Israel Pulse

Iran scores PR win in intelligence wars with Israel

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Article Summary
Israeli security sources admit that Iranian intelligence scored a point by recruiting former Minister Gonen Segev to spy against his country, but downplay his access to any sensitive information.

Even though Israel is a country full of minority groups and it constantly absorbs new people and sports an ethnically diverse population, it is viewed as an almost impenetrable intelligence target. To date, no foreign espionage group has ever managed to recruit a high-level Israeli figure from the ranks of the governmental elite. Israeli society is very cohesive, and the fact that the country is surrounded by hostile states and still subject to an ongoing existential threat turns any kind of treason against it into an especially treacherous option.

Anti-Israel espionage entities occasionally try to recruit a high-quality agent from a minority group, or someone in the context of an academic conference, but with little success. Thus, the fact that Gonen Segev, a former energy and infrastructure minister and member of Israel’s Security Cabinet (1995-1996), allegedly served as an Iranian agent since May 2012 constitutes a harsh slap in Israel’s face. However, no significant damage apparently was accomplished through this prestigious recruitment because Segev had been removed from Israel’s hubs of information and decision-making for more than two decades. “It is still a slap in the face,” a high-placed Israeli intelligence source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “but except for some aches and pains, no damage was done. No teeth were broken, no hemorrhage; in a few minutes, the pain will dissipate, too.”

The winds in Israel have been stormy ever since the public was notified of Segev’s arrest June 18. In the 1990s, Segev quit the Tzomet right-wing party that had brought him into the Knesset with two other Knesset members in order to allow Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to pass the Oslo II Accord (the 1995 Interim Agreement, which followed the 1993 Declaration of Principles) with a majority vote. Now the right is using that fact to further harm the legitimacy of whatever still remains of Israel’s left: A traitor elected on right-wing votes who defected to the left now betrayed his country. The fact that Segev voted against the first Oslo Accord, before his defection to the left, is hushed up. Now he has become another form of deadly ammunition in the hands of Israel’s growing right, which continues to undermine the left.

Segev, trained as a physician, was an unknown when Rafael Eitan, former chief of staff and war hero, founded the Tzomet Party that raked in eight seats in the Knesset elections of 1992. Segev’s acquaintances say that even though it was only due to Eitan that Segev became a member of the Knesset, Segev attempted to subvert his patron from the very beginning.

“Less than a year after we entered the Knesset,” a former Knesset member from Tzomet told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Segev was already walking around and telling everyone that Eitan was too old, that we needed to overthrow him and that Segev planned to replace Eitan at the top of the list.” At the time, Eitan was one of the most popular politicians in the Israeli right. He is viewed, to this very day, as one of the bravest, most highly acclaimed fighters in Israel’s modern history. “The fact that Segev, a totally anonymous fellow when he first got into the Knesset on Eitan’s back, tried to ditch the much-acclaimed Eitan almost immediately tells you what kind of person he is.” The former Knesset member continued, “His disloyalty and treachery is deep, innate and an integral part of his personality; evidently stronger than he is.” After he betrayed Eitan and defected from the right to the left, Segev was expelled from political life and later was caught trying to smuggle ecstasy drugs into Israel. He received a prison sentence, and after he did his time, he moved to Nigeria.

As far as Israel’s intelligence establishment is concerned, the Iranian glee is justified. Tehran must be given the opportunity to let out a little of their anger and frustration, considering the international humiliation they suffered when it became known that Israel’s Mossad successfully smuggled out almost the entire Iranian nuclear archive from Tehran to Tel Aviv. Yes, the Israelis admit, the recruitment of a former Cabinet minister to the Iranian side is a real achievement on Iran's part.

“I can just imagine the smile on the face of the relevant Iranian intelligence department head when one of his subordinates came to tell him of their success in recruiting a former Israeli minister,” Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy Mossad director, told Al-Monitor. Nonetheless, at this stage, only limited damage was caused by the betrayal of a man who served in Israel’s government in the 1990s. Segev has not been connected to the Israeli governmental apparatus for at least 20 years and had no real intel. He was living in the hub of a small Israeli community in Nigeria. His recruitment was, mainly, a public relations achievement. One can assume that Israel is now checking whether Segev managed to facilitate links between Iran and Israelis dealing with security activities in Africa.

Even if he was successful in making these connections, this has little potential for damage. Despite the fact that it took Israel a bit too long to uncover Segev’s treason, the higher-ups in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are now breathing a sigh of relief. “The Iranians are entitled to pat themselves on the back,” a former Mossad chief told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “They needed this achievement, and we only hope and pray that all their accomplishments will be like this one.”

Yes, the war being waged today between Israel and Iran is military, economic and intelligence-based in nature, but the focus is on intelligence. A significant proportion of the Mossad budget is funneled into anti-Iranian efforts. During the period of former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, an express directive was given to enlarge all the efforts and devote much of the budgets to the “war” against Iran and its derivatives (such as Hezbollah). This was at the expense of ongoing security work on Israel’s less-threatening fronts.

In fact, Iran has led the Israeli intelligence list for generations. By contrast, Israel is only second on Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence (MOI) list. What is fascinating here is the fact that in the past, Iranian intelligence had been a high-level, discreet and faithful partner to the Israeli Mossad in the period of the Persian shah. These two bodies recognized each other’s abilities and exchanged information. The Mossad had an important, bustling branch in Tehran, and the reverse. Now they are at war.

The Shin Bet, charged with Israel’s internal security and the foiling of espionage attempts, headed the operation to “thwart” Segev. In his case, there was no dilemma on how to react — whether to uncover him and neutralize him or try to “replicate” him (turn him into a double agent) in order to disrupt Iranian activity and make use of him. Segev’s treasonous nature meant that it would be impossible to rely on him regarding intelligence issues, thus he must be uncovered. Last week he was officially indicted on charges of “assisting an enemy during a time of war.”

In Israel, the Iranian MOI is viewed as the most significant hostile espionage organization out of all the ones faced by the Mossad. Some of the methods and cumulative professional knowledge of the MOI came from the Mossad itself in the 1970s and 1980s, the result of fruitful cooperation between the organizations. According to a high-level Israeli security source, Iran has additional espionage organizations, including an intelligence branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. “They have invested much effort in recent years to recruit Israeli HUMINT [human intelligence] agents,” a former Mossad elite told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “As far as we know, they have had only very limited success. Segev was the diamond in their crown.” Israel’s consolation is that the diamond is evidently a fake one. Pretty, but lacking real value.

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit

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