What's Wrong With This Picture?

Recently, it took Israel

  • several days

    to secure the release of her agents in Jordan
  • a few weeks

    to secure the release of her agents in Switzerland and
  • a few months

    to secure the release of her agents in Cyprus.
Yet, after nearly 15 years of Israeli "efforts" in the U.S. - her closest friend and strongest ally - Israel fails to secure the release of her agent, Jonathan Pollard. What's wrong with this picture?

August 13, 1999

Cyprus frees two Mossad agents


TEL AVIV (August 13) - The two Mossad agents captured and jailed last year in Cyprus for spying arrived back in Israel on a private plane after Nicosia released them unexpectedly yesterday.

The two men, Udi Hargov, 37, and Igal Damary, 49, had been sentenced five months ago to a three-year jail term. They were released on condition they be barred from Cyprus for life. The two reportedly underwent a debriefing before being reunited with their families.

Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides said he suspended the jail terms following a recommendation of clemency by his attorney-general and as a goodwill gesture to the new Israeli government.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak expressed his gratitude to Clerides last night in a speech in Herzliya.

"The act of the president...was greatly appreciated by the people of Israel and will serve the advancement of good neighborly relations that prevail between Israel and Cyprus," Barak said.

President Ezer Weizman Weizman phoned Clerides to thank him for the release of the two agents. Clerides told him that a new spirit is blowing in the new government and it is time to improve the relations between the two countries.

Weizman reminded Clerides of his long-standing invitation to visit Israel. Weizman extended the original invitation when he was in Cyprus last November - a mere two days before the two men were caught and charged with spying for the Mossad. Since then, sources say, Israel put off inquiries about the visit, subtly linking it to a release of the men. A Cypriot official admitted that a number of inquiries in the past month regarding setting up a meeting with Barak had been gently rebuffed.

The agents were arrested immediately after Weizman's state visit to Cyprus last November and he subsequently used his good offices in an attempt to attain their release, sending a personal message to Clerides with his director-general.

Earlier, a government statement issued in Nicosia said the men were released because "their continued detention no longer served national interests." Israel has quietly been working for their release ever since they were arrested with sophisticated listening equipment close to a military base.

Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Cypriot Embassy in Israel would confirm that a Clerides visit is a certainty, but both indicated that a trip to Israel in the near future would be welcomed.

"Any official of Cyprus who wants to visit will be welcomed," said Aviv Shir-On, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry.

The statement made by the Cypriot government on the occasion of the release stated that the "the continuing imprisonment [of Argov and Damari] no longer served the national interest. On the contrary, this gesture towards the friendly neighboring state of Israel is made on the occasion of the assumption of power by the Barak government, which inaugurates a new period of friendly bilateral relations."

The Cypriot national interest is indeed served, said one Israeli diplomat, "by putting this whole saga behind us." On top of welcoming a visit by Cypriot officials, there is speculation that Israel also reportedly promised to help Cyprus in its efforts to join the European Union.

At first, senior Mossad officials and other officials rushed to Cyprus to try to keep the affair quiet and assure Cyprus the men were not spying against them but against "terrorists." But the incident touched a raw nerve among Cypriots, who saw it as a manifestation of their worst nightmare. Despite the denials, they believed Israel was in cahoots with Turkey and was helping it in its rivalry with the divided Mediterranean island.

The Mossad men were captured at a sensitive time when Cyprus was threatening to place Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles as protection against Turkish jets at a base the Mossad agents were believed to be monitoring. It was coupled with reports that Israel had been training Turkish pilots on how to avoid the SAM missiles.

At a much reported trial, Damary and Hargov were convicted on February 1 of approaching a prohibited military area near Ziyi in southern Cyprus and sentenced to three years.

They were also sentenced to a concurrent jail term of six months for possessing wireless scanning equipment without a license.

The two pleaded guilty to the lesser charges after the prosecution dropped charges of conspiracy and espionage in an apparent plea bargain deal. The more serious charges carry a sentence of up to 10 years. Damary and Hargov had spent the past few months at Nicosia's central prison. Last week a number of convicts were given early release because it is overcrowded.

Mossad head Efraim Halevy telephoned Regional Cooperation Minister Shimon Peres to thank him for his help in the release of the two agents, Itim reported.

Channel 1 reported that the two are not expected to face any disciplinary action by the Mossad, despite the amateurish way they operated which led to their capture.