By Dr. Cesar Chelala
As Middle East peace efforts go through another round of failure, information published by Newsweek magazine indicates that Israel has been conducting spying activities in the US. Although the main targets are industrial and technical secrets, they have a connection to national security that makes these activities by a US ally highly reprehensible.
This is not the first time that Israel’s spying on the US has caught international attention. In 1987, the American Jonathan Jay Pollard was convicted for life for passing classified information to Israel. Israel, however, denied until 1998 that it had bought classified information from him. He did that while working as a civilian intelligence analyst.
Israel leaders have apologised to the US for Pollard’s actions. In assessing them, the CIA concluded in 1987 that Pollard, rather than collecting information on US military activities, had rather collected US intelligence on the weapons capability of Arab states, Pakistan and the Soviet Union.
However, prior to his sentencing, Pollard stated that although his motives “may have been well meaning, they cannot, under any stretch of the imagination, excuse or justify the violation of the law, particularly one that involves the trust of government…I broke trust, ruined and brought disgrace to my family.” On March 4, 1987, Pollard was sentenced to life in prison on one count of espionage.
In characterising the current industrial and technical espionage activities, a former congressional staffer quoted by Newsweek, stated recently: “No other country close to the United States continues to cross the line on espionage like the Israelis do.” Those activities go far beyond what other US close allies such as France, Germany, Great Britain or Japan do, according to some US intelligence agents.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman angrily rejected the accusations against the Israeli government. “We’re talking about lies and falsehoods, simply libel which is baseless and unfounded,” he declared. Adding that his country is not involved in any form of espionage against the United States, either in a direct or indirect way, Lieberman said that Israel “had learned its lesson” from the Pollard case.
Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of intelligence and strategic affairs, supports Lieberman’s position. “Israel took a decision 30 years ago and has upheld it ever since, not to spy against the United States, not to recruit agents in the US, not to gather intelligence in the US,” he declared.
As the alleged activities were going on, Israel was lobbying to be placed on the short list of countries (38 until now) whose citizens don’t need visas to visit the US. However, a major obstacle so far was Israel’s discriminatory and oftentimes harsh treatment of Arab Americans and Palestinians who were trying to enter Israel.
In addition, the Israeli government had failed other requirements for the program. Among those requirements were to promptly and regularly reporting lost and stolen passports, a situation of particular concern since some Iranian nationals were found to have boarded the missing Malaysia Airlines flight with stolen passports.
There is concern in the US intelligence community that the visa waiver program would make it easier for Israeli spies to enter into the US. Paul Pillar, the CIA’s former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia told Newsweek in this regard, “If we give them free rein to send people over here, how are we going to stop that? They [the Israelis] are incredibly aggressive. They are aggressive in all aspects of their relationship with the United States. Why would their intelligence relationship with us be any different?”
Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon also dismissed the last round of espionage reports and its effects on the visa waiver program. He said that allowing them to delay approval of the visa waiver were “inconceivable and even insulting.” What is inconceivable and even insulting, however, is that Israel would continue to conduct espionage against the country to which it owes its own existence.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.