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The Kadish Connection

Americans slept safer in their beds last week after the FBI, in a daring raid on a New Jersey old-age home, nabbed an 84-year-old retiree accused of having spied for Israel a quarter-century ago.

The suspect, Ben-Ami Kadish, a former engineer with the U.S. Army, reportedly confessed that he had checked out some 50 to 100 documents from the office library and given them to a handler at the Israeli consulate in New York. All this took place between 1979 and 1985. Kadish faces possible life in prison, perhaps even the death penalty, if he lives that long. Not to mention any overdue library fines.

The alert reader might look at the dusty case and see all the elements of a Borscht Belt comedy routine. But few of the principals are laughing. Not the feds, who call it a serious breach of national security. Not the Israelis, who fear a new dispute with Washington at a dangerous moment in Middle East diplomacy. Certainly not Kadish.

For Israel, the biggest question is why the feds bothered dredging up the scandal at this late date. No one suggests that any high-stakes secrets were compromised. In any case, to win a conviction, the government must prove Kadish intended to harm the United States, which is wildly implausible. It’s likely, in fact, that the case has passed the statute of limitations and will be thrown out of court. What do the feds think they can accomplish, beyond embarrassing Jerusalem and damaging American-Israeli relations?

Three theories have been making the rounds in recent days. One is that embarrassing Jerusalem was precisely the point. In this view, the outgoing Bush administration is determined to leave a legacy by securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and it doesn’t want Israel to get in the way. Drumming up a new Israeli spy scandal, petty and outdated though it might be, could help to remind Israel that America can play rough.

Theory No. 2 is that the arrest was the latest twist in the never-ending Jonathan Pollard spy saga. Pollard is in the 23rd year of a life sentence for passing secrets to Israel. It’s by far the heftiest sentence ever given to an American caught spying for a friendly country.

Israel has insisted for years that Pollard was an isolated case, not part of a broader spy operation. The Pentagon always suspected Israel wasn’t telling the truth. The Kadish case reinforces the suspicion. According to media reports, Kadish and Pollard shared the same Israeli handler, a consular official attached to Israel’s super-secret (and now disbanded) Scientific Liaison Bureau. Federal agents are surely wondering how many others were on his list.

It’s long been rumored that Pollard’s draconian sentence was meant to pressure Israel for more information on its operations — or, by other accounts, as a warning to American Jews not to forget their obligations as citizens. Intentionally or not, Kadish’s crisis reinforces the pressure on both fronts, Israeli and Jewish.

And why now? There has been talk of President Bush freeing Pollard in a final gesture toward Israel before he leaves office. There’s no chance of that now.

The third theory is that Kadish’s arrest was timed to shake things up in the Virginia courthouse where two former pro-Israel lobbyists are due to go on trial for espionage. The two are charged with receiving classified information from a Pentagon official and passing it to an Israeli diplomat. It’s the first time espionage laws have been used to charge private citizens who receive secrets, as opposed to government officials who disclose them.

The trial was originally scheduled to open in January 2006, but it has been delayed repeatedly. Each delay raises new questions about the government’s tactics and the strength of its case. Taking the Kadish affair public at this juncture could have been a clever way for the feds to shift opinion toward themselves — and away from Israel.

It’s possible that the timing of Kadish’s arrest is purely coincidental and has nothing to do with outside events. Anything is possible, though coincidences are rare in the world of espionage and counter-espionage. On the other hand, the impact of the Kadish arrest is the same, whatever the motives. Israel is put in an awkward position just as Bush arrives to press for compromise. Pollard is back in the headlines, reviving old suspicions in some quarters about Israel’s reliability as an ally — and about American Jews’ loyalty.

All this trouble could have been avoided if Israel had kept its promises to America to respect its friendship, and to Diaspora Jews not to put their patriotism under suspicion. But that is water under the bridge, or so we hope. Now is the time to insist that the federal government obey its own laws, ensure equal justice for all citizens, end its pointless pursuit of octogenarians — and avoid any appearance of profiling Jews.

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