Pollard the Spy — Freed Now, but an Escape Plan Ignored? And Who’s Escaping Responsibility?

[Yossi Melman — co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current Spies Against Armageddon — continues his analysis of Jonathan Pollard, the American who spied for Israel and is now being released from a U.S. prison after 30 years.]

The Escape Plan

For years, veteran spymaster Rafi Eitan was accused of not preparing a genuine rescue plan for his valuable agent in the United States. But now Eitan reveals that such a plan was actually prepared. It included code words and phone numbers to be used in case of emergency.

According to the plan, Jonathan Pollard was instructed to take a bus to Canada.

Longtime Israeli spy Rafi Eitan, on RT recently

Longtime Israeli spy Rafi Eitan, on RT recently

But he never followed the instructions. In November 1985, when U.S. Navy counterintelligence and the FBI suspected him, Pollard was questioned. After the first session, he was allowed to go home.

Instead of rushing to the Greyhound bus station, he hesitated. He didn’t know how to get rid of a suitcase that was filled with documents. Precious time was lost. When he made up his mind, it was too late to execute the plan.

His ex-wife Anne Pollard (who served three years in prison) refutes Eitan’s claim, however, and says they did not have any rescue plan. She told me that the only escape instructions given to them were to go to the Israeli Embassy, which they did.

They panicked and decided to take their dog in their car and drive to the Israeli Embassy compound in Washington’s Van Ness neighborhood to seek asylum.  FBI agents were following, in their own cars.

“Right up until today,” says Eitan — who this month celebrates his 89th birthday, “I don’t understand what were his reasons for not immediately, when he felt at risk, executing the rescue plan.”

The Pollards managed to sneak in to the embassy’s forecourt when a security gate was opened for another vehicle. But by order of Eitan, who instructed the security officer at the embassy, they were asked to leave.

“I gave the order,” Eitan admits. “There was no other choice. Had Israel kept them hiding in the embassy, the situation would have only worsened.”

After the news broke out, Israel declared it was a rogue operation. But that was a lie. Israel had spied against the US and on US soil since its independence in 1948 and even before then.

The only unique element of the Pollard case is that he was a U.S. intelligence employee with access to a wide array of classified information.

Lakam also operated another spy in the US – Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, an Israeli whose company illegally purchased and smuggled components for Israel’s nuclear program.

Still, according to Eitan, Pollard — who is now 61 years old — could have been punished with a lighter sentence.

“He could have served no more than 10 years.” Eitan claims that an understanding between the US and Israeli governments was reached for a lighter sentence. But Israeli officials and Pollard, with their behavior, blew it.

Pollard’s interviews with Wolf Blitzer and with CBS’s Mike Wallace angered U.S. authorities — as the captured spy did not seem at all sorry for what he had done.

The Americans were also annoyed by the actions of the head of Shin Bet (Israel’s domestic security agency), Avraham Shalom, who was assigned together with lawyer Ram Caspi to negotiate with US officials the return of the documents Pollard had stolen. Shalom promised full cooperation and transparency but lied and was caught red-handed with his lies.

There were two other reasons for the heavy sentence of life imprisonment. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger wrote a letter to the presiding judge in the case, describing Pollard as one of the most damaging spies ever operated in America. In addition, the Israeli public campaign to release Pollard, accompanied by the visits of members of Knesset and cabinet ministers, contributed to the U.S. decision to retreat from behind-the-scenes understandings.

I asked Eitan if he has any regrets or remorse about the affair. “Of course” was his answer. “I am sorry for what happened to Pollard.”

But he rushes to clarify that he acted only after informing his superiors and that he was authorized to carry out the operation. If this is true, it means that running a spy in the heart of the U.S. intelligence community was approved by prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres and two defense ministers – Moshe Arens and Yitzhak Rabin.

Arens, still a very active commentator at age 89, completely denies that he had any knowledge about the operation.

Rabin was assassinated in 1995, and Shamir died a few years ago.

Peres, who was privy in the 1950’s to the decision to create Lakam. keeps insisting that running Pollard was a “rogue”operation.”

It is irrefutable, however, that the products of Pollard’s operations benefited the entire Israeli intelligence community: the Mossad, Military Intelligence and Shin Bet.

All these years later, it can be said with certainty that since 1985 all Israeli espionage operations on American soil have ceased. The political and social damage — including severely uncomfortable situations for the Jews of the United States — would be far too great to justify the risk.

November 19, 2015

Jonathan Pollard’s Release by the U.S. — Pain and Controversies of Spy Mission Revived

[This post is based on Yossi Melman‘s article in The Jerusalem Post on the release of Jonathan Jay Pollard, the American arrested in Washington in 1985 — caught spying for Israel.  Pollard, as we have written in Every Spy a Prince and our current book, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, was sentenced to life in prison — but the Obama Administration has decided to let him go, after years of requests by Israel’s somewhat apologetic government.]

On Friday (November 20) the American who notoriously spied for Israel in Washington — Jonathan Pollard — is being released from a federal penitentiary in Butner, North Carolina.

The White House has never said this is President Barack Obama doing Israel a favor.  His release is explained by the Federal Bureau of Prisons as a mandatory parole.  As a spokesperson wrote to JTA this past July:

“Under the laws in place at that time (and which are currently applicable to Pollard), a person with a life sentence is presumptively eligible for mandatory parole after 30 years unless the Parole Commission ‘determines that he has seriously or frequently violated institution rules or that there is a reasonable probability that he will commit any Federal, State, or local crime.’ Pollard is eligible for mandatory parole in November 2015.”

Jonathan Jay Pollard, circa 1984

Jonathan Jay Pollard, circa 1984

However, Pollard will not enjoy full freedom. His liberty is restricted.  It is understood that he agrees not to talk publicly about his espionage activities or about his work as a US Navy intelligence analyst before he was arrested. He is also barred from leaving the U.S. for a period of five years.

So his dream of moving to Israel — “making aliyah” — will have to wait.

(Some pro-Pollard campaigners said they were hopeful of a quick deal in which Pollard will give up his U.S. citizenship, and he would be permitted to make aliyah immediately.)

As of now, there is no guarantee that after five years he will be allowed to leave the United States. That depends on his behavior.

This is the reason his lawyers asked him not to repeat past mistakes by making public declarations. They clearly want him to lower his profile.

It seems that this time Pollard understands the rules of the new game and obeys them. Via the Public Committee for Releasing Pollard, which has campaigned for his release, he has asked to be allowed to remain invisible — living, it is understood, in New York with his second wife, Esther — so that he can rehabilitate his life.

It is regrettable that the policy of keeping a low profile and anonymity did not guide Pollard, the Public Committee, and Israeli politicians who visited him in his jail cell — loudly demanding that he be released, and some implicitly celebrating his actions as heroic — from the outset.

Had that policy been followed, Pollard’s situation would probably have been better. The Israeli right-wingers who embraced Pollard did him great harm.

Poster by campaigners for Pollard's freedom

Poster by campaigners for Pollard’s freedom

This is also the opinion of Rafi Eitan — the legendary Israeli spy (and later politician) who was the head of the disbanded Science Liaison Bureau (an intelligence-gathering unit generally known by its Hebrew acronym, Lakam), which recruited Pollard in 1984 and ran him for a year and a half until he was exposed and arrested.

“The visits, the public campaign and the Israeli behavior in general only caused him great damage,” Eitan told The Jerusalem Post ahead of the expected release of Pollard.

Still the question of who gave the order to run Pollard has remained a mystery. Lakam was founded in 1957 as a secret unit in the Defense Ministry to physically defend the construction of the nuclear reactor in Dimona and to guard the nuclear secrets. It later became the acquisition and procurement arm for clandestine purchases of materials such as uranium and equipment for the reactor and the entire Israeli nuclear program.

Eventually, Lakam was expanded and became Israel’s scientific, technological espionage agency. Its attachés under diplomatic cover and its emissaries around the world collected and stole data, technology, know-how and materials for Israel’s military-defense industrial complex.

Eitan, whose escapades included the kidnapping of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, was appointed in 1981 by then-defense minister Ariel Sharon to be the head of Lakam — replacing its tight-lipped founder, the wily Binyamin Blumberg (Vered).

It should be borne in mind that this was not truly Israeli intelligence recruiting Pollard. The American Jew, born in 1954, volunteered to be recruited. He was a “walk-in.”

Since his childhood days, Pollard was fascinated by spy stories. When at age 16, in 1970, he studied at a summer camp at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, he asked around how best he could volunteer to be a secret agent for Israel.

At his high school in Indiana and at the universities he attended, Pollard boasted that he was “a colonel in the Israel army.”  On other occasions he astonished his colleagues when he said he was “cultivated” by the Mossad to be a spy in the U.S. government.

Pollard tried to join the CIA but was rejected — apparently based on the Agency’s personality tests. Unfortunately for the U.S., the CIA likely did not share this information with other securityagencies. Hence, Pollard found a job at a counter-terrorism center in Maryland run by U.S. Navy intelligence.

One evening in early 1984, while attending a party in New York City, he met Steven Stern, a Jewish-American businessman, and confided in him about his readiness to help his beloved State of Israel.

A few weeks later Stern introduced Pollard to Col. Aviem Sella, an Israel Air Force pilot who three years earlier participated in the attack that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. Sella was on a year’s sabbatical to study for a master’s degree at Columbia University and was considered a brilliant officer who had the qualities that could qualify him to be the future commander of the air force.

It was customary, in that era, for Israeli military personnel and civilian scientists on study leaves to be in contact with Lakam representatives.

Sella reported to his Lakam contact and air force superiors about Pollard — and the Americans’ intriguing readiness to supply Israel with information. Rafi Eitan requested that Sella maintain contact with Pollard for the time being, until a case officer could be assigned.

Because of his involvement, Sella’s career was ruined when Pollard was arrested in November 1985. The U.S. put pressure on Israel to cancel Sella’s promotion to brigadier-general, and the veteran pilot was forced to retire from the military.

Federal prosecutors also demanded to question Sella. Israel refused, and since then Sella has been blacklisted by the U.S. He fears that if he travels there, he may be arrested and indicted.

Eitan approved the operation to run Pollard, who was invited to Paris to meet with Eitan, Sella and his future handler, Yossi Yagur, the Lakam attaché at the Israeli Consulate-General in New York.

Pollard traveled to Paris with his fiancée (and future first wife) Anne Henderson. Pollard did not ask for money, but Eitan insisted and massaged his ego with an annual salary offer of $20,000 over a 10-year period. Eitan also showed Pollard an Israeli passport under the name of Danny Cohen that would be given to him upon the completion of his mission.

Sella encouraged Pollard to buy Henderson a diamond ring at the expense of the Israeli taxpayer.  That served not only as the engagement ring for his future bride. It also represented the “engagement” between Pollard and Israel.

Pollard felt that he was in heaven. His dream had come true. For Israeli intelligence, Pollard was a “gold mine” because of his unrestricted access to the databases of most of the agencies of the US intelligence community.

Pollard did not ask for financial reward, but Eitan insisted on paying him.  Pollard provided Israel with hundreds of thousands of precious documents about Arab armies, the PLO, the chemical and biological programs of Libya, Iraq and Syria, and Pakistan’s nuclear program. Pollard also handed over photos taken by US spy satellites, three years before Israel put its first satellite in orbit.

Pollard’s Motives

Pollard had volunteered to work for Israel for at least three reasons. First, because of the thrill and excitement he got from undercover work, as he was infected by what might be called “spy disease.” The second, very major, reason was his love for Israel — and he may well have denied in his own mind that he was betraying and harming his own country America.

Third, Jonathan and Anne were greedy and wanted extra cash to support a high-spending lifestyle which (according to prosecutors) included illegal drugs.

Their greed eventually led to their downfall. According to U.S. intelligence claims which were not proven, the Pollards realized that it was easy to steal documents so they decided to collect documents that were unrelated to the Israeli espionage operations. The accusation is that the Pollards planned to sell secrets to other countries, such as Australia, South Africa, and Taiwan.

November 19, 2015

Israel’s New Police Commissioner: Sign of the Times? He’s From the Secret World of Shin Bet


TEL AVIV — The expected appointment of Shin Bet deputy director Roni Alsheich as the commissioner of the national police is another step in the changes that Israeli society and its elites are undergoing.

Like his boss at the domestic intelligence agency, Yoram Cohen, Alsheich wears a kippa (a yarmulke), and until three years ago he lived in a settlement in the West Bank. He since moved to a city near Tel Aviv.

Both Cohen and Alsheich are products of the national-religious community, which is mostly represented by the right-wing Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) Party. Another product of this community, National Security Council head Yossi Cohen, will most probably soon be nominated to lead the Mossad. Yossi Cohen, however, stopped wearing the skullcap of religious Jews long ago.

Thus Israel’s three leading security agencies will be commanded by men from the same background. Left-wingers and liberals are worried about the trend. They are in denial about the changes taking place in Israeli society.

One strong trend is the readiness of young graduates of the national-religious education system and youth movements to volunteer for public service in the security organizations – the IDF, Shin Bet and, though to a lesser degree, in the Mossad and police.

In this respect, they are pioneers exactly as the sons of the kibbutz movement were when the Labor Party and its left-wing partners ruled Israel for its first 20 years.

Those who know Yoram Cohen or Alsheich, including their secular colleagues in the agency, know very well that there is no need to be worried about Orthodox, religious control of national security decisions.

Like Shin Bet director Cohen, Alsheich sees himself as a public servant and the state’s laws as superior to religious ones. Under his command the police will show no political bias, nor will they turn a blind eye to criminality by politicians. That’s exactly how Alsheich has done it while serving in the Shin Bet.

On the contrary, one of the reasons for his decision to leave his settlement and move to the city was the harassment he had suffered from extreme-right neighbors, who thought he did not show enough sympathy in his work to their cause.

Alsheich began his service in the Shin Bet at the bottom and climbed to the top. He was recruited in 1988 to be a young case officer in charge of running Palestinian agents. He speaks good Arabic and was head of the Jerusalem and South districts before appointed as Number 2 in the organization.

He is a typical product of the Shin Bet organizational culture, its professionalism, education, and values. He will bring these values with him to the police.

Indeed, the police need a strong shake-up after sex scandals, failed investigations, and byzantine political machinations that besmirched their image in recent years.

There is of course the question of whether it is appropriate in a democratic state to appoint a senior official who comes from what in some countries is termed the “secret police” to lead a civilian police force. But this question aside, there are many important differences between the two bodies.

The Shin Bet is able to attract higher quality manpower than the police. The Shin Bet is a smaller agency with a few thousand employees, while the police have some 35,000. Thus the Shin Bet can react quicker with more flexibility than the police.

The Shin Bet also has much better technology at its disposal. It can conduct secret investigations; and when it feels that they could lead to the exposure of sources and methods of operation, it can refrain from presenting the cases before the court and settle for administrative detention.

The Shin Bet is a much more prestigious agency in Israeli society and is protected by a special law and censorship.

The police have to be much more transparent and produce evidence admissible in a court of law. They have a bad image and have been hampered by leaks.

In short, the police are a massive bureaucratic machine like a big and slow merchant ship. In comparison, the Shin Bet is a fast, agile missile boat.

As a professional case officer, Alsheich knows how to be charming, gentle, and nice; but at the same time manipulative and impossible to manipulate. His main mission will be to install Shin Bet organizational procedures into the Israel Police and to eradicate the culture of lies, cover-ups, and violence that spread like an epidemic in recent years among its rank and file and reached its top.

September 30, 2015

Simmering Crises Surround Israel: U.N. in New York is One Battleground Among Many

In the weeks following Congress’s refusal to block the Iran nuclear deal, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had to reshuffle his deck of diplomatic cards.

Among other aspects of the current game plan are these:

–Netanyahu will give his annual speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Thursday, Oct. 1, two days after the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s speech.  Abbas has promised a “bombshell,” which probably has something to do with declaring an independent State of Palestine even without agreed borders or sovereignty.  But, frankly, no one knows if anything significant will be said by either the Israeli or the Palestinian leader.

–Russia has begun a military buildup in Syria.  Netanyahu, alarmed that Russian and Israeli forces could somehow get into an unintended conflict in Syrian airspace, made a lightning-quick one-day visit to President Vladimir Putin.  Israeli military and intelligence chiefs went along on the trip, and one result was an arrangement to prevent collisions or hostile encounters.

Netanyahu Faces Several Potential Bombshells (photo: at UN in September 2012)

Netanyahu Faces Several Potential Bombshells (photo: at UN in September 2012)

Israel reiterated that its interests in Syria center mostly on preventing the transfer of “advanced weapons systems” to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Yet when it was reported that Russia might be giving Syria’s army some tanks — and perhaps those could be passed on to Hezbollah — Israeli tacticians said they were unconcerned: Tanks are easily seen and hit; and it seems unlikely Hezbollah will deploy them.

–Israel needs a new national police chief, and the leading candidate for the job now is a man known publicly as “R” (the Hebrew letter reysh) — a reminder that identifying employees of Shin Bet (the domestic security agency also known as Shabak) continues to be illegal under Israel’s rickety, leaking censorship regulations.  “R” is Shin Bet’s deputy director, and it is somewhat interesting that he was considered to be the likely successor to the current director — Yoram Cohen.  It is legal to name the heads of the intelligence and security agencies.

–In Gaza, the Hamas leadership claims several of its senior radicals vanished while traveling through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.  Hamas says it has concluded that they are now held secretly in Israeli prisons; adding that Egyptian military commandos snatched the men and handed them to Israel; or Israeli special forces swooped into the Sinai and grabbed them.  No comment from Israel, but it certainly could be true.

–On November 9 at the White House, President Barack Obama will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu.  It is obvious that they will have to kiss and make up — to a degree — after their sharp, public disagreements over the nuclear deal with Iran.

Obama’s Democratic Party is concerned that the Republicans are making huge progress in winning votes among Americans who care deeply about Israel: whether Jewish, or not.  Obama also wants to decrease the chance that Israel will stage a military strike on Iran — which he would see as dangerous destabilization.  So he is expected to offer significant security and military aid to Israel.  We wait to see how Netanyahu handles the offer and the vital Israel-U.S. relationship.

(A self-serving reminder of our book chronicling the history of that from 1948 to 1994: Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance.)

September 27, 2015

Netanyahu’s Visit to Putin in Russia: Likely to Accomplish Anything?

by Yossi Melman

[adapted from an article to appear in early October in The Jerusalem Report magazine by Yossi Melman — co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current history of the Mossad and Israeli security, Spies Against Armageddon]

The late-September meeting near Moscow between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin was prompted by the increased Russian military presence in Syria — and America’s stalled policy toward Syria.

By the end of September, Russia deployed in military bases near Latakia in Syria’s northern coastal strip 28 combat jets (12 Suchoi Su-24 bombers, 12 Su-25 ground attack aircraft and four Su-30 multi-role fighters); two types of drones, and 20 helicopters (a mix of gunships and troop carriers). There are indications, still difficult to verify, that Russia already has, or soon will need, more bases to house an expeditionary force.

While Israel, along with the Western intelligence services, tries to decipher Putin’s endgame, the Syria policy of President Barack Obama is in disarray. Congress has heard testimony indicating that the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has done little to weaken those Sunni Muslim radicals.

General Lloyd Austin, commander of US Central Command (in charge of the Middle East), astonished a Senate hearing recently when he admitted that a $500 million effort to create a “New Syrian Force” to tackle ISIS has so far resulted in only “four or five” fighters actively battling the jihadi army.

Following the recent tete-a-tete with the Russian leader, Netanyahu painted the encounter in bright colors and described it as “successful.” Putin made a point of saying that Russia’s relations with Israel are “friendly.”

However, past encounters between Israeli prime ministers and Putin have presented a more complicated picture. Amicability and protocol aside, such meetings neither changed Russian policy in the region nor moved Putin one centimeter closer to Israeli positions.

Netanyahu visited Russia's Putin (RT Television)

Netanyahu visited Russia’s Putin (RT Television)

In these meetings since Putin came to power in 2000, a recurring ritual has been established. Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Netanyahu stressed their concerns about sales of sophisticated Russian military hardware (missiles, air defense systems, aircraft) to Syria and Iran. The Israeli leaders presented intelligence reports showing that some of the hardware found its way to the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement, which is an Iranian proxy and practically an extension of Tehran’s military force in the region.

Putin and his aides listened politely, expressed their understanding, denied that they armed Hezbollah, claimed that arming Hezbollah was against their policy and promised to investigate the reports.

Upon their return home, each of the prime ministers, in a self-congratulatory manner, declared that they managed to persuade Putin – in sharp contrast to what eventually emerged.

This is more or less what happened with the latest Netanyahu meeting.

The Prime Minister, who was accompanied by Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, Commander of Military Intelligence Herzl Halevi and National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen (soon to be announced as the next head of the Mossad)  announced that the two countries decided to set up a joint committee to coordinate “deconfliction” — a military term used to describe reducing the risk of collision and inadvertent engagement between two forces operating in the same arena.

It was decided in a parallel meeting between Eisenkot and his counterpart General Valery Gerasimov that their deputies would head a joint committee tasked with dealing with airborne, seaborne, and “electromagnetic” (i.e. missiles, radars, and air defense systems) matters.

However, judging from past encounters, one should expect little or no genuine progress.

For example, for years, Israel tried to stop the sale to Iran of the advanced Russia S-300 air defense system, but Israeli and US pressure on Putin was in vain. In any event, the deal was eventually suspended by the Kremlin itself when it suited its interests and was recently reinstated with the signing of the Iran nuclear deal.

Briefing Putin on how Israel perceives the Syrian imbroglio, Netanyahu and his aides presented a very gloomy picture. They said Israel is once again worried about the “leakage” (transfer) of Syrian and Iranian weapons to Hezbollah. Israeli intelligence has evidence that even Russian-made Yakhonts ‒ long-range, advanced ground-to-sea missiles ‒ have found their way to the Shi’ite militia.

Israel is also bothered by the repeated attempts by Iran’s elite al-Quds Force, commanded by the charismatic and influential General Qassem Suleimani, to set up a “forward command” on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

Suleimani’s plan has been, and still is, to use the area as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Israeli troops and civilians by hiring “mercenaries” ‒ be they members of radical Palestinian terror groups or Druze fighters who have chosen to be loyal to Assad.

Taking advantage of accurate, real-time intelligence, Israel has often — without claiming responsibility — thwarted such efforts by deploying the air force to bomb the terrorist sites or vehicles. Israel has even killed Iranian generals and senior Hezbollah operatives involved in the operations.

But Netanyahu’s and Eisenkot’s most serious concern about the Russian presence in Syria is the fear that it will restrict the freedom of action that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in general — and the Israel Air Force (IAF) in particular — have enjoyed so far.

Israel is not interested in intervening in the Syrian civil war and has tried to stay away from it. Cynical as it may sound, Israel’s national security interests benefit from the bloody war that has greatly weakened President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

At the same time, Israelis are dismayed that the civil war has claimed the lives of a quarter million people and made nearly half of Syria’s population homeless or refugees.

Still, the civil war strengthens Israeli military superiority in the region and weakens its sworn enemies: Hezbollah and Iran.

On occasion, Israel has gotten involved to protect its own security interests. These interests have been defined by Eisenkot and his predecessor, as well as by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. They include the desire to stop the flow of advanced weapons to Hezbollah; to  prevent terror attacks against Israelis on the Golan Heights, and to ensure, if possible, the safety of 700,000 Druze people in Syria, who are a major concern for their Israeli Druze brethren.

For more than a decade, even before the breakout of the civil war, IAF pilots flew freely over Syria. They attacked terrorist bases; broke the sound barrier flying over Assad’s palace in Damascus just to make a point, and, in 2007, destroyed a nuclear reactor built with the help of North Korea in eastern Syria.

In the 55 months of the civil war, at least 10 air strikes against weapons convoys between Syria and Hezbollah have been attributed to the IAF.  They were carried out whenever good intelligence and operational feasibility warranted it, without the need to consult with anyone else.

Now, Israel may well need to coordinate its plans beforehand or in real time with Russia’s military.

The main purpose of Netanyahu’s snap visit was to try to create the mechanism to prevent undesired consequences vis-a-vis Russian forces and Syria and still preserve Israeli freedom of maneuver. The technicalities of deconfliction are of lesser importance ‒ they can be set by using “hotlines” set between the military commands of the two countries, or via identifying signals sent by warplanes to differentiate between friend or foe.

But what Netanyahu really wants is more than that. He hoped to reach a tacit understanding with Putin about the division of Syria into operational spheres of influence. Israel hopes Russian forces will not get close to the Israeli border — and that they will not hinder operations against anti-Israeli terrorists or interfere with IAF strikes on weapon transfers to Hezbollah.

Israel, for its part, promised Russia not to side with any player in Syria and not to get close to the northern part of the country where Russia forces are stationed.

It is doubtful, however, whether such high-level coordination is possible. Putin acknowledged in his conversation with Netanyahu that he is fully aware of Israeli security concerns.

But if he accepts Israel’s interpretation of self-defense beyond its territory, Putin will practically admit that Israel or any other country has the right, with Russia’s blessing, to violate Syria’s sovereignty.

As the major power supporting the Assad regime and its legitimacy, this is something Putin can’t afford.

Even by deciding to go to Moscow, Netanyahu’s freedom of action already has been restricted. Once again – as in the case of the nuclear deal with Iran – Israel is learning the hard way the limitations of its power when it is facing a superpower with important interests in the Middle East.

However, this is preferable to being exposed to the risk of military  confrontation with Russia. Moreover, Israel is better off with Russia’s deeper involvement in Syria – rather than stronger meddling by Iran.

Putin’s endgame remains unclear – probably to ensure the existence of at least a “Small Syria” from Damascus to the Mediterranean coastal strip (where the Russian bases are).

However, one thing is certain: Putin decided to send his forces to save the Assad regime, or whatever is left of it, because he realized that neither Iran nor Hezbollah can get that job done.

September 27, 2015

Israel Assigns Spy Agencies to Monitor, Oppose BDS Anti-Israel Activists

[This is adapted from an analysis written for The Jerusalem Post newspaper by Yossi Melman, co-author of Every Spy a Prince and the current history of the Mossad and Israeli security, Spies Against Armageddon.]

Israeli officials are increasingly concerned about the BDS — the “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” anti-Israel movement in many countries.  Now we unveil the role of Israeli’s intelligence community in investigating the BDS campaign — and fighting back.


A senior Israeli military source revealed recently that a special unit inside the Research Division of Military Intelligence has been assigned to monitor the activities of the BDS movement.

The unit was created as a result of lessons learned from the Mavi Marmara incident.

Israel's Evidence Mavi Marmara Turks Were Violent

Israel’s Evidence Mavi Marmara Turks Were Violent

In May 2010 a fleet of six boats organized by pro-Palestinian groups sailed from Turkish ports — vowing to lift the siege of Gaza. While the activists (of various nationalities) aboard five of the boats surrendered to the demands of the Israel Navy and stopped their voyage, the Mavi Marmara crew and passengers refused to obey the order.

Israeli navy commandos raided the ship and were surprised by heavy resistance. In the ensuing clashes, nine Turkish activists were killed and 20 wounded; 10 Israeli troops were wounded as well. This incident further poisoned the already deteriorated Israeli-Turkish relations.

The military operation fiasco also exposed an intelligence failure.

The Mossad,  Aman (Military Intelligence), and naval intelligence all had no information about the Marmara activists, most of them members of the Turkish Islamist IHH group, or their weapons of choice – knives, bats and chains, which they had prepared for the anticipated battle.

As a result, it  has since been decided to build an intelligence unit to follow and monitor radical international groups and individual activists who support the Palestinian cause.

Though the assignment is to track down civilian groups that operate mainly in Western countries, strangely enough the mission was assigned to Military Intelligence and not to the Mossad or, even more reasonably, the Foreign Ministry.

A senior security official explained to me the rationale behind the decision. He argued that the international organizations involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and in other activities aimed at delegitimizing the Jewish state are directed by one center – the Palestinian Authority. Thus, since Military Intelligence’s responsibilities include understanding the PA and its political processes, it was natural to assign it the new mission against BDS.

The senior security official also claimed that the smear campaigns to undermine the legitimacy of Israel, including expelling it from international bodies and appealing to the International Court of Justice, must be considered the “new intifada.”

This self-victimization, which began a few years ago, is characteristic of the consecutive of right-wing governments which claim that the entire world is against us.

Even without a formal cabinet decision, this political perception has trickled down to the intelligence community. The Mossad has a special unit that tries to “follow the money.” It is a task force devoted to monitoring financial transactions and movement of money from abroad to finance terrorism in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza as well as what Israeli security officials call “subversive acts” against the state.

The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) has two more units in charge of monitoring financial support for terrorists and preventing entry of what they refer to as “radical left-wingers and anarchists who are trying to come to Israel or the West Bank to spread chaos and havoc.”

The units also conduct research and follow groups identified with BDS and organizations involved in the attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state.

In recent years, there has been a substantial increase in reports of nationals, especially young people – not only of Palestinian or Arab descent – from EU countries and even the U.S. who were denied entry by the order of the Shin Bet.

Some of them tried to enter Israel to participate in Palestinian demonstrations and protest against the security barrier. Others came to express solidarity with nonviolent Palestinian civil rights organizations, and yet their entry was blocked and they were sent back.

On numerous occasions senior State Department officials in Washington and U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro in Tel Aviv have complained and demanded explanation from Israeli authorities for why Americans, of Palestinian or Arab origins, have been denied entry or badly treated at border points. The U.S. officials reminded their Israeli counterparts that the two countries are committed to reciprocity in respecting each other’s citizens.

A few months ago Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy chief of the Mossad and currently director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, submitted a comprehensive plan detailing how to make the battle against BDS and similar anti-Israeli groups more effective.

Ben-Barak, who aspires to be the next head of the Mossad when Tamir Pardo leaves his post by the end of 2015, suggests combining the efforts of various government agencies dealing with the same issue. Accepting his plan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced recently that the government would allocate for this purpose NIS 100 million (around $25 million).

But typical of Israeli bureaucracy, Ben-Barak’s plan has been subjected to fierce personal and political battles between various government ministries about turfs and responsibilities. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is involved in political arm-twisting with his Likud rival Gilad Erdan, the public security and strategic affairs minister. Ya’alon and the IDF have refused to transfer the Military Intelligence unit to Erdan’s jurisdiction.

Yossi Cohen, chair of Israel's National Security Council

Yossi Cohen, chair of Israel’s National Security Council

In an attempt to close the political gaps and provide a sensible compromise, Netanyahu brought into the picture his national security adviser and head of the National Security Council, Yossi Cohen.

Cohen, a former deputy head of the Mossad and the leading candidate to be the next head of the organization, prepared a report that offers ways to bridge the bureaucratic divisions. Its key recommendation is to establish another small unit inside the Strategic Affairs Ministry which will coordinate between the various intelligence units dealing with the issue.

And still, no one seriously questions why a state that considers itself democratic has assigned its three leading security and intelligence agencies to fight a movement that — though it may well be damaging and bothersome — is overall nonviolent, political, grassroots-fueled, and civilian.

Perhaps the Israeli overreaction is another manifestation of right-wing radicalization and paranoia that unfortunately seem to be increasing their grip on Israeli society.

August 28, 2015

Did Netanyahu and Barak Truly Intend to Bomb Iran in 2010 and 2012? Barak Wants Us to Think So…

[This post is based on an article written by Yossi Melman — co-author of Spies Against Armageddon — for The Jerusalem Post newspaper.]

An Israeli TV station played audio recordings of Ehud Barak — the former prime minister who served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defense minister until March 2013 — in which Barak reminisces about three occasions in which Israel almost dispatched its air force to bomb Iranian nuclear sites.

As for why no attack took place, Barak blames the then-military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, his successor Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and cabinet ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Yuval Steinitz, all of whom opposed a strike on Iran.

According to Barak associates, he feels betrayed by Ilan Kfir and Danny Dor – the authors of a Hebrew-language biography of the former defense minister. Barak let them record interviews, to help their writing process. But the tapes were never supposed to be played publicly.

Barak's official photo while prime minister

Barak’s official photo while prime minister

Prior to the report on Israel’s Channel 2, Barak tried to prevent the airing of the audio clips. He appealed to the Military Censor’s Office, which rejected his request to bar the broadcast. Once Barak revealed information about secret cabinet discussions to journalists, the question of whether he intended to have his position aired publicly is a secondary one – and certainly is not one that concerns the censor.

Even if he did not intend for the information to emerge in audio format, Barak intended to have his opinion known by the public. He is trying to shape the historical narrative by portraying himself as the figure who pushed hardest in favor of a strike on Iran – only to be overruled by the cabinet ministers and military commanders who opposed such a move.

According to Barak, General Ashkenazi told him in 2010 that the IDF simply did not have the operational capacity to execute an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In 2011, Ashkenazi was succeeded as chief of staff by Gantz, who told Barak that the military did indeed have the operational “maturity” for a strike.

benny gantz, israel spy, covert operations, Iran nuclear, Israel-U.S.

Benny Gantz (courtesy IDF)

While Gantz made it clear that the IDF would carry out any directive issued to it by the civilian leadership, he was convinced that an attack was unnecessary.

Barak also said that he was surprised to see ministers Ya’alon and Steinitz “melt” at the last minute after he was led to believe by Netanyahu that the two men supported an attack plan.

Ya’alon and Steinitz instead chose to side with the opposing cabinet ministers – Dan Meridor and Benny Begin. As a result, Netanyahu and Barak were left without the necessary majority in the inner, security cabinet to back an attack.

A year later, Barak and Netanyahu tried again to convince the cabinet to approve an attack plan. This time, weather considerations limited the possible “windows of opportunity” to attack. There were two possible windows, but one of them coincided with a large-scale military exercise with the U.S. military (May to July 2012). The other was around the time of the U.S. presidential election in November 2012.

Barak’s comments should not be taken as absolute truth. They are just one version of events.

Other versions that have not been aired publicly include that of former Mossad director Meir Dagan, and those of Gantz and Ashkenazi themselves. Dagan and Ashkenazi have hinted that Netanyahu and Barak acted in a manipulative fashion on the Iran issue.

There was one claim, first reported by Ma’ariv, according to which Barak told the cabinet that he was personally informed by then-CIA chief Leon Panetta that the Obama administration had reversed its opposition to an Israeli strike on Iran.

When the Americans were informed of Barak’s claim, they were furious. They sent a special emissary to Israel with the exact transcript of the Panetta-Barak conversation in question.

Barak and Netanyahu allegedly went ahead, however, by instructing the chief of staff to “get the system activated” — in effect, to prepare for war.

That would involve mobilization of military reserves and ordering the air force, intelligence services, and home front authorities to take a number of preemptive measures.

“Activating the system” could take more than a month. It could lead to a “miscalculation.”

The risk is that Iran would notice these preparations and launch preemptive actions that would threaten to drag the entire Middle East, as well as the United States, into a regional war.

Was that what Barak and Netanyahu intended? Such a possibility should not be ruled out.

These conflicting versions of events remind one of the Japanese movie Rashomon, in which a number of characters recall events, each through his own lens. The narratives often contradict.

The truth may only be known 70 years from now, if at all, when official records of the meetings are made public. That is not a sure thing. In the most sensitive, secret discussions, there are those who seem talented at directing the conversations — and composing the transcript of meetings — with an eye to the history books.

Even if we were to believe Barak, it’s difficult to be swayed.

If the prime minister and the defense minister really wanted to win cabinet approval for a decision to attack Iran, they could have overcome ministerial opposition. Never in the history of the State of Israel has a determined, dominant prime minister been prevented from getting government approval for his decisions – especially those relating to existential issues – by opposition from other ministers.

One is left wondering whether Netanyahu and Barak really wanted to attack – or whether it was all bluff. If indeed it were a bluff, it was a successful one. They played a game of “Hold me back” with the Israeli public and – more importantly – with the Americans.

One effect was the pressure felt by President Obama to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis — out of concern that Israel might strike and spark a regional war. The result has apparently been an “unintended consequence,” from Netanyahu’s point of view: a nuclear deal with Iran that he considers dangerous.

August 25, 2015

Israel’s New 5-Year “Gideon” Plan for the Military: Iran Nuclear is “A Done Deal” — Where Israel is Adding Strength

[This analysis was written for The Jerusalem Report by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon — a history of Israeli intelligence and security.]

In mid-July, IDF Chief-of-Staff  Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot met with military reporters and briefed them off the record on the latest local and regional developments. He also presented a new five-year plan “Gideon”, named after the Israelite judge-warrior who was instructed by God to battle the Midianites and destroy their idols.

The Gideon plan has two purposes: First to avoid cuts and, in fact, obtain yet another increase in the defense budget – currently around NIS 60 billion ($15.3 billion), not final and still growing – at the expense of welfare, education, health and all the other national necessities. Gideon is also another effort – the fourth in recent years – to obtain approval from the government to implement long-term planning. So far, due to never-ending dispute and bickering between the ministries of Defense and Finance various long-term plans have either been rejected or not authorized.

Israel's Top General, Gadi Eizenkot

Israel’s Top General, Gadi Eizenkot

In mid-August, the Chief of Staff’s briefing turned into an official, but sanitized, 33-page document titled “IDF Strategy”. Though the document does not state it in so many words, what emerges is the fact that the Israel Defense Forces is the strongest military structure in the entire region, which spreads from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

The “IDF Strategy” is meant “to serve as a guideline to the IDF and is based on vital national interests and agreed notions of national security and the military thinking and practice.”

Already in 2007, then-minister Dan Meridor wrote a very lengthy and detailed security doctrine defining the “National Goals” for the State of Israel:

  1. To ensure the existence of the state, defend its territorial integrity and the security of its citizens. [It’s worth noting, however, that Israel has never defined its borders.]
  2. To preserve its values and nature as a Jewish and democratic state and home to the Jewish people.
  3. To ensure the social and economic strength of the state.
  4. To strengthen the regional and international status of the state while aspiring to have peace with its neighbors.

Here, it should be noted that while the pursuit of peace is mentioned by the IDF, judging from the actions over the last three years taken by the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it seems that peace with the Palestinian Authority is no longer a possibility.

“IDF Strategy” accepts and reaffirms these four principles. It also acknowledges that, in a democratic state, the military is subjected to the supremacy of the government. Yet, interestingly enough, the document goes beyond this obvious imperative – it states that the IDF obligation is not only to the elected government and Knesset, but also to society and citizens of the state who elect their representatives and ministers. Since he was appointed Chief of Staff less than a year ago, Eizenkot has stressed, on several occasions, that “the people’s trust” is an important element of the way the IDF works, operates and sets its goals. “We have to be sensible” in our demands and “sensitive to other needs of society.”

According to the document, the security doctrine is based on four pillars. Three are as old as the state and were already defined by the first prime minister David Ben-Gurion: deterrence, early warning and decisive outcome. A fourth pillar – defense – was officially added a decade ago.

All in all, the IDF sees its mission as repelling and neutralizing threats, creating effective deterrence; postponing confrontation, if possible, but also to use both defensive and offensive strategies and utilize force in the most determined and effective way, while respecting international law and the rules of war. The IDF also emphasizes the importance of strategic cooperation with the US and the development of strategic ties with other countries.

In the document and in Eizenkot’s briefing, it is clearly stated that, like other nations in the region, Israel was taken by surprise by the spontaneous events of the “Arab Spring” of 2010-2011. As a result, Military Intelligence has since put a lot of emphasis on trying to understand the “zeitgeist,” creating and beefing up research departments that deal with and monitor the social media in Arab states and Iran.

The Arab Spring is now described by the IDF as an “Arab Shakeup,” which relates to the unexpected twists in its results. “The old order has collapsed,” said Eizenkot. Four countries – Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq ‒ are shaped by civil war and the decline of central government.

Egypt barely escaped the same fate due to the determination of its military and the backing of a broad base of civilian society that holds onto a sense of national cohesion.

Egypt, ruled by President Fattah al-Sisi, a former chief of staff and defense minister, which has in the last two years strengthened its military and intelligence ties with Israel, is facing a growing challenge of daring terror attacks in the Sinai Peninsula. The most prominent terror group is Ansar Beit al Maqdis, which less than a year ago pledged its allegiance to the Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “caliph” of the Islamic State (ISIS). The group now calls itself Sinai district of the Islamic State, in return for financial support. This danger emanating from Sinai has brought Israel and Egypt closer. Indeed, as “IDF Strategy” notes ISIS “is a new and amazing phenomenon that no one anticipated.”

The changes in the Middle East are strongly reflected in the IDF’s strategy document. It contends that the non-conventional weapons threat to Israel has been reduced because of the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria and the dismantling of chemical and nuclear programs in the last two decades in Iraq and Libya.

Instead, Israel is confronted by the rising strength of “non-state actors” such as ISIS and other terror groups like Jabhat al Nusra (Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria) and formations on Israeli borders in the south and on the Golan Heights in the north.

“IDF Strategy” also perceives Hezbollah and Hamas as dangerous enemies in possession of nearly 100,000 missiles and rockets that can be directed at almost any military or strategic site in Israel.

Interestingly, Iran is mentioned only twice in the document, which describes it as a “threat” to Israel mainly because of its support of terror groups in the region.

But there is no reference to Iran’s nuclear program ‒ in sharp contrast to the government and Netanyahu who have made the “Iranian threat” the number one priority of their policy and political agenda.

In private sessions, Eizenkot and his top military commanders have criticized the nuclear deal reached recently between the world powers and Iran, but also acknowledge that it contains positive elements. Above all, the senior military commanders say privately, it is a done deal, at least for the 10-year duration of the agreement — unless Iran is caught red-handed, once again cheating.

Accordingly, the IDF has been trying to adjust itself to the emerging reality. Since 1985, it has reduced the number of tanks by 75 percent and its warplanes (usually old and outdated) by 50 percent.

On the other hand, it has invested more money to extend the submarine fleet (soon to be at six), which according to foreign reports, is capable of launching nuclear missiles, thus creating for Israel a “second nuclear strike capability.”

Also, in the last two decades, it has increased by 400 percent the number of drones in its possession and has improved intelligence and cyber capabilities.

“IDF Strategy” is an important document, but not a revolutionary one. In a way, it states the obvious, reflecting in an honest and accurate manner the challenges, risks and opportunities facing Israel. Its main problem, however, is that in many parts it doesn’t reflect the attitudes, beliefs and practices of the government.

August 23, 2015

Russia Will Now Sell Advanced Anti-Aircraft Missile System to Iran — A Game-Changer Preventing an Israeli or US Attack?


(The co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israeli intelligence and security, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.)

This time it’s final. After nearly a decade of delays, suspensions, pressures, and tough international battles, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov and the state-owned manufacturer Almaz-Anety now confirm that the sale of ground-to-air S-300 missile systems to Iran is a done deal.

What is still to be determined is the scope of the deal – whether three or four batteries will be sold.

There is here a great deal of irony. For nearly a decade Israeli prime ministers pushed hard at the gates of the Kremlin and urged Russian President Vladimir Putin not to sell the advanced missile and radar system to Tehran.

Until recently it seemed that the Israeli lobbying — backed by a U.S. tailwind — was paying off. Despite a signed contract and an advance payment, Russia found excuses not to honor the deal with Iran and even announced that it wouldn’t deliver the systems.

But now that the missile deal is under way — in the wake of the deal reached in Vienna to restrict Iran’s nuclear program — the depth of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure is exposed.

This story has several layers. The nuclear deal is a major part of it. In his opposition to the emerging agreement with Iran, Netanyahu designed a policy of “all out” on all international fronts. He embarked on a collision course with the President Barack Obama. He tried to appease Putin. He kept pummeling European politicians with stories likening Iran’s hostility to the horrors of Nazi Germany.

Netanyahu acted like a gambler with no exit strategy or fallback position.

But Obama and Putin, in the end, ignored him. Netanyahu’s miscalculations pushed Israel into an undesirable position. It had little influence on the content of the nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers. It also left Israel with no levers to influence Russia or modify its decision to go ahead with the missile deal.

It didn’t have to be this way. A more cautious and sensible approach by Netanyahu would not have prevented the nuclear deal, but it could have given Israel a chance to influence its outcome and ensure the drafting of tougher clauses regarding the inspection of Iranian nuclear sites.

It was recently revealed that the world powers caved in, by leaving some of the inspection rules up to the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA, according to a secret side deal, will let Iranians provide photos, videos, and environmental samples from the Parchin site — although the IAEA says it will always be supervising and verifying that what it is handed is authentic.

Netanyahu Could've Influenced the Iran Deal

Netanyahu Could’ve Influenced the Iran Deal

Such verification is unlikely to be reliable.  Israeli and U.S. intelligence say Iran, in the Parchin military base, conducted unlawful experiments to test nuclear chain reactions — simulating, in effect, nuclear explosions.

Had Netanyahu been more measured and surgical in his public opposition to the nuclear deal, he may have been able to reach a secret understanding with Putin about which arms to sell to Iran and which should not be delivered.

Now it’s too late. The sale of the S-300 batteries is a game-changer.

The batteries belong to a family of missiles and radars that were first developed and manufactured by the Soviet Union in the mid ’70s and deployed by the Red Army in 1979. Since then, new generations and models have been upgraded and turned into one of the best of its kind.

True, what Russia agreed to deliver is not the state of the art in this line of batteries. There are already more advanced versions operated only by the Russian army.

But still, what Russia is selling is disturbingly good — providing sufficient grounds to be highly concerned. The battery’s radar is capable of detecting and spotting hostile warplanes at a distance of hundreds of kilometers — and then lock in and accurately launch guided missiles.

Iran is sure to deploy the batteries to defend its nuclear sites. Their presence will make it much more difficult for any air force – be it Israeli or American – to operate, if one day in the future a decision will be made to attack Iran.

President Obama himself has said that “the military option” is very much alive, if Iran violates the nuclear deal and “breaks out” to produce nuclear bombs.

Yet, despite the importance of the deal, the skies are not going to fall. In the cat and mouse game between an attacker and defender, the attacker almost always has the upper hand.

There is no doubt that the Israeli and American air forces will find a way, with clever technological and operational solutions, to circumvent the S-300 systems.

The Israeli and U.S. militaries, perhaps even working together, will be able to execute a mission — if so ordered by their governments.

The Russian deal also has larger implications. Just as we already witness long queues of international corporations courting Iran for lucrative deals in the civilian sectors, once sanctions are lifted next year, we can expect the same in the military field.

It is reported that China is thinking about selling Iran fighter planes, whichincidentally and ironically are equipped with Israeli-made avionics,including radars. These components were produced by Israel Aircraft Industries (now called Israel Aerospace Industries) 30 or so years ago for the Lavi project, the Israeli self-produced fighter plane. In the mid-’80s, under U.S. pressure, Israel canceled the project and sold some of its technological innovations to the apartheid regime of South Africa and to Communist China. The Chinese built their own J-10 fighter plane, based on the Israeli technology.

But will Iran have one of the most technologically advanced militaries in the region? No.

Despite enhanced Iranian efforts to use the nuclear deal as a launching pad to improve and modernize its armed forces, the ayatollahs will still be lagging behind their rivals and enemies in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have much better and more advanced military hardware, and are now negotiating with the U.S. for packages to compensate them for perceived, added dangers from the Iran nuclear deal. And money is not a problem for the Gulf countries.

As for Israel, its defense forces — the IDF — continue to be the strongest military force in the region. Israeli weapons developers are the most innovative on earth. Also, despite political annoyance at Israel’s prime minister, President Obama has pledged to maintain — and even increase — the QME: Israel’s “Qualitative Military Edge” in the Middle East.

Even when Iran gets the S-300 anti-aircraft system and other military acquisitions, it will be no match for Israel.

August 23, 2015

Nuclear Irony: Roots of US Strategy Ignoring Israel’s Nukes Revealed in Documents

[This post is based on an article written for The Jerusalem Post newspaper by Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israeli espionage and security, Spies Against Armageddon.]

Israel and the United States worked together to formulate the Jewish State’s nuclear doctrine, archival documents released Tuesday by the US State Department reveal.

The documents detail the secret discussions that took place on Israel’s nuclear program between officials of the two countries.

We would decide that we could tolerate Israeli activity short of assembly of a completed nuclear device,” one of the US memos declares.

The documents reveal that — according to American intelligence — Israel planned to have ten Jericho surface-to-surface missiles (based on a French missile) equipped with nuclear warheads.

The publication of the documents comes as part of a routine release of historical information by the Department of State. However, the timing of the revelations — against the background of the disagreement between Israel and the US over the nuclear agreement with Iran — gives them extra resonance.

There are those who would claim that the timing of the release is not a coincidence, and is in fact intended to embarrass Israel, which staunchly opposes the deal with Iran.

Perhaps pointing to Israel’s unacknowledged — by widely known — nuclear arsenal is an attempt to undermine Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who continues in his efforts to persuade Congress to reject President Barack Obama’ cherished deal with Iran.  Netanyahu argues that the Islamic Republic, partly because it supports terrorist groups, cannot be allowed to keep a nuclear infrastructure.

According to the American documents now released, which cover events from 1969 to 1972, Israel was asked to provide a written obligation neither to arm its Jericho surface-to-surface missiles with nuclear warheads nor to deploy them.

Up until that point, the official policy of Israel — enunciated to the US in the early 1960s by then-deputy defense minister Shimon Peres  — was: “We will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the region.”

This policy has been defined up until the present day as the hallmark of Israel’s “nuclear ambiguity.”

As a result of the “not be the first” pledge, it was agreed during the administration of President John F. Kennedy that American inspectors would visit — once or twice a year — the nuclear reactor in Dimona where, according to US suspicions, fissile material for a nuclear bomb was being made.

Golda Meir Visits Nixon and Kissinger

Golda Meir Visits Nixon and Kissinger

However, in 1969, as a result of the Six-Day War and on the background of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union — as well as efforts to promote negotiations between Israel and the Arab countries — the administration of President Richard Nixon looked to formulate a new approach centered on preventing, or at least limiting, the further development of Israel’s nuclear program.

The Nixon administration asked Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Israel had agreed several years beforehand to join the treaty — first signed by other nations in 1968 and in effect as of 1970.  However, Israel employed stalling tactics in order to get out of that obligation.

In secret meetings attended by officials of the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA, and Nixon’s National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, American officials discussed how the US would react to a potential attack on Israel by the Soviet Union, which was arming the major Arab nations.

The Nixon administration established a special committee to explore the issues. The committee determined that “our goal is to convince Israel to join the NPT by the end of the year. And to ratify the treaty.”

Later, a meeting was set up between administration officials and then-Israeli ambassador to Washington, Yitzhak Rabin. According to the documents, Israel was asked “to provide us with written assurances that it will stop creating and will not deploy Jericho missiles or other strategic missiles with nuclear warheads.”

Israel was developing into a pro-American ally, yet there was an assumption that — on nuclear matters — Israel would cheat.  One document expresses American concern that even if Israel joins the NPT, it is liable to continue covertly producing nuclear weapons and missiles.

Kissinger wrote in a memo: “We judge that the introduction of nuclear weapons into the Near East would increase the dangers in an already dangerous situation and therefore not be in our interest. Israel has 12 surface-to-surface missiles delivered from France. It has set up a production line and plans by the end of 1970 to have a total force of 24–30, ten of which are programmed for nuclear warheads.”..

Kissinger also pointed out: “When the Israelis signed the contract buying the Phantom aircraft [from the US] last November, they committed themselves ‘not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons’ into the Near East. But it was plain from the discussion that they interpreted that to mean they could possess nuclear weapons as long as they did not test, deploy, or make them public.

“In signing the contract, we wrote Rabin saying that we believe mere ‘possession’ constitutes ‘introduction’ and that Israel’s introduction of nuclear weapons by our definition would be cause for us to cancel the contract.”

Kissinger claimed that the vow not to “introduce” was not enough, because Israeli officials took this to mean that they could have nuclear weapons as long as they didn’t carry out tests, deploy or make the issue public.

And so, a Kissinger memo suggested the United States would demand a new Israeli pledge: “Reaffirm to the US in writing the assurance that Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Near East, specifying that ‘introduction’ shall mean possession of nuclear explosive devices. [For our own internal purposes, we would decide that we could tolerate Israeli activity short of assembly of a completed nuclear device.]  Give us assurances in writing that it will stop production and will not deploy ‘Jericho’ missiles or any other nuclear-capable strategic missile. [NOTE: I do not believe we can ask Israel not to produce missiles. Israel is sovereign in this decision, and I do not see how we can ask it not to produce a weapon just because we do not see it as an effective weapon without nuclear warheads. We might persuade them not to deploy what they produce on grounds that the rest of the world will believe that the missiles must have nuclear warheads.]”

Re-read that paragraph, written by Henry Kissinger on July 19, 1969, to consider the irony of the current issues with Iran: whether Iranian work on ballistic missiles and other military systems can indeed by prevented — whether as part of a nuclear restriction agreement or otherwise.

Did Israel make the commitment that Kissinger intended to demand in 1969 (six months after Nixon took office as president)? That is not clear from the documents just released.

Yet the fact is — as a result of a visit to the US by then-prime minister Golda Meir and her meeting with Nixon — the US stopped its inspections of the Dimona reactor in 1969.

In later foreign reports, it was claimed that ambassador Rabin and Meir promised that, in exchange for a halt to the inspections, Israel agreed not to be the first to deploy or arm nuclear weapons, and likely vowed not to conduct nuclear bomb tests.

To this day, Israel has yet to join the NPT, and it is believed to be, according to multiple foreign reports, the sixth biggest nuclear power in the world with a stockpile numbering around 100 nuclear warheads.

August 18, 2015

What Does Netanyahu Really Want? AIPAC Pushes Congress to Vote “No” — See Dan Raviv

Dan Raviv, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, a history of Israeli intelligence and security agencies, appeared on the CBS News television broadcast “Up To The Minute,” analyzing the nuclear deal with Iran — and why Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is so vociferous in his opposition.

Also — this coming week, when Defense Secretary Ash Carter visits Israel — will significant U.S. “security compensation” be offered to Israel?

Watch the video from CBS News:


August 11, 2015

Israel Could Claim Some of the Credit for Delaying (at least) Iran’s Nuclear Bomb — but Chooses to Complain Bitterly

Tuesday (July 14) was historic and memorable, to be sure.  Israel was not able to persuade the United States and other world powers to walk away from a deal with Iran, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately branded the agreement “a mistake of historic proportions.”  

The tradition, in U.S.-Israel relations, is that — when the Israelis feel their security is diminished by something that America is doing — Israel requests and receive new security systems, weapons, intelligence, or even cash as a form of compensation from Washington.

Congress, where Israel has many supporters and sympathizers, will give the Iran nuclear deal a vigorous 60-day review.  As Republicans have the majority on both the Senate and the House, a vote to reject the deal may well succeed.  But then, as President Obama has already declared publicly, he would cast his veto.  Congress almost surely will not vote by two-thirds majorities to override that veto.

Yet the divisions and suspicions will persist.  The effort to restrict Iran’s nuclear work peacefully will be an issue in the 2016 presidential campaign.  But the deal will almost surely be a reality.

The analysis (below) is based on an article written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and other books including Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance, also co-authored with Dan Raviv.  Note, near the beginning of the article, the Israeli minister’s eye-winking reference to Israel’s own nuclear capability.

In 2007 an Israeli cabinet minister told senior military officials that if a country wants nuclear weapons nothing will stop it.

“I know at least one country that did it,” he remarked.  He had just heard them agree on a strategy to do everything to keep Iran from getting the bomb.

Instead, he advised them to focus on delaying the nuclear program and to ask the U.S. for significant compensation.

Eight years later,  one can say that due to its successful diplomacy, sabotage and assassination operations attributed to Mossad and its demand for sanctions, Israel managed — so far — to prevent Iran from reaching the bomb.

It seems, though, that what Iran really wanted was to be a nuclear-threshold state and not to assemble warheads.  Thus one could say that Iran has succeeded in its goal — for now.

Of course, Israel was not alone in these efforts; it was an impressive international group that presented a unified front.

Another Israeli government could have appropriated the nuclear agreement as its victory. It could have said that as a result of wise diplomacy combined with daring covert actions, Iran was brought to its knees and forced it to sit down, negotiate and compromise on its nuclear program. Tehran had refused to do that from 2002 to 2013.

If we accept the calculations of the U.S. and other teams that negotiated the deal in Vienna, it will lengthen the amount of time it would take for Iran to amass fissile materials and produce a bomb to at least one year — for at least the 10-year term of the agreement.

It’s estimated that before Iran agreed to talk and clinch the interim agreement it was just two to three months from the bomb. The number of centrifuges of the old and outdated models at the uranium-enrichment sites in Natanz and Fordow will be reduced to a third of the current inventory: to 6,000 from 19,000.

Iran is forbidden to enrich uranium above 3.6%; its enriched uranium will be dwindled from 10 tons to a mere 300 kg.; and the nuclear reactor in Arak will be redesigned and won’t be able to produce sufficient plutonium as fissile material.

As for international inspection, even if it is not sufficiently intrusive, it still will be tighter than it is now.

If Iran honors the deal, the chance of a nuclear race in the Middle East by countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey will be slimmer.

Netanyahu's display at the UN in New York (Sept. 2012)

Netanyahu’s display at the UN in New York (Sept. 2012)

But Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has decided to take a different path. Instead of working hand-in-hand with the international effort to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and claiming victory, it has preferred to stand alone.

Israel is opposed to the agreement. To any agreement with Iran, a lethal foe that declares it wants the Jewish State wiped off the map.

But Netanyahu tried to create a wedge between the US president and Congress and failed.  Israel exaggerated the Iranian threat and portrayed it in monstrous proportions.

Netanyahu was ridiculed, this week, for a tweet in which he declared that Iran not only aspires to impose its hegemony in the region, but to control the entire world.

True, it may have been better for Israel if the world were to keep harsh sanctions on Iran forever — strangling its economy until it surrendered all of its nuclear facilities, if one believes that Iran would ever have done that.

In any event,  Israel is not the center of the universe. The big powers have their own interests and sometimes they don’t listen to Israeli warnings — just as Israel, in many instances, is not attentive to requests from other nations, including its allies; for example, on the Palestinian question.

The nuclear deal is far from perfect, but the skies are not going to fall tomorrow.

Israel remains the strongest and most technologically advanced state in the Middle East. And, according to foreign reports that Israel declines to confirm, it has an impressive arsenal of nuclear warheads.

It is also true that lifting the sanctions will help revive the Iranian economy. But, according to estimates by US economists, the recovery will be slow. It is very unlikely that a dramatic shift in Iran’s rush for regional hegemony will be seen. Its ambitions are already high.

The deal will not increase Iran’s grip on Hezbollah, which is already full. Its support for terrorist groups and its subversive attempts to undermine and destabilize countries will not necessarily be enhanced. They are already in full gear.

These efforts, after all, are a double-edged sword. The more Iran intervenes in other countries’ domestic problems, the likelier it will be bleeding itself. Look at what happens to Iran in the Syrian mud, Yemen’s slippery slopes, and Iraq.

It is rather surprising to hear our leaders expressing fears about what will happen upon expiration of the agreement 10 years from now when they cannot say what will occur two or three months down the road on our borders with Gaza, Golan, Sinai or Lebanon.

All in all, it is possible to estimate that at least two tangible results will emerge from the nuclear deal. Israel’s military-security establishment will demand that its budget be expanded; and Israel will ask the US to supply it with a security compensation package. That is basically what the cabinet minister suggested eight years ago in the military briefing.

August 10, 2015

White House: When Pollard is Freed, It Won’t be Obama Freeing Him

An interesting update, on this Saturday when President Barack Obama is visiting his father’s homeland, Kenya…

His close aides told CBS News that if Jonathan Pollard — the spy for Israel who was sentenced to life in prison — is released this year, it won’t be because the President is freeing him.

It Wouldn't be Obama Doing it

It Wouldn’t be Obama Doing it

They say the ordinary parole process will proceed, and in November of this year — 30 years after Pollard’s arrest — he will be eligible for parole.  (His lawyers will doubtless plead for his release, in part based on his poor health.)

The White House aides say there is no connection at all with the Iran nuclear deal — and no attempt to sway Israeli opinion by releasing the American who spied for Israel.

They do confirm that the Pollard issue has been an irritant, for years, between Israel and the U.S.  (This information was reported by CBS News Chief White House Correspondent, Major Garrett.)

July 25, 2015

Some Perspective on Jonathan Pollard, the American who Spied for Israel — and, 30 Years Later, Will be Released by the United States

[A few thoughts by Dan Raviv, co-author of Every Spy a Prince and the current Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars – on the case of Jonathan Jay Pollard, the American Jew who was a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst and delivered secret documents and photos to Israeli diplomats]:

Jonathan Jay Pollard, circa 1984
Jonathan Jay Pollard, circa 1984

I have been reporting on the Pollard case since the day he was arrested in November 1985 — trying, with his then-wife, to seek shelter in the Israeli Embassy here in Washington.  The Israelis turned him away, and the FBI arrested them both.   He’s my age — both born in 1954.  He was 31 when he was arrested, and (like me) he’s 60 now.

 I immediately wondered why U.S. prosecutors were so hard on him — demanding and getting a life sentence.  After all, he was spying on behalf of an American ally.   Other Americans who sold secrets to foreign powers sometimes got lesser sentences.

But, for Pollard, it was bad luck.   The federal prosecutors wanted to make an example out of him — so that other Americans who had top-secret clearances in their government jobs would not be temped to give or sell any secrets to anyone.

Pollard campaign poster

Part of the Campaign for Pollard’s Freedom

Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger wrote to the judge in the case, reportedly declaring that Pollard had done “incalculable harm” to the U.S.   The reasoning was that in the world of espionage, you never know where the secrets might go.  Israel might conceivably give some secrets — about U.S. military capabilities — to Communist countries such as Russia.  

When I did reporting on the story inside Israel — for the books I’ve co-authored with Yossi Melman about Israeli espionage and security — I found a lot of embarrassment.  The Mossad — the famous and successful spy agency — insisted that it would never spy inside the United States.  The Pollard caper was the overly aggressive idea of one particular agency: a Science Liaison Bureau (Lakam, in Hebrew), which collected science and technology secrets all around the world.

In our research, it became clear that the Mossad and Aman — the large military intelligence agency — benefited from the huge quantity of secrets that Pollard provided.  They must have known there was a spy, working for Israel, inside America’s defense or intelligence establishment.

Because of the embarrassment, Israel was slow to offer any support for Pollard.  Finally, in recent years, Israel has repeatedly asked the U.S. to release him.   Bill Clinton considered doing it, and so did George W. Bush.   But the CIA and Pentagon officials told the Presidents not to do it — not to forgive Pollard in any way, because it would send the wrong signal to other Americans who might be thinking of doing what he did.  The FBI and Justice Department officials, too, were clearly against releasing Pollard.

Yossi Melman and I wrote about the Pollard case in our 1990 best-seller

Yossi Melman and I wrote about the Pollard case in our 1990 best-seller

What the American president — in this case, Barack Obama — needs is some kind of excuse: so he can tell the U.S. intelligence community that “for vital reasons of U.S. national interests,” he chose to release Pollard.    It has seemed in the past that for the sake of keeping the Middle East peace talks going — to get some concessions from Israel that the Obama White House thinks are vital — Obama might grant clemency to Pollard and release him.

Now, a published report suggested, Obama may free Pollard in order to show some good will toward Israel, hoping that Israeli public opposition — and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s highly vociferous opposition — to the nuclear deal with Iran might soften.

Releasing Pollard would spark celebrations in Israel, where there’s a strong tradition of “doing everything necessary to bring home any soldier who’s caught behind enemy lines.”  

But there’d also be a little bit of pain — as the world, and specifically the American people, would be reminded that there’d been an American Jew who was hired by Israel to hand over secrets.   Israelis have explained to me that they are always living with their backs against the wall — so sometimes they have to do desperate and daring things that aren’t polite and gentle.

Spy cases are often embarrassing.  Yet the U.S.-Israel relationship survived the anger caused by Pollard’s arrest in 1985.  The relationship will survive the sharp disagreement over the deal with Iran.  But clearing the decks wherever possible — eliminating the Pollard issue by freeing him — would probably help. 

July 24, 2015

Will Key Iranians be Removed from Sanctions Lists? It’s Complicated…

The U.S. Department of the Treasury insists that critics of the nuclear deal with Iran are wrong when they say one of Iran’s notorious exporters of terrorism, General Qassem Suleimani, will be removed from the list of Iranians who are banned from the world’s banking system.  Yet it is true that at least two Iranian nuclear scientists — reliably reported to have been targeted by Israel’s Mossad — will enjoy a lifting of sanctions in just a few years. 

This is based on an analysis by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, written for The Jerusalem Post.

The nuclear deal between world powers and Iran aimed at limiting Tehran’s nuclear program is a complicated and hard-to-understand labyrinth. It is 150 pages long, includes five appendices and contains some 30 thousand words.

Two-thirds of it consists of names of companies, corporations, government offices and individuals included on the list of sanctions levied against Iran since 2006 by the UN Security Council, the US and the European Union.

Iran was already a nuclear threshold state three years ago, before the especially painful sanctions were placed on it. Because of the hard blow that the sanctions dealt to Iran’s economy, its leaders understood that it was time to go to the negotiating table, which it had previously refused to approach.

Iran had already achieved its goal of being a nuclear threshold state.

Alongside maintaining the appearance of national pride and its efforts to minimize international inspection of its nuclear facilities, Iran’s main concern in negotiations with the West was to get the smothering sanctions removed. Now Iran is achieving that goal.

A senior Israeli official told journalists that during the 15-year life of the agreement Iran will enjoy – in addition to the unfreezing of around $100 billion of assets in foreign banks – an even greater flow of money from the renewal of oil exports and a renewal of trade with the world.

The blacklist, until now, included the names of some one thousand banks, insurance companies, ships, oil, gas and petrochemical corporations, airlines and aviation companies — as well individuals who are connected directly or indirectly to Iran’s nuclear program, its missile program or its weapons trade.

The assets – both liquid and real estate – of everyone on the blacklist were frozen, and all UN member states were forbidden from allowing them into their territory or engaging in commerce with them.

According to the agreement, the sanctions will be lifted, but in the next five years the conventional arms embargo on Iran will continue, and for eight years Iran will not be allowed to import or export missiles and their parts.

Three names on this list stick out in particular:

Fereydoun Abbasi Davani, a senior nuclear scientist, who served as the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran from 2011 to 2013. In November 2010, shortly before he got that job, he was wounded in an assassination attempt while entering his vehicle. The failed attempt was attributed to the Mossad. Abbasi Davani’s name was removed from the list of people sanctioned for being part of Iran’s nuclear program, but he will continue to be subject to sanctions connected to involvement in the missile program.

The second is Dr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, who was, according to foreign reports, responsible for Iran’s military nuclear program, known as “weaponization.” The group, made up of nuclear scientists and engineers, dealt with experiments using highly powerful explosives and computer simulations that checked how to assemble a nuclear weapon and how to miniaturize it and turn it into a warhead on a Shihab missile. If Iran were to assemble a nuclear weapon, Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi could be labeled “the father of the Shi’ite nuclear bomb.”

According to the same reports, he was the Mossad’s number one target for assassination, but he went into hiding.

Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi was put on the blacklist because of his involvement in work on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, and because of Iran’s refusal to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to question him. It can be assumed that his name would be taken off the blacklist of those involved in the nuclear program if Iran were to allow IAEA inspectors to question him. As of now, he will remain under sanctions for the next eight years due to his involvement with the Iranian missile program.

The third name, and perhaps the most interesting of them all, is General Qassem Suleimani, the Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force. He is considered one of the most influential people in the Islamic Republic and a close confidant of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran's Qassem Suleimani visiting Shi'ite Militias in Tikrit, Iraq, fighting ISIS (El Alam News Network)

Iran’s Qassem Suleimani (wearing black headdress) visiting Shi’ite Militias in Tikrit, Iraq, fighting ISIS (El Alam News Network)

The fact that there are two people with the last name “Suleimani” on the list shows how tangled up it is. One of them is Gassen and the second is Qassem. Gassen Suleimani will be taken off the list. As for General Qassem Suleimani, the situation is more complicated.

At the age of 22, with the eruption of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Qassem Suleimani joined the Revolutionary Guards, and took part in the bloody war with Iraq, which lasted eight years. In 2000 he was appointed commander of the Quds Force.

“Al-Quds” is the unit formed in 1980 with the goal of “fighting the Zionist occupation.” However, over the years, its authority was widened and it became Iran’s special forces branch tasked with exporting the Islamic Revolution. The force is responsible for training, arming and providing aid to Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Yemen, for Iran’s ties to Hezbollah, Hamas and more.

Suleimani is responsible for managing the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria and for helping the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria.

After many years in which he operated invisibly, General Suleimani has resurfaced. He has attended public functions in Iran, given interviews to the media and been filmed on the battlefield in Iraq. However, despite his high position and great influence, his prestige has taken a hit in the past four years and his image as a superman commander has been damaged.

His setbacks occurred amid the “Arab Spring.” When the demonstrations and rebellions began in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, Suleimani believed, and promised to Khamenei, that the table was set for increasing Iran’s influence in the Middle East. But that did not happen as Iran had hoped. The Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power in Egypt, while in Iraq and Syria, Suleimani, the Quds Force and the militias they ran, struggled to win the war against ISIS and other rebel groups. Assad’s rule has weakened even more in recent months and his people have lost additional land.

General Suleimani was sanctioned from a number of directions: First, the US named the Al-Quds Force a terrorist group. He was also put on the blacklist for exporting weapons to Shi’ite militias.

The United States in particular has a score to settle with Suleimani because Washington sees him as responsible for the deaths of many American soldiers, caused by his people or their proxy Shi’ite militias in Iraq such as “The Bader Force” and “The Mahdi’s Army,” which were responsible for IED attacks against American soldiers in the previous decade.

The second reason is his involvement in an attempt (uncovered by the FBI in 2011) to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, who today serves as the Kingdom’s foreign minister — by blowing up a high-class restaurant.

American officials confirmed that indeed Suleimani’s name will be removed from the sanctions list that appears in the nuclear agreement. But in actuality, only the European Union countries will unblacklist him. In the United States, he will remain on the terrorism black list. Because this is an extra-territorial list, the sanctions will apply to all those who conduct commercial dealings with him, irregardless of where they reside.

At least this is some consolation.

July 21, 2015

Before the Talks with Iran: U.S. and Israel Were Close on Sanctions and Sabotage, but Not on Assassinations (FLASHBACK)

[This is an adaptation from Chapter 1, “Stopping Iran,” in the history of Israeli espionage, Spies Against Armageddon by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman.  We pick up the story somewhere around early 2008.]

Israeli and American intelligence agencies evaluated the sanctions and determined that they were too soft.  The assessment was that only stronger, crippling sanctions might have some effect on Iran’s leadership.

It seemed that the kind of steps required would include a ban on buying Iranian crude oil and its byproducts.  China and Russia refused to lend a hand to that effort.  Sanctions thus were not hobbling the determination of Iran’s leaders to keep up their nuclear work.

Meir Dagan on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” 2012

The Mossad concluded that more drastic measures were needed.  Mossad director Meir Dagan’s battle plan called next for sabotage.  That took various shapes.  He encouraged joint planning and, eventually, joint operations on the Middle East’s clandestine fields of battle.

A CIA suggestion was to send a physicist, a Russian who had moved to the United States, to Iran to offer his knowledge to the Iranian nuclear program.  The caper was ridiculously mishandled when the CIA altered a set of nuclear warhead plans that the physicist was carrying, but neglected to tell him.  The Iranians would have received damaging disinformation.  Unfortunately for this scheme, the ex-Russian noticed errors and told the Iranians that something was flawed.  He simply did not know that the CIA wanted him to keep his mouth shut and pass along the materials.

Despite imperfect penetrations at first, the entire concept of “poisoning” both information and equipment was attractive; and the Mossad, the CIA, and the British kept doing it.  These agencies set up front companies that established contact with Iranian purchasing networks.  In order to build up trust, they sold Iran some genuine components.  But at a later stage,  they planted – among the good parts, such as metal tubes and high-speed switches – many bad parts that damaged Iran’s program.

The results of this international sabotage began to show.  Iran found itself having trouble keeping control of the equipment that it had bought from overseas.

The peak of these damage operations was a brilliantly innovative computer worm that would become known as Stuxnet.  Though its origin was never officially announced, Stuxnet was a joint project by the CIA, the Mossad, and Aman’s technological unit.  The malicious software was specifically designed to disrupt a German-made computerized control system that ran the centrifuges in Natanz.

The project required studying, by reverse engineering, precisely how the control panel and computers worked and what effect they had on the centrifuges.  For that purpose,  Germany’sBND– very friendly to Israel, in part based on a long habit of trying to erase Holocaust memories – arranged the cooperation of Siemens, the German corporation that had sold the system to Iran.  The directors of Siemens may have felt pangs of conscience, or were simply reacting to public pressure, as newspapers pointed out that the company was Iran’s largest trading partner in Germany.

For a better understanding of Iran’s enrichment process, old centrifuges – which Israel had obtained many years before – were set up in one of the buildings at Dimona, Israel’s not-so-secret nuclear facility in the southern Negev desert.  They were nearly identical to the centrifuges that were enriching uranium in Natanz.

The Israelis closely watched what the computer worm could do to an industrial process.  The tests, reportedly conducted also at a U.S. government lab in Idaho, took two years.

Virtual weapons of destruction such as Stuxnet can conceivably be e-mailed to the target computer network, or they can be installed in person by plugging in a flash drive.  Whether hidden in an electronic message or plugged in by an agent for the Mossad, the virus did get into the Natanz facility’s control system sometime in 2009.  Stuxnet was in the system for more than a year before it was detected by Iranian cyber-warfare experts.  By then, it was giving the centrifuges confusing instructions, which disrupted their precise synchronization.  They were no longer spinning in concert, and as the equipment sped up and slowed repeatedly, the rotors that did the spinning were severely damaged.

The true beauty of this computer worm was that the operators of the system had no idea that anything was going wrong.  Everything at first seemed normal, and when they noticed the problem it was too late.  Nearly 1,000 centrifuges – about one-fifth of those operating at Natanz – were knocked out of commission.

Iranian intelligence and computer experts were shocked.  The nuclear program was slowing down, barely advancing, and falling way behind schedule.  Stuxnet, more than anything else, made the Iranians realize they were under attack in a shadow war, with hardly any capability to respond.

In late 2011, they announced two more cyber-attacks.  One virus, which computer analysts called Duqu, showed signs of being created by the same high-level, sophisticated hackers who authored Stuxnet: U.S.and Israeli intelligence.

If that were not enough, like the Ten Plagues that befell ancient Egypt, the Iranians were hit by yet another blow – this time, a lethal one.  Between 2007 and 2011, five Iranian scientists were assassinated by a variety of methods.  One supposedly was felled by carbon monoxide from a heater in his home.  Three others were killed by bombs, and one by gunfire: four attacks by men on motorcycles.  That was a method perfected by the Mossad’s Kidon unit.

It was noteworthy that the United States flatly denied any involvement.  American officials even went so far as to publicly criticize the unknown killers for spoiling diplomatic hopes, because the chances of negotiations with Iran became slimmer after every attack.  The Americans, in private, said that they were chiding Israel.

July 13, 2015

Meet the IAEA Official Who’ll Monitor Iran’s Nuclear Program — with Spy Agencies’ Help

[This is adapted from an article by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, for The Jerusalem Post.]

Let’s consider Massimo Aparo. He is the international bureaucrat who is to be on the watch to make sure that, in case of an agreement, Iran doesn’t violate it. And, in the absence of a deal, he would aim to be able to tell the world if Iran is rushing to produce its first nuclear bomb.

Massimo Aparo (center) : photo by IAEA

Massimo Aparo (center) : photo by IAEA

In other words, Aparo is the gatekeeper and has to act as the international community’s bad cop in its dealing with the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions.

Aparo, an Italian, heads an elite unit of the International Atomic Energy Agency known as Iran Task Force. It was created three years ago by IAEA’s director-general, Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano.

The Iran Task Force is part of IAEA’s Department of Safeguards and Verification, which is in charge of making sure that all its state members properly use nuclear technology and knowhow for the declared civilian and peaceful purposes: scientific research, medicine, agriculture and industry – and not for illegally producing nuclear weapons.

The only country that is a member of IAEA and is under a unique and particular watch with a specially assigned unit to monitor it is Iran. And rightly so.

Iran has a bad and dubious track record of 12 years of cheating, cover- ups, lies and concealment of the true nature of its nuclear program with its 18 sites, including two uranium- enrichment facilities, reactors, laboratories, waste plants and more.

It established secret purchasing networks operating worldwide to illegally buy equipment and technology for its program by circumventing the sanctions.

It has worked indefatigably to advance its plans to be a nuclear- threshold country, and in doing so it has been in breach of many IAEA and UN Security Council resolutions.

Here enters Aparo. The mere fact that Amano ordered the establishment of the Iran Task Force is evidence of the huge mistrust that even a politically biased UN agency such as the IAEA and certainly the international community feel facing Iran and its leaders.

When the task force was established, its main focus was to collect data and analyze what was happening in the Parchin military base. According to information collected by Western and Israeli intelligence services and forwarded to the IAEA, the base served as a testing laboratory for “weaponization.”

There, Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers were conducting tests with highly sophisticated explosives and simulations to learn the process of a chain reaction to trigger a nuclear explosion.

When asked by Amano to allow Aparo and his task force to visit Parchin, Iran flatly rejected the request. Since then, according to images obtained from commercial satellites, Iran was involved in extensive cleanup works by removing huge chunks of soil, flooding some parts of the base with water and destroying several buildings – all to cover up what really happened in Parchin and to make sure that if task force inspectors were ever to visit the place and take samples, no traces of illegal nuclear activity would be found.

Aparo’s task force has 50 or so inspectors of different nationalities. They are nuclear engineers, physicists, chemists, computer and communication experts and intelligence data analysts.

Iran insisted that neither Americans nor Brits be included in the force. To the Iranian mind, they are spies. Actually, in the Iranian perception, the entire Iran Task Force is an extension of the CIA, Mossad, MI6, you name it. Eventually, Iran had to agree to the inclusion of one American member and one British member.

In the past, Iranian intelligence officers tried to recruit agents among the IAEA inspectors. As Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director-general of the IAEA and head of the Department of Safeguards and Verification told me, he himself faced many Iranian efforts to recruit him by offering him bribes and gifts.

It can be assumed that Iran will continue to disrupt, preempt and gain advance knowledge and understanding of task force plans.

Aparo’s problems are twofold. First are the rigid regulations of IAEA which require that a country be notified in advance – days, sometimes weeks in advance – about the inspection visits.

It gives the host country sufficient time to conceal and cover up whatever it doesn’t want the inspectors to see.

Iran has mastered the measures it has taken in its concealment and stalling tactics. Heinonen recalls that Iran even came up with the excuse “We lost the key” when it was requested to let him and his team into a particular site.

Second, IAEA monitoring equipment is old and outdated. It includes mechanical seals and cameras which are attached to the centrifuges enriching uranium and the cylinders and barrels where the uranium and other nuclear-related materials are stored.

To enhance the inspection, what Aparo needs are provisions that will permit him and his crew to have snap visits, on the spot, with advance notification of only a matter of hours. He also has to be allowed to use much more advanced monitoring equipment, including online cameras and seals, as well as lasers and sensors directly linked to IAEA control rooms in Vienna.

Aparo, in his late 50s, is an expert in nuclear machinery and instruments.

He graduated from Sapienza University of Rome, worked for an Italian agency advancing new technologies, and was employed by the European Space Agency. Around 20 years ago he was recruited by the IAEA.

I was told by former IAEA inspectors that he is a serious and solid nuclear expert but lacks leadership qualities.

Leadership skills are needed not only to lead a complex international force with members of different backgrounds and perhaps different agendas but to be tough and determined in dealing with his Iranian counterparts and hosts, who will do everything possible to sabotage his mission by endlessly arguing about every minor step and detail.

But above all, Aparo – with or without a deal, even with new monitoring equipment and intrusive inspections – will have to rely at the end on outside assistance.

As in the past, the Mossad and Israeli Military Intelligence – along with the CIA, MI6, German BND, French intelligence and others – will have to enhance their efforts and improve intelligence collection on Iran’s nuclear program in order to detect ahead of time whether the Islamic Republic is breaking out to the bomb.

July 12, 2015

Where to Buy ‘Spies Against Armageddon’: on the People, Missions and Goals of Mossad and Israeli Security from 1948 to the Headlines of Today

Click here for full details of how (and where) to buy Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, the most complete and balanced history of the Mossad and Israel’s other security and espionage agencies.

The authors are Dan Raviv (of CBS News) and Yossi Melman (the longtime Haaretz expert on intelligence, who now is a defense, strategy, and espionage analyst for the Jerusalem Post and other Israeli media).

This is their fifth book together.  Their best seller (in 1990-91) about Israel’s intelligence community was Every Spy a Prince.  They also wrote a character-filled history of U.S.-Israel relations, Friends In Deed.

To glance at readers’ reviews posted at Amazon.com, please click here.  For example:

Despite the book being over 350 pages, it goes by very quickly (I read it in a weekend). ” –daniel michael  |  17 reviewers made a similar statement
Highly recommended read for those interested in Middle East events. ” –zedillo99  |  15 reviewers made a similar statement
“Raviv and Melman have written a wonderful history of Mossad. It reads like a thriller, but conveys a thorough history of the Israeli intelligence agency.” –Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize winner

Spies Against Armageddon, israel spy, covert operations, dan raviv, yossi melman

SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON is a powerful, vivid history of Israel’s intelligence community – led by the famous and feared Mossad – from the country’s independence in 1948 right up to the crises of today. Israel’s battle plan, aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program, may drag the United States into war and soaring oil prices. The plan is based on deception, sabotage, assassination, and intimidation. The book tells the story, never told before, of Kidon – the super-secret unit that is like a Mossad within the Mossad. Kidon carries out special operations, including assassinations and sabotage. Kidon had a daring role in destroying Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007.

Israel’s methods and motivations can be fully understood only when seeing how they developed over the decades. Bold spies have penetrated enemy capitals, and secret agencies felt a historic responsibility to protect Jews worldwide. The authors chronicle major changes in Israeli intelligence agencies’ priorities – away from Palestinian peace prospects, shifting to Iran as the main focus. The book also exposes some episodes of which Israeli spies are ashamed; scandals they would prefer remain buried. Still, in the age of the internet and spy satellites, Israel is the most innovative nation in the use of espionage as an alternative to war.

Dan Raviv

yossi melman, spies against armageddon, iran nuclear

Yossi Melman

Among the burning questions addressed and answered in SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON are these: Who planted a powerful computer worm in Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges? Who has been motorcycling boldly through the streets of Tehran, assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists? Are Israeli spies regularly inside Iran and other enemy countries? Did the Mossad make a huge mistake when two dozen of its operatives were seen by hotel security cameras in Dubai, or was it a successful murder mission? Do the assassins, as portrayed in the movie “Munich,” really feel pangs of conscience? Have Israel’s enemies ever managed to plant agents in the Israeli government? Does the United States really trust Israeli intelligence, or is the relationship limited by mutual mistrust? Why do U.S. security agencies believe their close ally is spying on America? Is Israel trying to maneuver the U.S. into attacking Iran?

This book contains new information about the Mossad director from 2002 to 2010, Meir Dagan, and how he put “the dagger back between the teeth” of the spy agency. When he publicly declares that he opposes an Israeli military strike on Iran, what does he favor instead? The authors of this book have spoken with all the major players, and a multitude of minor players as well, to gain a balanced and deep understanding of Israeli actions at times of crisis – and Israel almost always feels it is in a crisis.  Click here for reviews and more information on Spies Against Armageddon.


July 11, 2015

Censorship Lifted: Two Israelis Missing in Gaza — Shabby Treatment to at Least One Family

[Yossi Melman wrote this analysis for The Jerusalem Post.]

Once again, Israel’s security establishment proved how it disregards the right of the public to know. But the scandalous efforts to prevent the publication of the case of Avera Mengistu, the young Israeli of Ethiopian origins who went into Gaza — on his own — by climbing over the border fence, is nothing compared to the way the government treated his family and the entire Israeli Ethiopian community.

The family claims they were threatened by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and police officers not to talk to the media about the fate of their son. It turned out that they were rarely briefed by the authorities who were handling the case and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bothered only Wednesday to call them.

The strong feeling is that if the skin color of the missing Israelis would have been paler or had he come from a different socioeconomic class, the security apparatus would have treated the case with less indifference.  We would have seen more care and consideration.

It is true that the government and the military establishment have set an important goal to deprive Hamas of having “assets” and “bargaining chips” — in order to reduce the price Israel would have to pay for the release of Mengistu and another Israeli of Arab origins who also infiltrated into Gaza and is missing.

The government wants to prevent the repetition of past prisoner swaps such as the 1985 Jibril swap, the 2004 swap for Colonel (res) Elchanan Tenenboim, who was lured to a drug deal and kidnapped by Hezbollah, and more recently the Gilad Schalit case with Hamas. On all these occasions, and others, the government found itself pressured by the public, families and lubricated PR campaigns, eventually caving in to both the domestic pressure and to the other side.

This conduct by the security establishment is rooted in a new obsession that began in the last Gaza war.

It is the desire to prevent the kidnapping of Israeli civilians or soldiers at all costs.

When it comes to soldiers in the battlefield, the IDF used an illegal and unethical method coded “Hannibal,” in which it employs unrestricted fire power to prevent attempts to kidnap soldiers, even though it could kill the soldier and many innocent civilians.

Indeed, Professor Asa Kasher, who wrote the ethical code of the IDF, claimed Tuesday that at least one soldier who was targeted for kidnapping by Hamas fighters was killed by Israeli fire. And indeed many Palestinians were killed by IDF fire under such circumstances.

And now we witness the cases of Menigistu and the other Israeli who went into Hamas-ruled Gaza. They are civilians, and not soldiers, and the methods used to hurt them are different: not friendly fire, but court gag orders and heavy censorship.

The overriding goal remains the same – not to surrender to Hamas.

But no matter how important that aim is, the use of dubious measures cannot be justified. If the government wishes to be tough and determined and not to cave in this time, it can do it by showing its will power in negotiations – and there are already secret negotiations underway via Egyptian and German intelligence officials – and not by ignoring the family and making a mockery of basic values in a democratic society.

July 9, 2015

One Year After a Gaza War, Israel Braces for Another — Lessons Learned?

[This article is adapted from an article by Yossi Melman — co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars — in The Jerusalem Post newspaper on Friday, July 3.]

A year ago this week, Israel launched its invasion of Gaza — the third war with the Hamas-ruled Palestinian strip in less than seven years.

Israeli security officials speak of another round of warfare as almost inevitable — insisting there is solid intelligence showing weapons being smuggled into Gaza, Hamas and other factions building more rockets to be aimed at Israel, and tunnels being dug (and even Hamas claiming that it has again progressed underground beneath Israeli territory).

After investigating last year’s war — which killed 2,251 Palestinians (including 551 children, according to the United Nations) and 73 Israelis — a U.N. team documented what it judged to be possible war crimes by both Israel’s army (the IDF) and the Palestinians of Hamas.

UN Human Rights Council

UN Human Rights Council

On Friday, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council voted to condemn only Israel.

It was noteworthy that the United States — despite a recent spotlight on tensions between President Barack Obama and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — was the only nation voting “no” on the anti-Israel resolution.  

The vote was 41 to 1.  (Israeli diplomats took some comfort from the fact that India — a huge and important nation Netanyahu has been cultivating with friendship — abstained on the resolution.)

The first Gaza war — following Hamas’s violent ouster of the al-Fatah faction — was in December 2008, and the second was in November 2012. Simple calculation shows that the time elapsed between the first and second campaigns was nearly four years.

While the cease-fire between the second and third wars lasted just 19 months, on average it can be calculated that every 22 months Israel has found itself facing the same problem in Gaza.

So, with the same calculation, Israel can expect another round in Gaza in the spring of 2016.

But Middle Eastern realities are not mere products of statistics.

They don’t necessarily adhere to the scripts written by the planners. Sometimes the military battles generate surprising twists in the drama.

The last war, codenamed by IDF computers “Protective Edge,” could be one of these unexpected events. It has the potential for a long-term tacit or formal arrangement between Israel and Hamas, one that could put an end to the rocket launching, sporadic or systematic, from Gaza and could bring quiet and tranquility for the residents of southern Israel.

In that sense, the last Gaza war could turn out to be a mirror image of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. That war exposed many tactical weaknesses of the Israel Defense Forces but, on the strategic level, empowered Israeli deterrence. The inhabitants of northern Israel have for nine years since enjoyed and benefited from a peaceful border as Hezbollah is deterred from attacking Israel.

Something similar can emerge in the South. The situation Israel has witnessed in the last 12 months on the Gaza front is complex; alongside hopes, it contains risks and danger that another war is on the horizon.

What were the war’s flaws and weakness? It lasted 50 days and was not only the longest of all three Gazan campaigns, but also the second- longest war in the history of the State of Israel after the 1948 War of Independence.

During Protective Edge, Israel was bombarded with nearly 5,000 rockets, more than in any other of its military clashes, including the two previous Gaza wars and the Second Lebanon War.

For its critics, the war was also too long. But there was a reason for it. The political echelon led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, as well as the IDF leadership, were concerned about reducing Israeli casualties, which due to the urban and densely populated terrain could have been higher than the 67 soldiers who died in battle.

It was also said that Israeli intelligence failed to have accurate information about the number, size and spread of the tunnels Hamas had dug to be used as a surprise weapon.

But this claim is not true.

Based on military sources, this writer wrote in October 2013 – nine months before the war – that Hamas had built 20-30 tunnels.

Surely, IDF Military Intelligence and the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) did know that Hamas had dug 30 tunnels leading in the direction of Israel. And, indeed, during the war the IDF found and destroyed all of them.

The problem, however, was that, even though the information was conveyed to the government, neither the IDF’s top generals nor the cabinet ministers fully grasped the full strategic meaning before the war.

Still, the war results, as we analyze them today, are satisfactory.

It was a limited war because the declared goals were limited. Israel didn’t wish to topple Hamas because that would have meant once again conquering Gaza, which is a small territorial enclave with a big but very poor population of 1.8 million inhabitants.

Conquering Gaza – which from a military point of view could have been achieved within days – would have resulted in many casualties to both IDF troops and Palestinians.

And it would have forced Israel to once again be the occupier and daily provider of Gaza. Israel did not want to be in this position.

Bearing in mind that Israel had no serious alternatives other than to end the war the way it did, its achievements were numerous.

A growing wedge was created between Hamas and Egypt, which perceives the Islamist organization as a threat to its own national security and accuses it of supporting and collaborating with the terrorists of Islamic State in Sinai.

The security cooperation between Jerusalem and Cairo has reached unprecedented levels. Both countries are partners in the war against terrorism, which this week in Sinai caused the Egyptian Army heavy casualties by the hands of Islamic State and showed how painful and formidable a task it is.

There is no military solution to Gaza.

The third Gaza war will be judged successful only if the southern border is truly peaceful. This is only possible if a long-term agreement is reached among Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt – with financial support from Qatar to rebuild and help Gaza normalize the life of its inhabitants.

Without a deal that will politically and economically regulate and administrate life there, Gaza will never be rehabilitated. Even worse: The situation will deteriorate and Israel will be confronted with Islamic State, a worse and more brutal enemy.

July 4, 2015

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