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This is a slightly expanded version of a report that ran in Middle East Eye this past Monday.  I am seeking to translate this piece into both Arabic and Hebrew.  If you can help, please be in touch:

In 2012, Israel released the longest-serving Arab security prisoner, Sedki al-Maket, from prison.  He had served 27 years on charges of planning a terror attack.  Al Maket, age 48, is a resident of Majdal Shams, the major town in Israeli-occupied Golan.

On gaining his freedom, he turned to fighting Israel’s 45-year Occupation of the Golan.  Al Maket is an ardent supporter of the Assad regime and views Syria as his homeland.  As such, he embraces Assad’s ally, Hezbollah and those supporting liberation of Israeli-occupied territory in Lebanon, the Golan or Palestine.

Since his release, he has not engaged in violence or armed struggle.  He has made speeches, written articles in the Arab press, posted to social media, and blessed armed struggle without participating in it.  In addition, the security services claim al Maket scouted IDF activities in the Golan, especially army aid offered to the Syrian Islamist rebels associated with al Nusra.

netanyahu visits syrian rebel in hospital

Netanyahu visits wounded Syrian, and likely al Nusra rebel, in Israeli hospital (Kobi Gideon GPO/Flash90)

It’s been widely reported in VICE News, the Wall Street Journal, FoxNews and Middle East Memo, that Israeli commando forces enter Syria to liaise with Syrian rebels, that the IDF provides medical treatment in Israeli hospitals for wounded Islamist rebels, and that the army supplies the rebels with crate-loads of military equipment and supplies.  IDF Brig. Gen. and current Washington Institute for Mideast Peace fellow, Michael Herzog, explicitly acknowledged in the WSJ article al Nusra affiliation with al-Qaeda.  But he attempted to turn the former into an Islamist version of the Boy Scouts:

“Nusra is a unique version of al-Qaeda.  They manage to cooperate with non-Islamist and non-jihadi organizations in one coalition.” The Nusra Front “are totally focused on the war in Syria and aren’t focused on us.”

…An unnamed military official also said there is an “understanding” between Israeli forces and al-Qaeda fighters there and that “there is a familiarity of the [al-Qaeda] forces on the ground“.

idf al nusra cooperation

Syrian rebel fighter treated at Israel-Syria fence (Press TV)

That italicized phrase in the last sentence is a euphemism for military coordination and everything else that goes on.  PressTV has published photographs of daytime meetings between the IDF and Syrian militants.  The Israeli media videotaped a camp for Syrian rebels inside Israel-held territory.

In February, after possibly being tipped off by a Druze IDF soldier who has also been charged, al Maket produced a video in which he described (without showing it) a nighttime meeting between the IDF and al Nusra commanders.  The Golani activist then arranged for the video to be aired on Syrian state TV.

That was the last straw for the Israeli security apparatus.  They could tolerate pro-Syria social media agitprop, but using the Syria media to embarrass the IDF went one bridge too far.  I reported in my blog in late February based on a confidential Israeli source, that Al Maket had been secretly arrested by the Shabak.  His arrest was placed under gag (Hebrew gag order).  Outside of Syrian media, I was the only journalist who revealed his arrest.  No Israeli media could report anything regarding the case.

Subsequently, a number of other alleged “co-conspirators” in what the Israeli media has come to call a Syrian “spy ring” were arrested.  One of them was a Druze IDF soldier, Cpl. Hilal Halaby, from Daliat al-Carmel (near Haifa).  In his case, I was the first journalist to report his arrest thanks to information conveyed to me by a confidential Israeli source, which was under gag as well.  Only in the past few days have the security services lifted this gag and reported that Halaby is being charged with aiding and abetting the ‘notorious’ pro-Assad spies.

Haaretz reported on the charges against Al-Maket.  There are scores of them, most of which involve aiding a terrorist organization, contact with an enemy agent, and aiding an enemy in time of war.  Considering that there’s been an armistice in force since 1973, it’s hard to understand how Israel is at war with Syria.

The indictment (in Hebrew) also indicates that many offenses remain secret and are not even known to al-Maket’s former attorney, Labib Habib.  But he did say that he believed these were activities which exposed IDF collusion with al Nusra.  As Israel doesn’t wish the world to know it’s collaborating with an Islamist militia allied with al Qaeda, these charges are the most embarrassing and potentially explosive.

Habib also told me that he was denied contact with his client for ten days.  During that period his interrogators tortured him.  Among the methods they used according to the defense attorney, were slaps to the face and severe shaking.  All of these methods have been prohibited by the Israeli Supreme Court except in circumstances of extreme exigency in order to prevent an imminent terror attack.  Such was not the case in al-Maket’s detention.  But that makes little difference since the Supreme Court, unlike in other democratic countries, cannot force the security forces to obey its directives.  It can only rule and hope it will be obeyed.  It often isn’t when it comes to national security suspects.

Both Syria and Iran have protested the Druze’s torture.  Though I do wish reporters like these would do more due diligence to research reporting that preceded theirs.

As I wrote above, al-Maket chose attorneys to represent him in his legal proceedings.  But the security forces chose to invoke a rarely used rule (Hebrew) that demands a security prisoner be represented only by defense attorneys with a high-level security clearance.  This demand is a feature of the military justice system.  But al Maket is a civilian, albeit not a citizen.  Instead of being judged under civilian law, he will be judged under a hybrid system of civilian-military law.  The defense minister invokes principles from military law when he needs them.

There are two problems with this approach.  The first, obviously, is that a basic right of a defendant to have counsel of his choosing.  Second, in order to get a security clearance a lawyer generally has to have served either as a military prosecutor, or in some legal capacity with the police or security services.  That means these lawyers are already inclined to offer broad leeway to their former bosses and to absorb the lessons of their previous employment.  They are known, in many cases, as being pliant in the face of the State’s demands.  Since very few Israeli Palestinians serve in the IDF, there are few such attorneys with security clearances.  This means al-Maket will have to choose a Jewish attorney who likely possesses a military or intelligence background.  Not an auspicious start to a legal defense.

maket indictment screenshot

Screenshot of al-Maket indictment (partial) document

Attorney Habib filed an appeal of the judge’s decision to compel al-Maket to hire a lawyer with a security clearance.  The appeal was scheduled to be heard by Supreme Court Justice Salim Jourbran, the only Israeli Palestinian justice serving on the High Court.  After an appeal by the State, Justice Jourbran was removed and replace by a Jewish justice.  If you’re detecting a pattern, it’s no accident.  The deck is always stacked against security prisoners in such cases.  The defense often doesn’t see the evidence against the accused and doesn’t get to cross-examine witnesses.  Judges are extraordinarily obeisant before the altar of national security.  Generally, since convictions are guaranteed, defendants agree to plea deals, which sometimes reduce the sentence by half that an outright conviction would bring.

The State prosecutor has circulated the against the detainee which includes scores of charges, though scores more remain under seal and may not be reported in Israel.  I’ve obtained a copy of the partial charge sheet.  He’s accused, beginning in 2014, of acts of espionage, supporting a terror organization, making contact with a foreign agent, and aiding an enemy in time of war.

There are a number of extraordinary things about the indictment.  Perhaps foremost is his espionage consists mostly of posting comments and videos to Facebook and YouTube.  Al Maket may be the first individual accused of spying through social media.  Along with a description of the content of the posts, the clerks in the Shabak or prosecutor’s office have taken the trouble to compile the number of Likes, Shares and YouTube Clicks his posts obtained.  Does Shabak measure a spy’s success by the number of Likes he has?

In addition, I’m confused about why a spy, whose activities presumably are meant to be secret, would make use of a very public form of communication: social media.  Or is Israeli intelligence accusing Syria and al-Maket of innovating new forms of espionage previously unknown?

The prosecution accuses the pro-Syria Druze of posting material he knew would aid Syria.  But if this is true and it did aid the enemy, why did the Shabak allow him to continue with such activities for over a year?  Why is his Facebook account still publicly accessible?  Presumably, if al-Maket’s activity endangered Israeli security it could make a reasonable case to Facebook to close it.  Apparently, it either hasn’t approached Facebook; or if it has, it couldn’t persuade the company of the danger.  If it couldn’t persuade Mark Zuckerberg, why should it persuade the Israeli public?

If al-Maket is truly a Facebook spy, he had about as much success as Anna Chapman.  Rather, he was much less a spy and much more a deliberate irritant of the Israeli security services.  Israel is one of the few nations calling itself a democracy that imprisons enemies of the State merely for irritating the country’s intelligence apparatus.

The IDF itself has not been shy about exploiting social media to convey its message to the world.  It even used Twitter instead of the convention press statement to announce the start of Operation Pillar of Defense and to boast about the assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari.  If Israelis can boast about murdering Palestinian leaders why can’t a man oppose Israel Occupation of his homeland on Facebook?

Foreign journalists too, reporting from the Golan, have published stories similar to al-Maket’s.  FoxNews even filmed an Israeli commando unit returning from a field operation inside Syria.  According to a confidential Israeli source, they were rallying Syrian Druze to fight against the Assad regime.  Since FoxNews, like Israeli media, is subject to IDF censorship, we can assume this report was approved by the military.  If a foreign journalist can report this, then why can’t a Golani Druze?

Many of the charges note that the Druze activist often toured the Golan area near the armistice-line between Israel and Syria and then posted to Facebook the results of his trips.  He recounts seeing IDF military personnel leaving crates on the border for delivery to al Nusra militants.  One charge notes that al Maket found several gates in the fence which were unlocked presumably to allow access either for the IDF into Syria or the Syrian rebels into the Israeli-held Golan.  In effect, al-Maket is revealing lapses in Israeli security on the border to Israel’s security services, who were monitoring his Facebook postings.

The prosecution manages to twist this activity into scouting weaknesses in Israeli security which would allow a Syrian terrorist to infiltrate Israel and attack.  To my knowledge, no Syrian has ever infiltrated Israel to commit an act of terror since before the 1967 War.  Why a Syrian dictator fighting for his life against domestic rebels would want to take the trouble to open a new front against Israel is hard to explain.

Another charge claims that the Golani Druze posted pictures of burning IDF vehicles hit by Hezbollah rocket fire.  Two soldiers were killed in the attack, which was in retaliation for Israel’s air attack on an Iranian convoy days earlier which killed an Iranian general and Hezbollah commanders.  The prosecutor says that al-Maket’s display of the burning vehicles and his support for the retaliation against the IDF are tantamount to incitement to terror.   Supposedly, social media postings encourage new acts of violence.  This may be one of the first times someone has been accused of fomenting terrorism for posting a picture online.

Nowhere in the indictment does the State argue that al-Maket engaged in violence or took up armed struggle.  He merely voiced support for resistance to Israeli-Occupation of the Golan and Palestine.  While it is true that he praised armed struggle, including the forces of Bashar al Assad and Hezbollah, he never engaged in any act remotely connected to it.  He didn’t plan a terror attack, he didn’t meet with anyone planning such an attack.

The defendant faces decades in prison on these charges.  There is little chance he will be found innocent.  The only unknown is–will he cut a deal with the State offering a “reduced sentence” of a decade in jail or go to trial and face a sentence of multiple decades. Most take the deal.

Israeli Jews would, if they were smart, worry about the precedent this arrest sets.  If al-Maket can be jailed for social media activism, anyone can be charged for reporting on Facebook virtually anything about the IDF or security services which they prefer remain secret.  Of course, there’s a distinction between Jews and non-Jews and Jewish citizens would likely be treated with more discretion.

Al Maket and his fellow Golani Druze find themselves in an awkward position.  Like East Jerusalem, they have been annexed by Israel in violation of international law.  And also like Palestinians from East Jerusalem, they’ve refused to take Israeli citizenship in protest of Israel’s Occupation.  Because they are not citizens, they have less rights under Israeli law.  Yet the idea of resistance to Israeli conquest and Occupation is no less important to them.  If they do protest, even non-violently as in the case of al-Maket, they face torture, conviction and decades separated from loved ones in an Israeli prison.

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Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reports that Israel plans to destroy the recently completely Iran nuclear framework by pursuing two tracks.  On the first, it will propose unrealistic and previously rejected demands for “improvement,” which allow opponents to slam the deal for its alleged flaws.  Examples of this are Israeli “suggestions” that the plan include closing the Fordo research facility completely (something the Americans proposed to the Iranians, who summarily rejected it).  Another example is the demand that a deal include recognition of Israel and that it compel Iran to end its support for Hezbollah, Syria, and any other regional power it currently supports.

The second, equally troubling track, is one lobbying for Congressional legislation intended to destroy any chance the nuclear deal can be finalized.  Israel will put forth a full-court press for the Corker bill, which it hopes will place so many stumbling blocks in the way of finalizing an agreement, that it will die a slow and painful death.  If Israel truly wanted to do that it should support Sen. Mark Kirk’s bill, which truly can kill the deal, but which has received no bipartisan support from Democrats.  As an aside, Kirk just compared the deal to appeasement of the Nazis.  But he added that Neville Chamberlain got more from Hitler than the U.S. got from Iran.

Netanyahu may not realize that the Corker legislation, especially after being amended, could pave the way to final approval of the deal by the entire Senate.  If there is horsetrading for votes, as there always is, Democrats agreeing to approve Corker might actually guarantee later Republicans votes for a resolution approving the agreement.  But even if this doesn’t happen and Corker passes, and prospects appear grim for Senate passage of a final deal, the U.S. could bring the deal to the UN Security Council for approval.  There it would sail through since no one would oppose it: all the five powers included in the P5+1 are Security Council members.  This would be one UNSC resolution that Obama wouldn’t veto on Israel’s behalf: what a change!

Then, the Senate could refuse to lift sanctions, but what good would they be if everyone else in the world was trading with Iran except us?  Eventually, U.S. business interests would force the Senate to relent.

Gideon Levy noted a deeply troubling aspect of the second Israeli “track.”  Can you imagine the U.S. government and wealthy Obama donors inveigling legislators in Germany, Britain or France to pass laws which would torpedo a major plank of the sitting president, chancellor or prime minister?  Can you imagine these donors contributing millions of dollars to the campaign coffers of such lawmakers in an attempt to frustrate the designs of the ruling coalition?  If Obama were supid enough to try this on David Cameron, Francois Hollande or Angela Merkel, they would give him a tongue-lashing.  Then they’d proudly tell their own citizens how they’d stood up to outside foreign intervention in the affairs of their country.  And the citizens would beam with pride in their independent leaders, who stood up to the American bully.

For some reason, Americans aren’t as outraged as Levy would like them to be.  Partly, this is because Obama is playing this game coolly and deliberately.  He understands that if he overreacts it will offer the Israel Lobby an opening to exploit.  He understands there’s a difference between scoring points and winning.  He doesn’t want to win a skirmish or make a point or stand up for his honor, he wants a deal.  To get it, he’s prepared to bide his time, suffer a few outrageous slings, and bask in the glory of final victory.

I’m not as alarmed as Levy is in his column.  I don’t believe Obama is being played by Netanyahu (though not for lack of trying) or that the U.S. president is being made to look like a fool.  On the contrary, the White House tweet above shows that it’s hoisting Bibi on his own petard. Clearly, the graphic is a jab at Bibi’s UN speech prop, which featured an Iranian bomb that came straight out of a Wile E. Coyote-Roadrunner cartoon.

True, for six years Obama stood by and allowed the Israeli prime minister to run roughshod over him.  But when it comes to Iran, the president has made clear this is a red-line Bibi will not cross.  Obama and Kerry outplayed Bibi in the process leading to the nuclear framework negotiated in Lausanne.  They left him with no cards to play.  In the coming months, they will continue to outmaneuver him until June 30th, when a final deal is expected.

That does not mean that I’m not deeply critical of Obama’s failures regarding an Israel-Palestine deal.  These were egregious.  But regarding the Iran nuclear deal, he’s pursuing the right tactics and strategy and I expect him to outsmart Bibi and leave him empty-handed at day’s end.  Unfortunately, that will not lead to a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.  That’s a bridge too far for Obama and will be a stain on his legacy.

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I’ll tell you something that no Israeli will ever read or watch currently in their domestic media: the favored candidate to succeed Yoram Cohen as the next Shin Bet chief is former settler, Roni Alsheikh (trade nickname, “The Fox”).  Officers and agents of Israeli intelligence agencies aren’t named publicly.  This is the only media source which has named him (and a number of other previous directors-to-be as well).  Alsheikh is Orthodox and from Mizrahi ethnic background.  Those aren’t the usual origins of most former Shabak directors.  Haaretz’s Sefi Rachlevsky said about him that he makes Col. Ofer Winter, the Butcher of Khuza’a, “look quite moderate.”  He also called the Shabak official “messianic.”

Israeli intelligence bosses usually serve a single five-year term, which may be renewed for another year.  I’m not certain why Cohen won’t be serving an extension.  It could be because he hasn’t found favor in the eyes of Sara Netanyahu, who scuttled the candidacy of the leading candidate last time around, Yitzhak Ilan.  That led to Cohen.  Whatever the reason, it’s well-known in media circles that Alsheikh is favored to get the top job this time.

yaakov peri

Former Shabak chief and current MK, Yaakov Peri (Nimrod Saunders)

That hasn’t stopped agency insiders and former insiders from lobbying for their own candidates and interests.  Yesterday, Walla! published a breathless “scoop” (Hebrew) claiming to detail the secret goings-on in Shabak’s fight against terror.  In reality, it was an interview with former Shin Bet chief, Yaakov Peri, who is an MK from the center-right, Yesh Atid.  Either he wanted to make known is distaste for Alsheikh; or to weigh in with his opinion that the next head of the Shin Bet should be a former field agent (as Peri and all previous directors have been) and not a former interrogator (as Alsheikh is).  In the intelligence hierarchy (both the Mossad and Shin Bet) the glory goes to the field operatives: the ones recruiting and running agents in hostile environments, which offer the gravest dangers and risks.  Naturally, those who’ve served in such capacity take umbrage when those they believe aren’t worthy get recognition and the top job.

But before getting to the real point of the interview, to lay down his markers in the fight over the next agency chief, he has to tell a few war stories about his covert ops.  These are the stories guys tell of the fish that got away; or that they brag about if they caught it.  Except in this case, they’re bragging about their skill at murdering Palestinian militants.  This type of story is quite common and I’ve been reading them for years.  Sometimes the interviewee is anonymous if he’s a current minister or official; and sometimes he’s identified, as is Peri in this story.

Readers should keep in mind, as with much reporting on Israeli national security matters, that they’re only hearing one side.  They’re hearing Peri tell us about the multiple terror acts which his victims supposedly perpetrated.  But the reporter asks for no proof, nor is he offered any.  In Israel, the security forces are gods.  They are always taken at their word.  For example, you will almost never see the word “alleged” used in news reports about security arrests or targeted killings.  The victims are always unqualified terrorists, their guilt presumed merely from the word of the Shabak.

Returning to Peri’s lobbying against Alsheikh, you’ll see it couched carefully in this passage:

Past Shabak field agents have tried to identify the common denominator for the role, from which arise many future agency chiefs: the field operative must be humble, possess a sensitive type of intelligence, be ethical, and able deal with great mental burdens, and act under pressure, but also be skeptical, and able to engage in quick analysis.

Former Shabak field agents speak consistently about the ethical aspect and professional integrity concerning human life–of both the Israeli civilians whom they protect and the spies they “run” in the field.  The ethical dilemmas are quite complicated and unending.  That’s why former Shabak chiefs claim the Shabak Law [which is supposed to govern how the agency operates and limits to its behavior], which details clear rules of conduct and detailed guidelines, is much more than a compass which points out the various powers which the field agent has at his disposal to stop terror attacks.

Even in extreme moments during which the agent much make critical decisions, not everything is permitted.  Restraint of power is a concept heard a great deal during the training of field agents…

That Peri’s account is self-serving and flattering to himself and the agency is beyond question.  Among other things, the reporter says that the field agent must never use violence against his spies,  but rather his relationship must always be based on “personal connection.”  The agent must also not only speak Arabic fluently and recite the Koran by heart, he must “see the beauty” in Islam.  All this while planning to murder its adherents.  Do you get the impression that these people must either harbor split personalities or be masters of duplicity or self-deception?  But it’s one thing to lie to oneself; it’s quite another to lie to an entire nation and have its citizens take you at your word as a man of honor.

In a subsequent passage, Peri describes the coordinated effort the Shabak makes among professionals with varied skill sets all working together to combat terror.  If you read carefully, there’s one prominent Shabak unit omitted:

Shabak rests on the broad shoulders of field agents, whose decisions and assessments hold great weight in combating terror.  The agent is engaged in recruiting and running spies and composing a full picture built from many pieces.  But the agent isn’t alone in the work of amassing intelligence.  Alongside him toil the special operations officers and SIGINT, who can gather vital intelligence from telephone calls, text messages, photographs, chat messages, and e-mail.   At headquarters there are also desk officers who centralize the information and aid in building the intelligence puzzle.

Yes, you guessed it.  There are no interrogators in this world.  No one does the dirty work of breaking down prisoners, tearing them limb from limb.  Of course, the omission is deliberate and the insult intentional.

But there may be another point Peri is trying to make.  Relatively speaking, field agents have “cleaner hands” than interrogators.  By emphasizing the ethical component, and limitations on torture and cruelty, Peri may be implying that interrogators like Alsheikh have dirty hands which shouldn’t be running the ship.

According to a confidential Israeli security source, Alsheikh, who is currently deputy Shabak chief, and “Netzer,” who is the chief of interrogations, are livid at this article.  They see it as part of a political campaign by Shabak insiders and ex-insiders, mostly Ashkenazi, secular and more liberal politically (though in today’s Israeli political climate, that term is relative), to derail Alsheikh’s candidacy.

As for me, I don’t know which is worse: having the guy who recruits Palestinian agents through threats or blackmail be the boss; or the guy who tears a suspect’s nails out and shakes him till his brain pan rattles in his skull.

Peri’s influence in the appointment process is questionable.  He’s not a government minister and his party will likely not participate in the next governing coalition.  But as part of the jockeying for influence among the political elites, this makes for interesting tea-leaf reading.

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During the Iran nuclear talks in Lausanne, Trita Parsi tweeted that Bibi sees “peace as an existential threat.” It’s unclear whether he sees it as an existential threat to his political career, to Israel, or both.

His statements since the framework agreement came a few days ago have been increasingly shrill, unpersuasive, and desperate.  He went on every U.S. Sunday political talk show that would have him (three, to be exact) trumpeting his disdain and dissatisfaction.  However, his objections, which had been increasingly sidelined in the days running up the deal’s announcement, now appear irrelevant: the U.S. has gotten many of the Iranian concessions it sought (though not the ones Israel sought) in terms of restraining its nuclear program.  These are terms that most reasonable observers agree go a considerable distance to responding to Israeli concerns.  Even Israeli moderates like the nation’s most popular columnist, Nahum Barnea, and the former Mossad chief, Efraim Halevy, say the deal is far better than they thought and one Israel should be able to live with.  No less a pro-Israel advocate than Dianne Feinstein, has abandoned the good ship, U.S.S. Lobby and told Bibi to “contain himself” and learn to live within his limits (to his surprise, undoubtedly, as he didn’t imagine he had any).

Now that Bibi understands he’s lost this round, he’s prepared a new series of demands for the next round of negotiations which will lead to a June 30th final deal.  The demands range from the detailed and technical, to the global and outrageous.  As for the latter, Bibi decided his ploy of demanding Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state worked so well in torpedoing the last set of Israel-Palestine peace talks, that he decided to introduce a version into the Iran talks.  Iran should be made to recognize Israel as part of the agreement.

It doesn’t matter to Bibi that this is a nuclear agreement and not one that tackles historic diplomatic issues going back to 1979.  That’s irrelevant.  Nor does Bibi care that Israel not only doesn’t recognize Iran, but it’s confiscated a joint Israel-Iran oil pipeline worth $1-billion.  And despite repeated legal defeats in the courts, it’s refused to pay up or settle.  Further, Israel has a set of draconian sanctions against Iran in place (sanctions it routinely violates, by the way).  You’d think if Bibi truly wanted Iranian recognition he’d show it by removing them.

But hey, Bibi, don’t let anything as inconvenient as facts or reason get in your way.

Nor is he satisfied with stopping at this single demand.  He also, according to FoxNews, wants to:

…Require Iran to stop its aggression in the region, its terror worldwide, and its calls and actions to annihilate the state of Israel.

In other words, he wants Iran to turn into a nice, little teddy bear; a compliant place which will no longer offer resistance to Israeli efforts to impose its own will on the region.  Bibi wants to accomplish through this deal what he hasn’t been able to accomplish on the regional battlefields of Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza.  Sorry fella, that’s not how the rules work.  If you can’t impose your will on the battlefield and alienate the only ally who can further your interests at the negotiating table, you don’t get your way by trying to come through the back door.

Not to mention that Iran and many states in the region believe it is Israel that is the primary aggressor in the region; that Israeli terror poses a major danger; and that Israel is the one seeking to annihilate the Iranian regime, if not Iran itself.  Note that several “serious” Israeli or pro-Israel “analysts” have suggested attacking Iran with nuclear weapons.  One of them, Sheldon Adelson, will likely spent $200-million in the next election cycle to elect a president who would be willing to do precisely that.

Among the technical demands Israel is now advocating are the end of any advanced centrifuge use and closing of the Fordo advanced nuclear site.  The deal agreed to last week placed significant constraints in each of these areas, but that doesn’t satisfy Bibi.

chuck schumer

Chuck Schumer, NOT Obama’s man in the Senate

Netanyahu has other irons in the fire.  In the Senate, several anti-deal bills are making their way through committee.  The one with most Democratic support is by GOP Sen. Bob Corker.  It calls for Senate approval of the final Iran agreement before sanctions against Iran will be lifted.  It’s not clear what would happen to the agreement if the Senate rejects it.  The hawks and GOP believe it will doom it.  The President doesn’t trust the Senate and has spoken out against the proposed legislation.

Corker is a high-stakes gamble for Obama.  He could go ahead with the deal even if it fails to pass Congress.  But a defeat there might seal the deal’s fate.  If the president does acquiesce to Corker and a vote on the deal, he has to trust Senators like Chuck Schumer, one of the Lobby’s savviest and most obliging figures.  The ever-ambitious Schumer wants to replace Harry Reid as the next Minority Leader.   His thinking on the deal is opaque: will he do Bibi’s bidding and try to sink the bill, doing so artfully so his fingers aren’t on the deed?  Or will he stick with his president and advance his agenda by shepherding a deal through the Senate?  One thing is for certain, Schumer just joined 12 other Democrats as co-sponsors on the Corker bill.  He did this in defiance of Pres. Obama.

Despite Bibi’s protests to the contrary, he doesn’t want a “better deal.” He wants a dead deal.  These new demands are dust thrown in the eyes of the world hoping it will blind them to the prospect for a resolution of decades-long conflict over Iran’s nuclear program.  The world must not let him do it.  It must say, as Obama is surely saying right now: no, you had your chance.  You could’ve been inside the tent participating in the process.  But you wanted to do things your way.  To grandstand and curry favor with your pals in the GOP.  Now, suffer the consequences.

There are also deeper motivations for the Israeli leader’s behavior.  He’s not only afraid of Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions.  He’s afraid of Iran as a powerful regional competitor.  Not just a military or political competitor, but a commercial one as well.  Along with Turkey, it poses the gravest threat to Israeli interests.

Israel for decades has been able exploit differences among the Arab and Muslim states.  Either the differences were ethnic and religious (the Sunni-Shia split); or they were political (between authoritarian and populist political systems during the Arab Spring).  Either way, Israel managed to wend its way among all the conflicting forces which might sabotage its interests.  It managed to split its enemies and to defang whatever power they might have to resist Israeli interests.

A rapprochement between Iran and the west sets up that country as a rising power in the region.  One that could become Israel’s most formidable rival either on the battlefield, at the negotiating table, or in the marketplace.

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Bibi: Iran Nuclear Talks Part of New “Axis of Evil”

boehner netanyahu

This is either the next GOP presidential ticket or Iran’s version of the axis of evil. (Debbie Hill)

The Iran nuclear talks remain in suspended animation as the original deadline for their completion passed on Tuesday and they’re now moving into Thursday.  It’s hard to tell whether they’ve been extended because the participants see a real possibility of reaching an understanding or because they’re playing a game of chicken to see who blinks first.

The Iranians understand that the U.S. team is under great pressure because it faces a snarling GOP and Israel Lobby ready to pounce whether or not an agreement is reached.  The Obama administration will be especially vulnerable if Kerry returns home with no agreement whatsoever.  Then the pressure will be on in Congress to redouble Iran sanctions.  This in turn will alienate the Iranians and make a future agreement that much less likely.   All this is music to the ears of the U.S. hawks and Israel.  As Trita Parsi, who is at the talks on behalf of the National Iranian American Council, wrote: the greatest existential threat facing Bibi is peace.

Though the Iranians may understand the U.S. plight, they see no reason to aid Obama in his hour of need.  After all, they want a deal that reflects their interests so that they can sell it, in turn, to their own hardliners.  So the Iranian team probably feels it can’t afford sympathy for the Americans.  No one ever said you had to throw your opponent a life preserver as he flails in the water.

Bibi Netanyahu has been yammering the past few days about the talks and his statements have been weird, wild and wonderful (in the ironic sense of the term).  I bring this up both because it’s entertaining in a dark, ghoulish sort of way and because it offers a portal into the mind of a bizarre political animal.  Here’s how Ynet characterized his statement at a cabinet meeting:

“After the Beirut-Damascus-Baghdad axis, Iran is carrying out a pincers movement in the south [Yemen] as well in order to take over and conquer the entire Middle East. The Iran-Lausanne-Yemen axis is very dangerous for humanity and needs to be stopped,” he said, drawing a line between Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the actions of the Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Bibi, who loves bombast and overstatement as much as he loves himself, is never one to make due with saying something once and leaving it at that.  So he evokes Bush’s hoary “axis of evil” not once, but twice in the above passage.  At first, it’s the Beirut-Damascus-Baghdad axis: meaning Hezbollah, Assad, and Iraq’s Shiite militias.  All presumably take orders directly from Iran and are part of a massive conspiracy to control the world, er the Middle East.  Note, Bibi has conveniently left off any mention of al Qaeda or ISIS, the latter of which has its own far more overtly expressed ambition of conquering the region (in order to install a Sunni caliphate).  Besides the fact that ISIS and al Qaeda are Sunni and therefore can’t be an Iranian ally, it would be awfully inconvenient to blacken the reputation of a Muslim force (al Nusra) with which Israel is actually allied in Syria.

The second axis is, if it’s possible, even more dipsy.  I get that Iran is supposedly arming the Houthi rebels, so the Iran-Yemen connection at least makes sense in Bibi’s crazy world-view.  But “Lausanne?”  The nuclear talks are part of an axis of evil?  Actual negotiations aimed to control Iran’s nuclear development and delay or prevent proliferation have become “evil” in themselves.  That goes far beyond anything I’ve heard from the mind of Bibi (and I’ve heard a lot!).

The minds of most politicians seek to find historical parallels that bolster their political agenda.  So Bibi is like any other one of his class.  But the difference is that his mind manages to twist the evidence he offers into bizarre, unrecognizable shapes.  If I were a psychiatrist (I’m not) I might even say these are the expressions of a pathological, even megalomaniacal mind.

All this only serves to confirm that Netanyahu is completely shut out of the talks.  He’s flying blind except for intelligence his own Mossad can gather from the sorts of spying it did earlier on in the talks.  But the CIA and State Department are no longer providing any briefings.  Bibi has been shut out of the game.  He played his cards in Washington when he went for broke in his Congressional address.  But the bet didn’t pan out.  This may change if an agreement fails.  But so far, it’s not looking good, as there is too much riding on too many parties for the talks to fail.

Since Bibi himself yoked together the civil wars in both Syria and Yemen, this got me to thinking that there are indeed parallels worth noting.  First, the Middle East has, for millennia, been a region in which great powers have clashed while making extensive use of local proxies.  The Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans all clashed with their enemies in this manner.  So the current round of bloodletting is nothing new.

In Syria, Shiites have banded together to preserve the rule of Bashar al-Assad.  They include Hezbollah and Iran.  They fight against a motley crew of Sunni extremists largely associated with ISIS and al Qaeda.  They are funded and armed by Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.  Israel too has thrown in its lot with the Sunni Islamists, largely because its sworn enemies are both Hezbollah and Iran.

In Yemen, a similar pattern repeats itself.  The Houthi rebels who amount to 30% of the population and are situated mostly in the north of the country, have mounted a rebellion against Sunni forces based largely in the south.  A wild card in the midst of this has been al Qaeda which, though Sunni, has not supported either side.  Iran has entered the fray on behalf of the Houthis.  As their rebellion gathered force and rolled over significant swatches of territory, Yemen’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia, determined to intervene.

Saudi Arabia has escalated the conflict and turned it into a regional nightmare.  Instead of internal forces fighting each other, you now have outside major regional powers like the Saudis and Iranians entering the fray.  They each have chips on their shoulders and something to prove.  Both are willing to fight to the last drop of their proxies’ blood.

If this pattern sounds familiar it’s because you’ve also seen it in the manner in which Israel has fought its battles with its front-line neighboring states.  In both Lebanon and Syria, Israel created new proxies (Hamas, South Lebanon army) or used existing ones (al Nusra) to battle its real enemies: in Lebanon first the PLO, then Hezbollah; and in Syria, Hezbollah and Iran.

Is there no sane strategic analyst to say to all of these parties practicing a form of pathological, homicidal mania, that this age-old system doesn’t work?  You can try to beat your enemy to a pulp.  But in the process you yourself will be beaten to a pulp.  The greater powers funding this mayhem only care about their own grander designs.  They don’t care if you two little guys kill each other.  Someone ought to put a stop to this.  But until they do, the endless cycle of bloodletting continues.

Returning to Netanyahu’s maundering about Iran, you can see why Obama has finally grown tired of it all and developed a spine (though too late to have any real significance for negotiating a real peace deal).  The American people seem to be getting it too.  Two interesting polls have been released this week.  In the first, a Pew survey regarding Iran and related matters, Netanyahu’s favorable ratings among Americans dropped seven points (from 38% to 31%) in the past month.  Note that the survey headline and subheading are wrong in saying Bibi’s favorables have remained unchanged, an error I find bizarre in such a reputable polling organization.  Nearly 30% of Americans now say they have “little” or “no” sympathy for Israel.  The number having no sympathy for Israel has risen by 12 points since August.

Pew also finds that a plurality (49% to 40%) support the current nuclear negotiations.

The second poll was conducted for Washington Post and CBS News.  It finds that almost 60% of Americans support a nuclear deal either strongly or somewhat.  I presume the differences in results in the two polls on this question results from differing questions asked of respondents.

Support for a two-state solution has declined considerably: 39% support it while 36% don’t.  44% disapprove of the way Netanyahu is conducting relations with the U.S. (37% approve).

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As the deadline looms for the P5+1 nations to achieve a framework for a nuclear deal with Iran, the steady drumbeat of hostile coverage directed at Iran in the media increases.  Jim White at Empty Wheel, in two good posts, noted a tendentious Washington Post op-ed by Ray Tayekh, Michael Hayden, and Ollie Heinonen, along with a separate piece by perennial NY Times Iran doomsayer, David Sanger.

Regarding the Post op-ed, everyone knows about Michael Hayden’s role as a holdover spook from the Bush administration, who ran both the NSA and CIA during that period.  He also is a partner in the Chertoff Group, founded by Bush’s Homeland Security czar, Michael Chertoff.

Ray Tayekh, though he served in the Obama administration for a time and is Iranian-American, has chosen to throw in his lot with the Iranophobes.   According to Nima Shirazi, he is a founding member of the Iran Strategy Task Force, whose avowed mission was to pressure the Obama administration to adopt a tougher approach to Iran.  ISTF includes the neocon Freedom House as its co-founding sponsor, and individual members like Josh Block of The Israel Project and Rob Satloff of WINEP.  Tayekh is also a member of another Iran committee founded by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, one of the leading hawkish, pro-Israel security outfits in DC.

Olli Heinonen’s main claim to fame is his post as ex-deputy director of the IAEA.  This international organization tasked with monitoring nuclear proliferation around the globe has had a love-hate relationship with Iran.  Some of its personnel, including exceedingly pro-Israel analysts like David Albright, have sometimes espoused talking points that could’ve been written for them by the Mossad.  Though the IAEA’s reports are usually carefully couched in language that isn’t nearly as provocative or propagandistic.  Curiously, some IAEA reports are based on supposedly anonymous intelligence offered to them by unnamed intelligence agencies.  Upon closer examination, the information seems tailor-made to advance Israeli interests in scaring the world about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Many observers see the hand of the Mossad in such intelligence leaks.  Heinonen is one of those I was speaking about above.

In their Post op-ed, none of these important ideological affiliations were noted.  The only credits offered were for their most white bread involvements with groups like the Council on Foreign Policy (Tayekh), IAEA (Heinonen), and Bush administration (Hayden).  Just as doctors now must disclose their financial arrangements with drug companies when they publish research in journals, so op-ed writers and newspapers should acknowledge all associations having strong ideological tendencies (whether they are right or left-wing).  This allows readers to judge for themselves how much credibility to attach to the writers views.

In his post-IAEA career, Heinonen adopted an exceedingly hawkish profile.  One of his key roles has been as a board member of the notorious United Against a Nuclear Iran.  This is an anti-Iran lobbying group largely funded by Sheldon Adelson, who’s advocated bombing Iran.   UANI’s mission has been to exploit anonymous intelligence data provided to it by unnamed sources which pressure corporations and business executives not to engage in commercial dealings with Iran.  Except that UANI has run its operations a bit like Joe McCarthy.  It often resorts to blackmail and extortion in its dealings with alleged offenders.

One such person it confronted, Victor Restis, called UANI’s bluff.  He responded to threats by not only denying any dealings with Iran, he sued for defamation.  Among his claims was that UANI co-founder and Bush operative, Mark Wallace, is also the CEO of an investment firm founded by Thomas Kaplan.  Kaplan’s wife is a major investor in a shipping company that competes with Mr. Restis.  There was an intimation that UANI’s efforts against Restis were either a shakedown, or a way to hurt his business to the benefit of Kaplan’s wife’s company.

Restis’ case had sailed through federal courts until the Obama administration, fearing the exposure of CIA-Mossad collusion along with deliberate leaks of secret intelligence material to UANI, stopped the case dead in its tracks.  Noah Feldman notes the political peculiarities of this case and why it posed such a nest of vipers to the Obama administration.

White notes that in Sanger’s NYT piece he relies on two of three above-mentioned Horsemen of the Anti-Iran Apocalypse, Tayekh and Heinonen, with that other independent nuclear proliferation expert, John Boehner, thrown in for good measure.  The House Speaker is jetting his way as we speak to the Holy Land to commune with another Iran nuclear expert, Bibi Netanyahu.  The latter, by the way, has been entirely frozen out of the nuclear talks by a suspicious Obama administration, which has noted Israeli espionage against U.S. diplomats negotiating with the Iranians.

This passage in Empty Wheel is especially pungent and noteworthy:

It is impossible for me to escape the conclusion that Olli Heinonen and Ray Takeyh are part of an organized propaganda campaign aimed at disrupting the P5+1 talks and preventing an agreement. This propaganda is eagerly published by a compliant press, with the New York Times, Washington Post and AP among the most recent examples I have noted.

I have little doubt that all of these analysts and journalists mentioned above are being inundated with reports and talking points by Israeli figures: some transparent like Israeli diplomats and some less so.  Israeli intelligence appraisals (probably emanating directly from the prime minister himself, since his spymasters tend to be much less hawkish on Iran than he is) are finding their way into their inboxes as well, I am certain.

My association with Shamai Leibowitz allowed me to expose a precursor of this anti-Iran effort in this perception management operation.  In one case I wrote about, Israel’s deputy ambassador, Jeremy Issacharoff actually ghost-wrote a Boston Herald op-ed for local Jewish communal leader, Jeff Robbins.  He also happened to be a partner in Cameron Kerry’s (John Kerry’s brother) powerful Boston law firm.  The Boston Kerry is a key supporter of Aipac and the Israel Lobby.

churchill netanyahu

Bibi and Churchill’s ghost

You can be damn sure all the hasbara wheels are turning morning, noon, and night in an effort to blunt any narrative the Obama administration might offer to promote a nuclear deal.  If the current talks fail, the hasbarafia will cheer.  If they succeed, the pressure will only mount against the agreement.

Adelson protege, Shmuley Boteach, published yet another NY Times full-page ad exhorting Obama not to be Neville Chamberlain, but rather Winston Churchill in standing up to Iran.  Presumably, Boteach and Adelson have in mind marching like the WWII prime minister to war against another existential Nazi-like foe of humanity, Iran.  The choice of Churchill is a loaded one, of course.  It’s Bibi Netanyahu’s inspiration.  Someone he quotes regularly when he wants to add gravitas and historical cachet to his speeches.  Since Churchill has almost no resonance in a contemporary context, my strong suspicion is that Churchill was a hero of Netanyahu’s father, the noted historian Ben Zion Netanyahu (ne Milikowski).

It seems to have slipped the minds of Boteach and Netanyahu that Churchill led the world through the most lethal war in the history of humanity.  Is this the historical model that the world wishes to hold up for itself in the present era?  Do we want to fight the Battle of Gog and Magog again?  Or do we choose different models?  The answer, of course, is that Churchill was a hero for a different era, one that is not relevant to today.  Unless of course, you seek or anticipate world conflagration, which most of the rest of us don’t.

Finally, Time Magazine has published a truly puerile piece of anti-Iran propaganda by Rabbi David Wolpe, the leader of a wealthy westside Los Angeles synagogue.  Wolpe’s piece trots out the hoary old anti-Iran trope, Purim:

Purim recalls the efforts of a Persian anti-Semite to kill the Jews. Sound familiar?

This is a time to remind ourselves of the power of irrationality. Perhaps many Americans, as exemplified by the Barack Obama administration, do not understand a certain darkness in the soul. Let me explain.

No, rabbi, I think we get the point.  Wolpe trots out another smear based on fakery, the “wipe Israel off the map” meme.  He takes his argument through various twists and turns leading to the ultimate grail of pro-Israel hasbara: anti-Semitism.  In this passage, he implicitly accuses Iran’s leaders of holding the most noxious views:

That same person will also believe, in the face of all evidence, that Jews control the banks, or that the Mossad brought down the towers on 9/11, or that the Holocaust was a fraud, or that every depredation and misfortune that that person, or their people, has suffered is somehow the fault of the Jews. And if only the world would be rid of Israel, then the Sunni and Shiite would lie together as the biblical lion and lamb.

It doesn’t seem to matter either to Wolpe or Time’s editors that none of Iran’s leaders, and especially not Pres. Rouhani, believe any of these things.  It seems the good rabbi is hoping readers will forget that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hasn’t been Iran’s president for a few years now.

Next, Wolpe wins the daily double of Holocaust hysteria, yoking Auschwitz with Hiroshima:

An Iranian bomb combines the two great taboos of the 20th century, Auschwitz and Hiroshima. It is a nuclear bomb in service of destroying the Jewish people.

He didn’t originate this concept.  I first read it from Shimon Peres who called an Iranian bomb a “flying Holocaust.”  In Wolpe’s usage, he builds his argument on a number of empty fallacies.  First, Iran doesn’t have a bomb nor has it expressed any interest in getting one.  Second, Iran’s current leaders have never expressed any intent to drop a nuclear weapon on Israel nor to exterminate Israel or the Jewish people.  Third, there is a terrible conflation of Israel and Jews, a lazy, hazy trope Wolpe adopts.  Israel is not the Jewish people and the Jewish people is not Israel.

Further, Wolpe of course ignores the rank hatred spewed against Iran by Israeli leaders like Netanyahu and Wolpe himself.  Hawkish intellectuals like Benny Morris and Joshua Muravchik have both advocated bombing Iran, even with nuclear weapons, on the op-ed pages of the NY Times and Los Angeles. There is no lack of firebrands on both sides of this argument, a fact that neither one should forget.

He concludes his diatribe with this shocker:

We are about to strike a deal with people who harbor an implacable hatred. Iran may seek leverage for all sorts of…hegemonic goals as well. As long as the current regime holds power, however, there is one unwavering, non-negotiable goal. And unlike the sunshine of reason, deep hatreds are patient.

In his essay, Wolpe has exposed one thing very powerfully: his deep, irrational hatred of Iran.  His rant is devoid of truth or accuracy.  It has no basis in fact or in the historical record.  It is precisely this sort of seething hostility which will lead us down the path to war.  It is precisely this sort of frothing at the mouth that must be countered at every opportunity.  I wrote about another American rabbi, Daniel Weiner, who shares the same almost homicidal animus toward Iran.  In fact, I got into a public shouting match with him over it.

What is it about some rabbis that makes them hate mullahs so much?  Perhaps there is a shared zeal, a shared willingness to breathe fire into one’s religious community.  Rabbis may see things in Iran’s mullahs they don’t like in themselves or their own rabbinic colleagues.  I view such hysteria, whether from rabbis or mullahs, with great trepidation and distrust.

Israel’s leaders and their willing collaborators among Diaspora leaders may want to march toward Armageddon.  But we must not allow it.

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sima shine

Sima Shine, Israeli ‘trailblazer’ who got to the top the old-fashioned way

On Israel Independence Day, several exemplary Israelis are chosen to light the torch at a special national ceremony marking the commencement of the day.  This year, the theme of the ceremony will be: trailblazers.  One of those chosen was Israeli Palestinian TV host, Lucy Aharish, a notable safe, liberal Zionist choice.  But there is particular controversy over another individual chosen.  She is Sima Shine, the former director of the Mossad’s research unit.  There is only one reason she was chosen: her boss is Yuval Steinitz, the minister for strategic affairs, and a close Netanyahu confidant.  The prime minister, in the past government, had to remove him from his prestigious senior finance portfolio in order to placate Yair Lapid.  So Bibi owes him.

When Shine’s name was announced a furor erupted (Hebrew) within the ranks of the Mossad, especially among female Mossad personnel, 60 of whom signed a letter of protest to the culture minister, who approves these honors.  The reasons offered for appointing Shine were that she was the highest ranking field agent within the agency and that she was a trailblazer for herself and other women.  In fact, it emerged that Shine had advanced her career not as a trailblazer, but in one of the oldest ways imaginable.  She essentially slept her way to the top.  She had an affair with her boss, Uri Neeman, who served as director of the research division (how she won that job).  After he resigned from the Mossad, they married and it became clear they’d been carrying on an affair while both were serving.  She wasn’t a field agent, nor was she involved in operations, which are the positions most coveted and respected.  Rather she was a desk jockey; and didn’t help other women within the ranks.  She helped herself.

Uri Neeman

Uri Neeman, featured when he ran on Kadima’s Knesset list.

In fact, another women served as deputy director of the Mossad, a position more senior than Shine’s.  Many women are field operatives who risk their lives for their country and she was never one of those.  Unlike them, she never made a unique contribution to the security of the nation, as the statement which announced her appointment claimed.  Those who protested her appointment said it misrepresented the truth and “misled the public.” They said that Shine “isn’t remembered by anyone in the Mossad as someone who made great achievements there.”

Further, it turns out that despite the fact that Steinitz presented the honor as a mark of respect to the Mossad, no one in the agency asked for her appointment.  It was the minister’s wish and essentially his alone.  Had the agency been asked, the protesting agents declared, it would’ve suggested other women be honored instead.

Shine was also accused, while she worked there, of obtaining sensitive intelligence information from the agency which was outside her sphere of responsibility.  She passed this on to Neeman, her husband, after he’d already left the Mossad’s employ and was a civilian.  This is a very serious charge.  But she didn’t receive any serious punishment. Rather, she left the agency and transferred to the National Security Council.  When Uzi Arad became its director (he’d been one of her bosses at the Mossad), he fired her.  She then transferred to work under Steinitz, where she is today.

Both the Mossad and Shin Bet have long histories of both sexual harassment and exploitation of both male and female personnel.  Affairs of bosses with subordinates abound.  There are instances in which bosses harmed the careers of men with whose wives they were conducting sexual relationships.  For some reason, this doesn’t tarnish the reputation of either agency in the eyes of the Israeli public.  Sexual peccadilloes are a small price to pay, apparently, for those who keep the nation safe from foreign enemies.  No thought seems to be given that those who have the greatest responsibility to defend the nation should be held to high moral standards as well.  In fact, moral standards seem to be fairly low on the totem pole both for personnel, and espionage operations themselves.

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