Tucked into a paragraph of yesterday’s latest NY Times NSA spying revelation courtesy of Edward Snowden was a bombshell about surveillance against various Israeli targets. These weren’t just any targets, they were those at the highest political, military and academic levels including then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. It seems obvious why spymasters would want to know what they were writing in their e-mails. But the article also noted the NSA was reading the messages of a certain “gray market” arms dealer and the Institute of Physics at the Hebrew University.
The reasons for spying on them requires a bit of parsing. First, who is the arms merchant and why might they want to know what he’s doing? My Israeli source informs me that he is former IDF Gen. Yisrael Ziv. Ziv specializes in supplying advanced arms, training, and intelligence services for third world countries facing internal or external enemies. Among his clients have been the governments of Peru (fighting a resurgence of the Shining Path guerilla movement), Georgia, and Colombia. One of those who smoothed Ziv’s path in his Latin American and African ventures by introducing him to the “right people” was ex-foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. The latter did this all the while directing the Toledo Institute in Spain, whose mission was to attempt to “resolve international conflict.”
Yossi Melman wrote extensively about Ziv’s career. Most of those articles are no longer available on Haaretz’s website. This would indicate that Ziv has powerful lawyers who pressured the newspaper to remove them through threat of a libel suit.
In 2009, Melman reported that Ziv’s company, Global CST, had signed a $10-million deal to consult with Peru’s army. He noted that it had failed miserably in its effort to bolster Georgia’s military defense when it was drubbed by Russia in a short war over Abkhazia. Melman also noted Ziv’s role in the successful commando operation that freed Ingrid Betancourt from the Colombia FARC rebels.
However, he also noted that Wikileaks revealed the Colombian government suspected one of Ziv’s Israeli translators of stealing secret military documents and offering to sell them to the FARC. The documents offered contained highly-classified information on Colombian guerrilla “high value targets” which was obtained by U.S. intelligence. The leak of the documents might’ve compromised American intelligence methods, sources, and agents.
Wikileaks also revealed that the U.S. detested Ziv and his weapons proliferation activities in conflict zones:
The cables appear to show that the hostility was prompted not only by financial interests but by concern that Ziv’s activity posed a security risk to the U.S.
It threatened countries doing business with him (English) with cancellation of U.S. security cooperation unless they ended their relationship with him. Among those were Colombia and Panama. The latter, in fact, cancelled a $10-million military training contract with Global CST. This may explain why the NSA was spying on him.
Ziv makes decisions about which armaments his clients will purchase and so acts as a middle-man for Israel’s weapons industry. They, of course, remunerate him handsomely for his efforts on their behalf. As an example, he persuaded the Peruvians to spend $3-million to purchase night-vision goggles manufactured by Elbit Systems. Melman also revealed that the Israeli military officer attempted to bring into his company other Israeli businessmen suspected of criminal activity.
In another 2009 Haaretz article, Melman portrays a dirty process by which Israeli generals, ex-prime ministers and diplomats come to feed at the trough of newly minted African dictators who come to power via coups and need foreigners to sell them the weapons to remain in power. The sole goal of both the dictators and his Israeli hangers-on seems to be to line their pockets with the wealth of the country, whether it be diamonds or oil. In this case, the country was Guinea, where the previous tyrant had died the year before (2008). A colonel arose and took power. The new man needed foreign security support he could trust (the last tyrant had used military consultants from France and China). Where better to turn than Israel?
However, the new boss’ style wasn’t at all to the liking of the citizens. They demonstrated in the soccer stadium of the capital, where the coup leaders’ followers opened fire on them, killing 157. That bloodbath was followed by a looting spree and the rape of at least 20 women by the same folks who’d mounted the last coup.
In the midst of all this, Ziv saw both the dictator and himself as those who could liberate Guinea from fifty years of corrupt rule under the former tyrant. It’s not clear how the bloodbath portrayed above furthered Ziv’s alleged goals. At any rate, Ziv’s efforts to cultivate business in the African country was frustrated by no less than the Israeli defense ministry, which refused to give him export licenses for the weapons he’d hoped to shower upon the new Guinean tyrant. In this, Israel was following precedents set by the EU and other nations which had embargoed military aid to the coup leaders.
However, Ziv turned around and offered the security consulting contract to a South African company which was likely a front company (though Ziv denied this). Israeli defense and foreign ministry officials weren’t happy campers regarding the arms exports to Guinea, and the possible front company arrangement. They fined Global CST $20,000 for violating weapons licensing restrictions.
In 2011, Melman published a damning report (Hebrew) on a disastrous secret visit by Ziv and another ex-IDF Gen. Chalifi, former PM Ehud Olmert’s chief military advisor, to Russia. Apparently, Ziv’s sense of client loyalty is short-lived. Only a few years earlier he’d been one of Georgia’s chief foreign military advisors–till it suffered a devastating loss in its brief war with Russia He must’ve decided the money was better on the other side. So he traveled to Moscow, where he met with the rump president of the breakaway (from Georgia) region of Abkhazia. After the aforementioned war, the latter nation broke away from Georgia and became nominally independent, though it is really a protectorate-satellite of Russia. The Israeli arms merchants must’ve found their meeting in Russia productive, because they continued on to Abkhazia itself where they met with the prime minister.
News of the meeting was leaked to an Israeli Russian-language paper, where Ziv seemed to make up Israeli security policy on the fly by saying that his country recognized the importance of a strategic relationship with Russia and Abkhazia. Keep in mind that only four countries in the world recognize Abkhazia’s independence (all Russian allies, even Hamas recognizes Abkhazia!) and Israel isn’t one of them.
From there the story spread like wildfire to Georgia itself, where it was not received favorably, especially since Israeli weapons manufacturer are on the Georgian gravy train, having trained and equipped its army over a number of years. You can imagine why the Georgian government came to wonder whether Ziv’s company, Global CST, was articulating official government policy in supporting the breakaway republic. The Israeli foreign ministry, had been totally in the dark about Ziv’s trip and statements to the media. The two generals put their tails between their legs and told the ministries that they weren’t planning to export military armaments, but rather to “invest in civilian infrastructure,” whatever that means.
The Abkhazia article was the last straw for Ziv. He hired a private investigator to dig up as much dirt on Melman as they could find. It wasn’t much. But it was enough to cost him his job. They recorded a conversation in which Melman expresses a willingness to accept payment from a source involved in what the article calls Shushu (Hebrew, “hush-hush”) a slang term for the dark side of intelligence. Melman claims that he never accepted any money from anyone; and that in fact, he expressed willingness to take money in order to pursue the real source of the proffered bribe. In fact, I’m guessing that the individual who offered the bribe may’ve been directly connected to Ziv. Melman was likely trying to determine whether it was true.
An alternate possibility is one raised by an Israeli media source familiar with Israeli intelligence affairs. He suggested that the Israeli source for Stratfor, who was exposed (though not by name) via Wikileaks, was Melman. However, when I asked other Israeli sources more familiar with Haaretz internal matters if they could confirm this, they all said they didn’t think it was true.
Haaretz felt it had little choice but to let Melman go. The way the powerful operate in Israel is that they co-opt you if they think you can be useful. But if you can’t be co-opted or corrupted they run over you with a steamroller. They do this to show their power and frighten others into doing their bidding. As in the mafia, nothing keeps the troops in line better than putting the head of a sacrificial ram on the chopping block.
That’s what happened to Melman. In a sudden, shocking departure, he “retired” from the paper citing “exhaustion.” He said he wanted to explore some new unspecified challenges. It was all very mysterious. The only thing that was truly exhausting him was the onslaught he’d endured at the hands of Ziv. A month or so later, Melman announced he was joining the online news portal, Walla. He reported there for a few months and they downsized, at which time he lost his position there as well. Now, he reports for the Jerusalem Post’s Hebrew edition.
Haaretz did not behave with any dignity in this circumstance. It tidied up the mess and shooed Melman out the door. It wouldn’t breathe a word of the dirty business in which Ziv engaged against Melman. It even censored his reports and removed them from its website. It was as if this important investigative series on a dirty Israeli arms dealer had never existed. Shameful.
In all candor, Yossi Melman has had his differences with me in the past. I’ve criticized his reporting and he’s taken a few shots at me (along with a few other current and former Haaretz reporters). Regardless of all that, Melman was a victim in this circumstance. He was road kill on Yisrael Ziv’s corrupt path to personal wealth and power. Melman’s fall proves that in Israel the powerful are untouchable and the righteous man hasn’t a chance.
Given Ziv’s checkered career that involved stoking the fires of ethnic conflict throughout the third world, it’s no surprise that the NSA might be interested in monitoring his activity. But the Institute of Physics at Hebrew University? When you examine the matter more closely, that too becomes clear.
Israel has the largest nuclear arsenal in the Middle East and one of the largest in the world, estimated at 200 or more warheads. It’s well-known that the Dimona nuclear plant produces the plutonium to fuel these weapons. What’s less well-known is the academic research that enabled Israel’s WMD empire. This didn’t spring into being ex nihilo. Aside from the military might and know-how that brought this about, Israel’s major research universities played a key role. The Technion is well-known as a source of such research. But the Hebrew University is less well-known for such work.
In fact, I’ve been informed by a source that the Racah Institute of Physics (website) has a public component (like any other department of a public university), whose research and faculty are publicly accessible. Less well-known is that Racah has a closed research division where nuclear weapons research is conducted. One of my sources for this article told me he understood that Racah was engaged in missile development research. I’ve been told by a different knowledgeable source that two of the retired faculty who may’ve participated in secret WMD research were Zalman Barkat (the father of Jerusalem’s current right-wing nationalist mayor, Nir Barkat) and Gideon Rakavy.
I had a short conversation with Prof. Rakavy. He told me that he knew nothing about any secret research at Racah. When I asked him if he had any idea why the NSA would be interested in spying on researchers there, Prof. Rakavy replied:
I don’t know, perhaps they’re interested in physics!
He proceeded to laugh at his joke. I joined in by saying: “You must be producing top-notch physics for them to have such an interest.” The conversation was just the sort of “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” talk you’d expect from someone hoping that a bit of a joke might deflect from an inconvenient, sensitive subject.
I could not reach Prof. Barkat for comment. But the Ministry of Defense notes on its website (Word doc) that he sat with two IDF generals on the committee in 2007 that awarded Israel’s most prestigious, and secretive, Israel Defense Prize. He was undoubtedly not named to the committee for his expertise in the “late stages of stellar evolution,” which is listed as one of his 1994 publications.
Another faculty member I contacted told me that he didn’t feel comfortable speaking with me unless our conversation could be face-to-face. Clearly that didn’t seem possible. A retired faculty member told me that all research produced at the Institute is published and publicly available. There is, or was no “secret” component as far as he knew. He did say there may’ve been some individual faculty members engaged in research for Israeli military contractors, but that they did this research privately on their own initiative. It had nothing, according to him, to do with the University or the Institute.
The full-throated participation of Israel’s national research universities in WMD research raises an important question related to BDS. If we believe that Israel’s policies are wrong. If we believe that not only is the Occupation evil, but that Israel’s refusal to join the NPT, the opacity of its WMD program, and its aggressive military posture toward its neighbors in the region, are terribly destructive national policies–then examining the role of Israeli academia in these issues is no less critical than probing the IDF role in perpetuating these evils.
Universities are not the ivory towers they’re made out to be. When Israeli academics who oppose BDS speak on this issue they invariably point to the projects their schools sponsor that promote tolerance and the social well-being of Palestinians. But they don’t acknowledge the critical role their research faculty play in developing weapons systems and intelligence-related products that facilitate the national security state. It’s important that Israeli academia understand that they won’t just be judged on the constructive projects they initiate. They will also be judged by the WMD they create, the security-related code they write, and the spy gear they develop.
The possibility that a secret division of a public university engaged in advanced weapons research is deeply troubling. Perhaps not troubling to many Israelis, who see security as a necessary evil. But it should be of concern to foreign faculty who consider collaborations with some of these physicists, who may be developing weapons of mass destruction or helping Big Brother develop the next generation of surveillance hardware or software.
Further, if Israel wants the world to be as frightened of Iran’s potential nuclear weapon as it is, then it should pay attention to the hypocrisy of maintaining a top-secret WMD academic research program. Israel refuses to sign NPT. It refuses to acknowledge it has WMD. It refuses to acknowledge that at least one of its senior leaders advocated using a nuclear weapon during the 1973 War. This is the very same country that advocates going to war against Iran even before it has such a weapon. Israel may not see the irony of this, but the rest of the world does.
A leading academic supporter of the MEK and preferred source for Israeli hawks, Prof. Raymond Tanter, made much of a supposed Iranian academic conference that studied chemical and biological warfare, as if such an event would be proof of Iran’s evil intentions. Note that the article says the conference was announced on the university website and then taken down. But it doesn’t offer any proof or a screenshot of the announcement when it was available on the site. This article from the Telegraph uses another MEK source to buttress a similar claim, that Iran was using its universities as means of pursuing weapons research and avoiding international scrutiny. Israel has done precisely the same thing. Yet this blog is one of the few and perhaps only sources you’ll find exposing that knowledge to the world.
An interesting historical footnote to the NSA surveillance story regarding the Hebrew University faculty, is that an Israeli physicist was arrested in 1960 for spying on behalf of Czechoslovakia. He was Kurt Sitte (Hebrew) a Czech citizen who fled the Nazis and came to the U.S. to teach. The FBI discovered his contacts with Communist agents and he moved to Brazil to teach there. In the late 1950s, Israel was ramping up its own nuclear program. It desperately needed theoretical physicists of Sitte’s background and expertise. So he came to Israel to teach at the Technion. When the Shin Bet exposed his contact with Czech agents, even though he never gave them any intelligence of any value, he was arrested, fired from his academic position, and convicted of the charges. He served two and a half years and was later pardoned by the president. He left Israel and moved to West Germany where he completed his distinguished academic career at the University of Freibourg and Heidelberg.