for Canada and have their visas renewed in that country, since their visas for staying on US soil had been renewed only for very short periods of time, again and again (or refused).

At the time, the US embassy in Israel refused to provide any explanations regarding this "Visa Refusal Policy", not even in response to a question submitted to the embassy by this writer, but the reason is being clarified in the last few days: a revelation by the Wall Street Journal last weekend maintains that the USA initiated a massive effort to obtain information from employees of the Israeli defense establishment in an attempt to find out whether Israel intended to attack the nuclear facilities in Iran. One of the methods being mentioned was an attempt to extract the information from Israelis seeking visas to enter the USA, and the questioning officials were not employees of USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services) but investigators of the CIA (US Central Intelligence Agency) working undercover.

The story published by the Wall Street Journal has further revealed that an Israeli aircraft had entered and exited the territory of Iran sometime in 2012, possibly as a trial run in the context of the preparations for a possible attack against the Iranian nuclear facility in Fordu. These claims were supported by quotes of officials in Washington.

According to the same officials, the objective of the flight was to practice the airlifting and landing of IDF commando forces in the area of the nuclear facility for the purpose of capturing it. These officials base their claim on an intercepted transmission out of which the information regarding the Israeli trial was obtained.

The Wall Street Journal revelation about the efforts made by the USA to uncover Israel's intentions regarding an attack against Iran well in advance is based on leaks from official US sources. The US government has an extensive resume of leaking sensitive defense information pertaining to Israel. Even the information attributing to Israel the attack against the Syrian nuclear reactor in Arak in September 2007 had come from Washington.

On the other hand, Israel has a record of failing to inform the USA in advance of significant military moves. For example, Israel went to such great lengths trying to keep the attack against the Iraqi nuclear reactor (mainly in June 1981) that the commander of IAF, Major-General David Ivry, spent the day prior to the attack with American colleagues in Naples, Italy, just to "put them to sleep". A message was sent to the USA only after the IAF strike aircraft had completed their mission (at least before the operation was reported in the media).

According to all of the estimates in Israel, the latest report by the Wall Street Journal was intended to embarrass Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon before his recent visit to the USA, which began on Monday and ended on Thursday (earlier than planned, owing to the tense situation in Israel) as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who will travel to Washington in early November.

This article conveys the impression that the USA does not trust the Israeli judgment, which could have led to a serious deterioration of the situation in the entire Middle East (and even beyond this region).

It is important to understand, however, that the story, titled "US espionage in Israel", does not amount to actual espionage but conforms to a more moderate professional term – collection of information. Admittedly, the methods employed in order to collect information in Israel, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, were extremely unusual, but the Israeli defense establishment has assumed anyway, for years now, that the Americans are gathering any information they can lay their hands on. They employ the world's most extensive monitoring network, code named Echelon, and use supercomputers to sort every sliver of information passing through the Internet in order to obtain the coveted 'golden nuggets' of information

The relations between the Israeli and US defense establishments have already experienced more severe espionage scandals, or even suspicions of "intensified collection of information", not just in the context of the case of Jonathan Pollard, who is expected to be released from prison after 30 years.

Lieutenant-Colonel (res.) Gideon Mitchnik, who had served at the executive office of the Defense Minister during the previous decade and subsequently served as the official historian of the IDF Intelligence Directorate, has reminded us that the Americans had accused Israel, more than a decade ago, of spying in the context of a less well-known affair known as the "AIPAC Espionage Scandal". In that case, the FBI arrested Lawrence Franklin, a senior employee at the executive office of the US Secretary of Defense and a former USAF officer, and accused him of spying for Israel within the US government. It was alleged that Franklin supplied sensitive information to two AIPAC officials – Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman.

Naor Gilon, an Israeli diplomat in charge of relations with the US Congress at the Israeli embassy in Washington, was also implicated in the suspicions. The affair eventually came to nothing after five years, but only after Franklin had paid a hefty personal price. This is only an example of the fact that both parties assume that the effort to collect information never ceases.

High Tension

The new "espionage scandal" revealed recently is a late manifestation of the heightened US-Israeli tensions surrounding the "Iranian Issue", which led to a profound rift between leaders Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu (that is not expected to be mended during their forthcoming meeting).

The Americans did everything they could to obtain information about Israel's intentions, while employing the "carrot and stick" method. On the positive side, they made an unprecedented attempt to establish warm relations with the IDF Chief of Staff in the years when an attack against Iran was regarded as imminent: until 2011, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, had met IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi not less than 13 times, showering the Israeli general with warmth and goodwill. When Ashkenazi's replacement, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, came to Washington for the first time as IDF Chief of Staff, a special band played all his favorite songs (presumably, the Americans had foreknowledge of Gantz's musical taste…).

On the less pleasant side, the Americans focused on the questioning of former members of IDF special operations units, and according to recent reports (by Yediot Aharonot), in one case Israel submitted an official protest to the USA pursuant to a less-than-innocent questioning of an Israeli citizen at a US airport that lasted not less than ten hours. In the past, it was reported that the USA deployed on the roof of the US embassy in Tel-Aviv covert monitoring installations the likes of which were seen on the roofs of other US embassies around the world.

USA, Russia

A matter of timing: whether this recent affair is about espionage or just about 'collection of information', these reports did not really cloud Ya'alon's visit to the USA this week. The visit went ahead as planned and according to the reports – the atmosphere was very pleasant. Senior Israeli defense officials claim that the relations between the defense establishments of Israel and the USA are closer today than ever before, as opposed to the hostile wind blowing toward Israel out of the White House and State Department (where the leak to the Wall Street Journal must have originated).

Meanwhile, back in Israel, the bar of violence in the territories seemed to have dropped significantly and violence among Israeli Arabs has subsided almost completely. However, estimates maintain that tranquility is still a far-off prospect and that the terrorist attacks will continue for a long time, with occasional "peaks" – renewed waves of surging violence.

A lot of attention has been paid to occurrences in Syria: while Israel and the USA conducted strategic discussions in Washington, a historic event took place when the Russian Air Force coordinated its strikes with the IAF. The understandings regarding that coordination were achieved last month, during the visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu to Moscow, on which he was accompanied by the IDF Chief of Staff and Head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate.

At the same time, Israeli and US operations associated with Syria were coordinated, too. The world press has reported this week that the Russians employed high-power electronic transmitters out of a submarine in the Mediterranean. These reports seem to be accurate and the Russian submarine was probably detected by Israel. The electronic warfare systems were probably employed by the Russians in order to defend their new bases in Syria as well as their aircraft in the air over Syria. Apparently, the state-of-the-art capabilities demonstrated by the Russians this week have taken intelligence circles in the West by surprise.

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