JERUSALEM, May 7 -- The Israeli government responded with emphatic denials today to a report that an FBI probe is underway into alleged Israeli attempts to obtain sensitive U.S. government information, accusing those behind the disclosure of trying to tarnish the Jewish state and exert pressure for political change.
Foreign Minister David Levy, the most senior Israeli official to comment on the report, published in Wednesday's Washington Post, appeared to go so far as to say that Israel does not engage in espionage anywhere.
"Our diplomats all over the world, and of course specifically in the United States, don't deal with such a thing," Levy said. "They have clear instructions. Israel, in general, does not deal with such a thing."
Citing U.S. government sources, The Post reported that the National Security Agency intercepted a communication in January between a senior Israeli intelligence officer in Washington and a superior in Tel Aviv. The conversation referred to a person code-named "Mega" in a way that officials said suggested that Mega may be someone in the U.S. government who had provided information to Israel in the past.
One source who read the NSA transcript said the intelligence officer told his superior that Israeli Ambassador Eliahu Ben Elissar had asked him "to go to Mega to get a copy" of a confidential letter from then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The superior in Tel Aviv rejected the request, replying, "This is not something we use Mega for." There was no clear answer from Israel on whether it acknowledges that such a conversation took place.
Ben Elissar, speaking on Israel Television, described the report with a Hebrew expression that translates literally as "sucked from the finger," or invented in its entirety. David Bar Illan, director of communications for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, said the conversation may have been "a totally innocent slip or something not meant to be what it could have been interpreted as being."
"In conversations we always refer to people by all sorts of nicknames like this, purely innocently, sometimes because we don't want even people in the room to know who we're talking about or talking to," he said. He cited as an example an Israeli practice of referring to President Harry S. Truman, in his day, as "Ish Emmet," Hebrew for "true man." He said he had no idea if anyone in Israel refers to a current U.S. official as Mega.
Several commentators and officials here noted that the newspaper story stated openly that the United States eavesdrops on private Israeli communications. "The fact that this is said so matter of factly is, let's say, a little disturbing," Bar Illan said. "I don't think anybody gets mad about its happening; it's the publication."
Ben Elissar suggested in his television interview that there might be a link between the published report and the Clinton administration's disapproval of Israeli policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Asked if he saw a "political motive" in the timing of the report with today's arrival in the region of U.S. special envoy Dennis Ross, Ben Elissar replied: "That is exactly what worries me; this is the truth. Since I know there is no truth to this story itself, then why now, and why in such a sensational and bombastic manner? Apparently there is somebody who not only wants to besmirch the name of Israel, but also perhaps to cause damage to the relations between Israel and America. And perhaps there is also someone here who is trying to pressure the state of Israel in this evil manner."
Dore Gold, Netanyahu's American-born foreign policy adviser, sought to play down such explanations. "I believe we have very good relations with this administration, and we have no indication that this story, or the leak of this story, indicates otherwise," he said.
One puzzle unresolved thus far is why Ben Elissar would risk damage to Israeli relations with Washington over a letter on which Netanyahu already had been briefed. A senior U.S. official here confirmed that Ross had read Netanyahu the "letter of assurances" addressed to Arafat, although he did not give him a copy to keep. The U.S. official said it was possible, given Ben Elissar's estrangement from Netanyahu, that the ambassador did not know that.
Gerald Steinberg, a foreign policy strategist at Bar Ilan University, said the FBI probe report "may make the low point even lower" between Netanyahu's government and the Clinton administration. "When American-Israeli relations already seem tense over a whole series of other issues, this is a killer issue," he said.
At the same time, he added, "both governments have an interest in dodging this because it opens up a Pandora's box for both of them. It may be easier for the leaders of both countries to say that since there's so much involved in this, [including] the exposure of American intelligence capabilities, there's a mutual interest in letting it die quickly."
But Bar Illan asserted that since the 1986 conviction of U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Jay Pollard on charges that he sold classified data to Israel, a series of subsequent allegations sought to "recycle" the damaging effects of that case. He cited reports of allegations that Israel had sold U.S. military technology to China and of an FBI investigation in February into the actions of Army tank engineer David A. Tenenbaum to determine if he had passed unauthorized military information to Israel. All the leaks, Bar Illan said, proved to be "nonsense."
U.S. officials traveling with President Clinton in Mexico continued to decline comment on The Post's report.
Further to David Bar Illan's comments above, Arutz 7 News (May 8, 97) reports:
Influential Ha'Aretz military correspondent Ze'ev Shiff states that every few months one branch or another of the American Government tries to uncover a Pollard-type affair aimed at harming relations with Israel. Now he argues, it's a "secret agent" of the Mossad, code named "Mega" who was supposed to give Israel a secret letter from former secretary of State Warren Christopher to Arafat.
Schiff said this leak is serious because it means that there is a permanent tap on the Israeli embassy and official Mossad station in Washington, and that the Americans had broken the Israeli's code.
Justice for Jonathan Pollard adds: In sharing the transcribed message with the world via the media, Washington made the Israeli code available to all, including to the enemies of Israel. Troubling questions linger long after the affair all proves to be devoid of substance: If indeed America is an "honest broker" in the peace process, why then would Israel have needed to resort to a covert operation to secure a very basic document? And if indeed the Israelis were shown a copy of this document as Mr.Netanyahu and other government officials insist, then what is this whole sensational story about an Israeli mole about anyway? And why indeed is America spying on an ally?
The Pollard case continues to be "recycled" not only to call into question Israel's reliability as an ally, but also to call into question the standing of the American Jewish community. A classic example is the 1996 Pentagon Defense Memo that calls into question the loyalty of American Jews and refers to Israel as a "non-traditional enemy".
The Pollard case is cited as the basis for these libelous allegations. The failure of the Israeli Government and the American Jewish community to protest the hyperbolization and exploitation of the Pollard case is directly linked to their abject failure to protest the massive injustice of this case and the grossly disproportionate sentence that was meted out to Jonathan Pollard.