Telling the Accidental — and Sensational — Story of How Israel Spies on America
Does Israel have its very own Edward Snowden?
It’s not an outlandish thought, given the rush of revelations about Israel’s secret spying effort over the years, most recently detailing extensive eavesdropping on President Clinton’s phone calls as he was trying to negotiate Middle East peace.
This and other insights into the top secret world of Israeli intelligence gathering come from Ahron Bregman, an unlikely character to play Glenn Greenwald to this imaginary Snowden. For his part, though, the Israeli-born, British-based historian insists that there is no one source for the trove of secret documents and transcripts he has managed to uncover for his new book, “Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories.”
“There is no Israeli Edward Snowden, I can assure you of that,” Bregman said. “But there are thousands of secret documents all over the place and out of control in Israel.” And there are plenty of people with access to these documents, people who wish to get out their side of the story by leaking the information.
Bregman never wanted to be defined by his sensational revelations, which were recently reported on by Newsweek. Instead, he had set out to write a critical book on Israel’s military success in the 1967 war and how it morphed into what he describes as a brutal occupation. But the scoops he weaved into his story have thus far overshadowed the narrative.
“I had hoped that the secrets I reveal would draw attention to the book, and the readers would then sit back and focus — on what I want them to focus on, namely on the occupation,” Bregman told the Forward in an email exchange. “Alas, so far nobody really cares much about what I say about the occupation, and all attention is firmly focused on the secrets I reveal.”
The nuggets provided in Bregman’s book shed light on the extent of Israel’s intelligence collection agencies’ work not only in times of war, but also as Israel engaged with its neighbors in peace talks. Among the most fascinating transcripts provided are those of conversations held by President Clinton with Israeli and Syrian leaders during his 1999 push for a peace agreement between the two countries. While not stating the source of the transcripts, Bregman provides a peek behind the curtains of the peace process, where leaders speak with each other frankly, and at times bluntly.
Much of the classified information relates to the Israeli-Syrian negotiating track, a short-lived attempt by the Israeli government, led by Ehud Barak, to reach a peace accord with Syria, then led by Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Syrian president. Clinton, in these talks, tries to push each side an inch closer, explaining Assad’s constraints to Barak, and Barak’s political limitations to Assad. In an intercepted September 2, 1999, phone conversation between Clinton and Assad, the American president tried to explain to his Syrian counterpart that Israel’s Barak is “afraid that if he mentions explicitly the 4 June line [the demarcated border between Israel and Syria before the Six Day War] the matter will be leaked.” If that happens, Clinton continued, Barak is “afraid that over a period of time, the public in Israel, before its vote, would only hear about 4 June without understanding whether there was a [Syrian] response” to Israel’s requests regarding security arrangements.
As talks reached a dead end in December 1999, Clinton, in private conversations with Barak, clearly took the Israeli side. Syrian foreign minister Farouk al-Shara, who publicly spoke out against the Israeli positions, “screwed us,” he told Barak. Clinton showed the Israeli leader nothing but understanding. “If I were in your place,” he told Barak, whose insistence on Israeli control of the Sea of Galilee was seen by the Syrians as a key impediment, “I would also be concerned.”
Bregman said that Clinton’s tone and the empathy he had shown to Barak’s position were among the most telling revelations in the secret documents.
“I was shocked when, in one of the transcripts, Clinton said to the Israeli prime minister, ‘If I were you,’” Bergman said. This, he believes, demonstrates how American administrations “often act as the representatives of the Israelis in these talks and often do it better than the Israelis.”
When officials break with this rule, as in the case of Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who lashed out at Barak for dragging his feet in the negotiating, they are deemed by Israelis as being pro-Arab. After the talks ended, a secret transcript revealed in the book quotes Albright giving Barak a piece of her mind. “You have not got a better friend than the U.S. and you have no better friend than Clinton and you have played with his credibility,” she said.
Her positions came as no surprise to the Israelis, who had intercepted Albright’s communications and knew she was less sympathetic to the Israeli arguments. “This secret intelligence led the Israelis, for instance, to mark Madeleine Albright as an enemy,” Bregman said, “and that’s why the Israelis did all they could to sideline her.”
The publication of Bregman’s book coincided with a set of news articles detailing other instances of Israeli spying in America in recent years despite the Jewish state’s promise not to do so after the 1985 exposure of Jonathan Pollard, a naval intelligence analyst, as an Israeli spy.
But experts agree with Bregman that the recent proliferation of stories about Israeli espionage against America are not part of an orchestrated campaign. “I know that there are individuals in the FBI — and some of them specialize in counter-intelligence work — who believe that Israeli spies are constantly vacuuming up information here in the United States,” said Dan Raviv, author of books on Israeli espionage including the latest “Spies Against Armageddon.” “Articles like the recent bunch suggesting that Israelis are among the most active spies in this country are usually the result of a journalist asking FBI sources to comment on Israel. A writer wants to get a juicy story, and some FBI people are only too happy to pass along accusations and anecdotes.”
Bregman, 56, was born in Jerusalem to a family that’s been living in the historic land for 250 years. He served in the first Lebanon War, in 1982, as an artillery officer stationed in Beirut, but his views on Israel were shaped by the first outbreak of Palestinian resistance in the 1987 intifada.
“It caught me when I was traveling in Kathmandu, Nepal,” he recalled. “In a small corner shop, I spotted a picture of an Israeli soldier beating up a Palestinian demonstrator with the butt of his rifle, and my hair stood on end.”
From Nepal, Bregman sent a letter to the daily Haaretz, claiming that the brutality of Israeli soldiers against the Palestinians was of the kind that had once been wreaked upon the Jews, and stating that he would not return to a country that condones this type of conduct. But Bregman did come back to Israel, only to announce in a newspaper interview that if he were called upon to serve as a reserve officer in the Palestinian territories, he’d refuse. Soon after, he went on self-imposed exile to London, where he has lived ever since. “I love Israel but hate the occupation. Really, deeply hating it,” he said.
Bregman established a career as a historian and journalist, and he now teaches in the Department of War Studies in London’s King’s College. Still a harsh critic of the Israeli occupation, Bregman argues in his book that Israel had failed to “swallow the occupied territories” and that the occupation has essentially failed. He also accuses Israelis of demonstrating a lack of will to reach a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians.
In his academic work, Bregman has a flair for exposing sensational details kept in secret by all parties for years. One of these cases brought Bregman much attention, but later also a fair amount of sorrow. In 2002 he was the first to blow the cover of Ashraf Marwan, who was Egyptian president Nasser’s son-in-law and worked as a double agent for the Israelis and the Egyptians. Bregman first hinted at Marwan’s identity in a book he published, and after Marwan denied it, Bregman confirmed to an Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram that Nassar’s son-in-law was indeed the agent known only by the codename “Angel.” Marwan was Israel’s top intelligence asset in Egypt, and though many assumed the Israelis had a mole in Cairo’s top echelons, no one could name him. Despite the public outing of his identity, Marwan later reached out to Bregman and the two became close friends and worked together on the Egyptian spy’s memoir.
“On 26 June, 2007, he phoned me and left three messages on my answering machine, which was very unusual, as he had never before left me telephone messages. Marwan was a real spy, and spies do not leave messages on answering machines,” Bregman said. They scheduled a meeting, but it never took place; Marwan’s body was found outside his London apartment after falling, or being pushed, from his balcony. “It was a stupid mistake to expose him, and I regret it,” Bregman said. In his new book, he said he’s learned the lesson about the need to be careful in keeping confidentiality. “Never expose, never unmask a living spy, as it might — just might —kill him.”
But this is the only caveat for Bregman. As far as exposing secrets of the Israeli intelligence community, he has no second thoughts. A typical Israeli journalist, Bregman claimed, “has a little censor” in his head, “stopping him from writing anything which might hurt the State of Israel.” When it comes to revealing secrets, Bregman said, he does not share this Israeli sentiment. “I’m, first of all, a historian and journalist and only then a patriot.”