From cold war to cold peace? Ex Mossad chief sees possible opening

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20131104-180456.jpgIstanbul__ Even as Iranians on Monday demonstrated outside the old US embassy on the anniversary of the 1979 embassy seizure and hostage crisis that led to the severing of US-Iranian diplomatic ties, one former Israeli intelligence chief said he saw signs of a potential opportunity emerging from recently intensified US-Iran nuclear diplomacy.

If the US and Iran are able to reach a nuclear deal, will they move next to implement a broader rapprochement? And if so, would the prospect of a thaw in US-Iran ties lead Iran to consider reducing hostilities against Israel? Or is that a bridge too far?

“I come away from this with a sense of possibility, by no means a certainty, that there might be an opening, in which one can turn around the thorniest problem of all: the deep-seated rejection of Israel by the current regime in Iran,” Efraim Halevy, former head of the Israeli intelligence service the Mossad, told Al-Monitor in interviews on the sidelines of a conference on Middle East security issues in Istanbul this week convened by the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs. “This will not be obtained overnight.”

“If the Iranians think straight, ..they must realize it is inconceivable that they [would be] able to change the basics of the relationship between Iran and the U.S. whilst maintaining the level of denial and enmity they now have to Israel,” said Halevy, who conducted secret negotiations with Jordan’s King Hussein that led to the historic 1994 peace treaty between the two countries.

To be sure, there were few signs from Tehran in recent days that it was prepared to abandon its anti-Israel or anti-American enmity, even as a debate has opened up in recent weeks about “Death to America” chants at Friday prayers and after the Tehran municipality last week removed anti-US billboards, describing the posters as put up illegally.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in a speech Sunday after a conspicuous three week absence from the public scene, firmly backed his Iran nuclear negotiating team, and warned hardliners to stop attacking their patriotism and trying to undermine their “difficult mission.” But Khamenei also made clear that he had endorsed negotiations with six world powers on the nuclear issue alone, and not yet a broader rapprochement with the United States, which he described as duplicitous, and its ally Israel as the “bastard and illegitimate…Zionist regime.”

“We should not trust an enemy who smiles,” Khamenei said. “From one side the Americans smile and express a desire to negotiate, and from another they immediately say all options are on the table.”

Iran Foreign Minister and chief nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on a visit to Istanbul October 31st, proposed an exit from “zero sum” thinking on global security matters, and abandoning the calculus that one nation’s security is a factor of the insecurity of its adversary.

Halevy, analyzing the speech, said he found elements of it “exhilarating.”

Zarif “said security is no longer a zero sum game, but a global issue….in which all of the players emerge with their interests intact,” Halevy said. “Therefore ultimately what he is saying, it will not be able to reach an understanding which will satisfy Iran”s security problems, without addressing Israel’s security concerns.”

It “could be that what we are seeing here is a deception, that there is a campaign of smiles which is designed to delude us-both the world and Israel into a false reading of the situation,” Halevy cautioned.

Zarif said there was no place in Iran’s security doctrine for nuclear weapons, and that both security interests as well as religious edicts forbid Iran from ever pursuing a weapon. “Certainly there’s enough evidence to show he knows what he is saying for public consumption is not consistent with the facts,” Halevy said, disputing the assertion that Iran had never pursued a weapons program. “But you cannot ignore the fact that the tone and the reasoning being presented…is different.”

“It’s too early in the game to say what will happen here,” Halevy said. “If the dynamism that leads to a resolution of the nuclear issue, leads to a thaw between Iran and the US, it’s very difficult for the Iranians to envisage an ‘American spring’ at the same time they pursue a confrontation with Israel.”

“America is signaling very clearly it wants to reach a conclusion, it wants to be able to close the nuclear file,” Halevy said. “If the Iranians want to close the nuclear file, let’s imagine, what then? Will it resume diplomatic relations, trade, the flow of academicians… What do you do?”

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The rise and fall of Mossad agent Ben Zygier


A month after Australian media first identified “Prisoner X” as Australian-born Mossad recruit Ben Zygier, the Australian journalist who first reported on the Zygier case and his partner have published a joint investigation into how Zygier’s dream-career with the Israeli intelligence service unravelled, culminating with his suicide in an isolated Israeli prison cell in December 2010.

According to the report Monday by Jason Koutsoukis in Australia’s Fairfax media, Melbourne-born Zygier was a passionate Zionist who was recruited into the Mossad in 2003, a few years after he had moved to Israel and had started working at an Israeli law firm. It ended with his 2010 arrest and suicide after Zygier embarked in 2008 on an unauthorized attempt to recruit a Hezbollah source in Eastern Europe and ended up instead allegedly betraying two claimed Mossad assets in Lebanon, according to Koutsoukis’ report.

Zygier’s career with the Mossad began in late 2003, after he responded to a Mossad advertisement that proclaimed “the Mossad is open – not for everyone, but for a few. Maybe for you,” Koutsoukis reported.

By early 2005, after a year of training, Zygier “was ready for his first mission,” Koutsoukis wrote. “He was sent to Europe, where he was instructed to infiltrate companies that had business relationships with countries including Iran and Syria.

“One chief executive of a mid-sized European company with extensive business interests across the Middle East and Persian Gulf – including Iran – confirmed that he had hired Zygier for an accounting position,” the report continues. Zygier worked for the unidentified firm for 18 months.

But apparently his Mossad supervisors were not overly impressed with his performance, and in 2007, to his great disappointment, they ordered Zygier back to a desk job in Israel.

(While Koutsoukis doesn’t identify the firm in Europe where Zygier took a cover job—apparently unbeknownst to the firm–he later reports that Zygier, upon returning to Australia in 2009 to pursue a masters degree, told fellow students that he had worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers management consulting firm in Geneva.)

Zygier, apparently in an attempt to impress his Mossad superiors and salvage his intelligence career, embarked in 2008 on an unauthorized, freelance mission to try to recruit an East European man known to be sympathetic to Lebanon’s Hezbollah as a double agent, Koutsoukis writes. But it all went terribly wrong, when the unidentified Eastern European/Balkan man asked Zygier to prove his bona fides by providing Mossad intelligence on Lebanon. Continue reading

The spy and the reporter: Ben Zygier had contacts with journalist before arrest


Did Israel suspect Ben Zygier of betraying Israeli intelligence because of conversations with a reporter?

This February 14, 2013 Australian Broadcasting Corporation interview with Beirut-based Australian reporter Jason Koutsoukis suggests his conversations with Zygier in late 2009-early 2010 may have been one reason Israeli intelligence became concerned. While Zygier strenuously denied in the conversations he was a spy, Koutsoukis said, he did speak with the reporter three or four times over the course of two months before his secret arrest; whereas another Australian-Israeli suspected of Mossad links contacted by Koutsoukis cut the reporter off and never spoke with him again.

Zygier’s last conversation with Koutsoukis was in early-mid February 2010, Koutsoukis said. Zygier was arrested around February 23rd, and commit suicide in his prison cell December 15, 2010 during negotiations over a plea bargain.

Transcript excerpts of the ABC Lateline interview below, emphasis added by the Back Channel on details suggesting the conversations with the reporter may have come on radar of Israeli intelligence and possibly contributed to Zygier’s legal predicament: Continue reading

Did British intelligence also know about Mossad suspect Ben Zygier?

Did Ben Zygier, the Australian-Israeli identified by Australian media last week as the mysterious “Prisoner X” who died in Israeli prison in 2010, also have British citizenship?

Australian reporter Jason Koutsoukis broke the story in February 27, 2010 that the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) had been investigating three Australian-Israelis suspected of links to Mossad. He confronted two of the (unnamed) men about the allegations, quoting one in his 2010 report:

“I have never been to any of those countries that you say I have been to,'' he said. ''I am not involved in any kind of spying. That is ridiculous.”

The same man is also believed to hold British citizenship, and is believed to have come to the attention of British intelligence after he had changed his name.

Now see what Koutsoukis told The Guardian last week, after the Australian Broadcasting Company aired an investigation suggesting that Prisoner X who had died in Israel's Ayalon prison in December 2010 was Ben Zygier :

At the time Zygier said: “I have never been to any of those countries that you say I have been to, I am not involved in any kind of spying. That is ridiculous.”

So we now know the man who told Koutsoukis in 2010 “I have never been to those countries” was Zygier. And that Koutsoukis indicated that he had been told at the time— presumably by Australian intelligence–that Zygier had also previously come on the radar of British intelligence for taking out a passport in a new name.

If Koutsoukis' original information was correct, that Zygier also had British citizenship and another British alias, it would be interesting to know what the British government and intelligence services might know about the case and how Israel came to suspect that Zygier was compromised.

Update: Why did Israel move to arrest Zygier in February 2010? One possible theory is also suggested by information in Koutsoukis's February 27, 2010 report. Continue reading

White House denies report that US and Iran agreed to direct talks

The White House on Saturday denied a report in the New York Times that the United States and Iran had agreed to hold one–on-one talks on Iran’s nuclear program after the US presidential elections next month. But the White House reiterated that the Obama administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

And a Washington Iran analyst told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding that a senior US arms control official has held authorized talks with an Iranian official posted to Turkey.

“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement Saturday. “We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister also issued a statement Sunday denying direct talks with the United States. “Talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations,” Ali Akbar Salehi said at a press conference Sunday. “Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States.”

The Iran analyst, who asked not to be named, told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore has had talks with an Iranian official posted as a diplomat to Turkey. The Iranian official was not identified.

US officials did not respond to requests for guidance from Al-Monitor late Saturday on the allegation a US official has had talks with an Iranian official or in what capacity.

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Former Israel spy chief in Belarus for liver transplant


Former Mossad spy chief Meir Dagan underwent a liver transplant in Belarus last week and is in intensive care, Israeli media reported Tuesday.

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, speaking at a press conference in Minsk Tuesday, announced “that a former Mossad chief had been operated on in the country ten days ago and was currently in recovery,” the Jerusalem Post wrote, adding that while Lukashenko didn’t identify the patient by name, Israeli media named him as Dagan.

“Dagan’s illness, cancer, was known for a couple of months to a small group of confidants and colleagues and me, but it was decided for reasons of not invading his privacy not to report it,” veteran Israeli intelligence journalist Yossi Melman told Al-Monitor by email Tuesday. “Tonight the Belarus President Alexander Lukaschenko revealed it in a press conference trying to gain pr for himself and his pariah regime.”

Two months ago, Dagan went to Sloane Kettering hospital in New York for medical checks hoping to find a compatible organ, but in vain, Melman said. “He returned to Israel and his health was deteriorating.”

Dagan subsequently resigned from his position as director and consultant to various Israeli and foreign companies and flew two weeks ago to Minsk with his family for the surgery, said Melman, co-author with Dan Raviv of a recent book on Israeli intelligence, Spies Against Armageddon.

Since stepping down as Israel’s spy chief in 2011, Dagan has become a key voice in Israel and the United States expressing opposition to unilateral Israeli military action on Iran.

“An attack on Iran before you are exploring all other approaches is not the right way how to do it,” Dagan told CBS’s 60 Minutes in a March 2012 interview.

“I heard very carefully what President Obama said. And he said openly that the military option is on the table, and he is not going to let Iran become a nuclear state,” Dagan continued. “If I prefer that somebody will do it, I always prefer that Americans will do it.”

(Photo: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) hugs Meir Dagan, the outgoing director of Israel’s spy agency Mossad, after thanking him at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.)

Friday reads: War games


Iran war game shows rapid escalation as US, Iran misread others’ moves. (David Ignatius/Washington Post)

State Department rejects Sen. John Kerry’s call to block US funds to Iraq over alleged Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps overflights to supply arms to Syria. (Reuters)

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Aldabbbagh tells Al-Monitor that the Iraqi government has informed Iran that it will not allow its air space to be used to supply either side in Syria’s civil war. “We had informed the Iranians that Iraq will never [allow the] use [of] its airspace to do so.” (Al Monitor)

New AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman once worked as a lobbyist for Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition. (The Forward)

Egyptian author Alaa Al-Aswany writes how the Muslim world can defend the prophet. (Al-Safir/Al-Monitor)

Recent Israeli war games in the Golan Heights are an important signal to Iran, writes former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy (Ydioth Ahronoth/Al Monitor)

Former Israeli spy chief Meir Dagan becomes a dissident. (The New Yorker)

(Photo: An Israeli soldier travels atop a mobile artillery unit during a drill near the northern city of Katzrin in the Golan Heights September 19, 2012. Israel’s military launched the surprise large-scale exercise on Wednesday on the occupied Golan Heights, testing its battle readiness amid tensions over Iran’s nuclear drive and civil war in Syria. REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

Netanyahu cancels security meeting over Iran leaks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abruptly ended a security cabinet meeting Wednesday, complaining of leaks that Israel’s intelligence agencies are not convinced of the great urgency of the Iran threat, Israeli media report.

“A short while after the meeting yesterday something serious happened,” Netanyahu said, Haaretz‘s Barak Ravid reported Wednesday. “A leak from the cabinet discussions… someone severely damaged the trust that Israel’s citizens have in this forum.”

The leak, that appeared in a report on Israel’s Ynet Tuesday, said Israeli intelligence officials who briefing the Israeli security cabinet Tuesday assessed that Iran’s nuclear progress is of deep concern but not of extreme urgency.

“The information presented to the Cabinet was very disturbing, but it wasn’t too daunting,” a senior official who participated in the meeting told Ynet,” Attila Somfalvi reported.

“According to the official who spoke with Ynet, while the information Israel has on Iran’s progress is troubling ‘It’s not scary. The Iranians are relentlessly pursuing nuclear activities and they’re not slowing down …They are holding their own vis-à-vis the international pressure, but on the other hand, they’re not running wild,'” the Ynet report continued.

“According to the story, the members of the security cabinet were shocked to hear that the country’s different intelligence agencies – the Mossad, Shin Bet, and Army Intelligence – do not agree about the Iranian issue,” the Jerusalem Post reported.

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Israeli media mull leaders’ intentions on Iran


Israeli media reports give a sense of the intensifying debate and confusion in Israel and beyond over signs Israeli leaders are contemplating striking Iran in the fall:

Israeli columnist Ben Caspit, writing in Al Monitor partner Maariv and translated on our front page, expresses Israelis’ weariness and confusion over whether Israeli leaders’ rhetoric is a bluff or real, concluding:

Does all of this mean that they are really bluffing? I don’t know. They have the right to bluff, and they have the right not to bluff. They should sit, discuss, go over information, and decide already. They are leaders, and the power is in their hands. For the moment, their “determination” amounts to bluster. From the outside, it seems like they are not being taken seriously inside Israel, nor the rest of the world for getting too worked up. Who knows, maybe in the end they’ll bomb Iran just to prove they were serious.

Haaretz‘s Ari Shavit, writing August 11, interviews “the decision maker,” an anonymous senior Israeli official universally believed to be Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak:

… “The United States and Israel currently agree on the diagnosis,” says my interlocutor. “The intelligence assessments are the same and the rhetoric is practically the same. We and the Americans both know that Iran is determined to obtain nuclear weapons and that it is deceiving the whole world in order to do this. We and the Americans both say that we will not accept a nuclear Iran and that all options are on the table. But the gap between the two countries derives from the fact that the U.S. and Israel have different abilities.

“As the Iranians continue to fortify their nuclear sites and disperse them and accumulate uranium, the moment is approaching when Israel will not be able to do anything,” he warns. “For the Americans, the Iranians are not yet approaching the immunity zone − because the Americans have much larger bombers and bombs, and the ability to repeat the operation a whole number of times. But for us, Iran could soon enter the immunity zone. And when that happens, it means putting a matter that is vital to our survival in the hands of the United States. Israel cannot allow this to happen. It cannot place the responsibility for its security and future in the hands of even its best and most loyal friend.”

You’re describing a tragedy, I say to the decision maker. Iran’s immunity zone versus Israel begins a little sooner than its immunity zone versus the United States. […] Because of this gap of six to nine months, Israel could find itself going into a terrible war all on its own.

“I don’t see it as a tragedy, but it’s true that there is a built-in gap here. The Americans understand what we’re saying but they want more time. Some people here think this is a plot, but I don’t think so. In terms of sanctions and diplomacy, this administration has done more than any other administration. It has also prepared a military option at various levels. But where you sit is where you stand. And from the point of view of the American president, the moment has not yet come. The United States will be able to act next year, too. So the Americans are telling us that it would be a serious mistake to act now. After all, they could deal the Iranians a knockout blow, while they think all we can do is give them a black eye. So it would seem that it would be worth it for us, too, for them to be the ones to act and not us. But as a sovereign state, we’re saying that on issues vital to our security, we cannot place our fate in the hands of others. …

Yedioth Ahronoth‘s senior commentators Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer wrote August 10th:

If it were up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, an Israeli military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be launched in the coming autumn months, before the US election in November. Of course, the fact that Israel’s two most senior figures are determined to adopt the decision and pass it in the cabinet is of immense significance. It is no less significant that not one high-ranking official in the Israeli establishment — not in the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) top echelons, nor in the defense establishment and not even the President of Israel — currently supports an Israeli attack.

Veteran Israeli national security journalist Yossi Melman, co-author with Dan Raviv of the new book on the Mossad, Spies against Armaggedon, writes in Walla, in a translation provided by the author, that the next 80 days are critical because Israel may have a limited weather window to act:

The next eighty days are the window of opportunity in which Israel could attack Iran, until the end of October — and the weather only gets worse in November.  After late October, even if Israel’s government wishes it, it would be difficult for the air force to carry out the intended attack.  The climate conditions over Iran at the end of autumn and the start of winter are mostly cloudy — and thus they’re not amenable to an air attack.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is more certain than ever that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will be necessary.  Some commentators are describing that attitude as “ideology.”  They believe that the PM, when it comes to Iran, has a fixed worldview.  They believe that he is concerned that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it would use them — so he is determined to prevent a second Holocaust.

But Netanyahu has never had a genuine “ideology.”  He just wraps his decisions in justifications and explanations that appear ideological.  That’s how it is with economic issues, and that’s how it is regarding a possible Palestinian state, and so it is also on Iran.

Yet despite his general image as a man who is cautious and avoids major risks, when it comes to Iran he is ready to gamble.  That’s because he believes that an attack would put him into Israel’s national Pantheon, with leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin.  Begin, of course, ordered the air raid that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. …

Update: “Although Israel’s leaders frequently lament all the Iran ‘chitchat,’ make no mistake: It’s they who are fueling the discussion,” the Associated Press notes in a report on “Israel plunged into unprecedented debate on Iran war.”

(Photo: Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a session of the Knesset December 23, 2009. Reuters.)

Former Mossad chief: “Better to wait” before accusing Iran in Bulgaria bus bombing

Former Israeli intelligence chief Danny Yatom said Thursday that while it’s logical to assume that Hezbollah or Iran were behind the July 18 Bulgaria bus bombing that killed seven people, assigning culpability should probably have waited until the evidence is solid.

“Usually it takes some time to locate those who were behind the bombing, and those who sent them,” the former Mossad chief told journalists on a call organized by The Israel Project Thursday.

“From the modus operandi used by some organizations, it’s logical to assume that Iran or Hezbollah or Hezbollah and/or Iran were behind this terror attack,” Yatom said. “As long as we don’t have solid information about it, it’s better to wait.”

“All signs point to Iran,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday of the attack on the bus of Israeli tourists at Bourgas airport on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast, in which seven people, including five Israeli tourists and two Bulgarians, were killed, and 30 injured. “In the past months we saw Iranian attempts to attack Israelis in Thailand, India, Kenya and Cyprus. This is an Iranian terror offensive that is spreading throughout the world.”

Bulgarian authorities on Thursday released a video of the man suspected of being the bus bomber, and said that he was carrying a fake Michigan driver’s license. ABC News obtained a photo of the suspect’s fake Michigan driver’s license, which identifies the man as Jacque Felipe Martin, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, born in 1987.

US intelligence assesses that the suspect was a member of a Hezbollah cell operating in Bulgaria, the New York Times reported Thursday, citing an unnamed senior U.S. official. Continue reading