U.S. counter-intelligence figures calculate that Israel is the third most active country in spying in and on the U.S. Jonathan Pollard, Larry Franklin, Ari Ben Menashe, and scores of other American Jews who spied for Israel are almost household words in the spy trade. Not to mention Israeli-Americans like Arnon Milchan, who pursued their careers while also lending their hands to Israeli intelligence efforts.
But it’s much less well-known that Israeli intelligence efforts in the U.S. go all the way back to the 1940s, even before the founding of the State. After World War II, Israel viewed the U.S. (and other nations as well) as potential sources for weapons, pilots, and general intelligence information. It posted covert agents to pursue these objectives. One of them was Nahum Ziv, who died recently. In its obituary profile, Haaretz called him, with typical Israeli worship of derring-do, “the Jewish James Bond in New York.”
Ziv’s family fled Ukraine in 1925 and emigrated to Canada, where he joined HaShomer HaTzair. During World War II, he served in the Canadian Air Force. Beginning in 1944, Ziv spied on behalf of the Jewish Agency and the Haganah. He was given enormous sums to recruit fighter pilots and cultivate weapons sources.
He was also asked to spy on the Saudi UN delegation to determine its strategy regarding the 1947 UN Partition Plan, then being debated by the General Assembly. In an age even before tape recorders and bugs, the Israelis wired the hotel room of the Saudis and seven floors above listened and simultaneously transcribed the conversations. Since there was no means of recording them, the translation and transcription had to be immediate and simultaneous, no mean feat.
Because many of the ambassadors conducted diplomatic business in their vehicles as they traveled to the sessions at Lake Success, the Israelis followed them and listened in as they drove. As the ruling colonial power, it was important to know the British thinking on these matters. So they spied on the ambassador’s car as well.
The work product was relayed back to Israel to figures like Golda Meir, who used them to plot political strategy. Golda was astonished to discover, as a result of the spying that the Saudis were also somehow listening to her own telephone conversations! He told her: “You know it’s not only Jews who know how to do this sort of thing.”
In 2005, Haaretz published a profile of another Israeli “man of the shadows,” Benjamin Blumberg. He was known as a key figure in the Israeli nuclear program and served in highly sensitive and critical roles. He was one of the most powerful figures in this realm. He had three simultaneous roles: he oversaw all military weapons purchases, the Israeli reactors at Dimona and Nahal Soreq, and the biological weapons program at Nes Ziona; he was a unit chief in the Shabak; and he directed LEKEM, the Israeli intelligence agency tasked with stealing commercial and military secrets (including enriched uranium for the Dimona reactor) from foreign nations. This unit was so secret that even Iser Harel, the Mossad chief at the time, claimed not to know it existed.
In the 1960s, after France withdrew from the Israeli nuclear project, Israel realized it must cultivate new sources for the equipment and technical know-how required to build an atomic bomb. Blumberg developed a secret program through LEKEM, which involved appointing Israelis as scientific attaches serving with the foreign ministry. In reality, their jobs were to secure information and material for Israeli intelligence, either through publicly accessible means or through outright theft. In some instances the agents came close to being caught and imprisoned. But this didn’t raise the alarm bells it should have with Blumberg.
In one incident going back to 1951, the FBI caught four agents of Israeli military intelligence (AMAN) and the Mossad red-handed. One of these was the military attache, Chaim Herzog (later to become Israel’s sixth President). Another was Shalhevet Freier, later one of the key figures in Israel’s nuclear program, including director general of the country’s atomic energy agency. The only fact that prevented all of them from prosecution and imprisonment was that they were recruiting Arab diplomats as double agents and not gathering intelligence from American sources. Luckily for Israel, only one of the four was expelled from the country.
Though I’m not an expert in Israeli intelligence history, I’ve never heard of any Israeli who achieved the power and stature of Blumberg. But like many great men who sit at the apex of power, there was a fall.
When Begin came to power in 1977, the Likud naturally wanted to clean house and put their own men into power. But Blumberg appealed to Begin to remain. Given that the spymaster had kept a very low political profile during his entire career, Begin agreed.
But in 1981, Begin appointed Sharon defense minister and there were no reprieves. One day, a rumor circulated at work that a senior official had been removed. Blumberg called a colleague asking who it was. The co-worker replied: “Didn’t you know, it’s you!” And that was how Ariel Sharon treated a man who’d given thirty years of his life to the State. In his place, Sharon appointed his own confidant, presumably another figure with a knife in his teeth, Rafi Eitan, who became director of LEKEM.
Though Blumberg may’ve engaged in some questionable behavior in his day, he never overreached by recruiting an American Jewish spy and then abandoning him to the feds when exposed. That was Eitan’s legacy. He recruited and “ran” Jonathan Pollard. It was only after the FBI exposed Pollard that the full extent of the spy agency’s work became known in both the U.S. and Israel. As a result, LEKEM was disbanded with promises (never kept) that Israel would never recruit American spies or even spy on American territory.
Those in Congress and in the Israel Lobby who sing hosannas to the eternal friendship between Israel and the U.S. should remember that our interests have never been the same. We have always spied on each other. We have never fully trusted each other despite being allies. That does not mean that Israel is an enemy of the U.S. But it does mean that we are separate countries and it is a terrible mistake to act as if our interests are one and the same.
This is especially true regarding Iran and negotiations surrounding its nuclear program. Israel wants Iran denied nuclear weapons at all costs, because it sees Iran as a regional rival. While the U.S. would prefer Iran not nuclearize, the more pragmatic in our government understand that it would be far more realistic to contain and regulate Iran’s nuclear efforts than ban them or bomb them. Iran is not our rival nor does it have to be our enemy. There is a fundamental difference in this between Israel and U.S. interests.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.