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Ha'aretz, October 30, 1998

Another look into the murky depths of the Pollard affair

Material coming to light recently shows that key figures in the espionage imbroglio with the U.S. are still trying to keep a lid on the truth, covering up for one another.

By Amir Oren


On May 29, exactly twelve years before Benjamin Netanyahu won the elections for prime minister, the Pollard affair broke out. The year was 1984. The prime minister was Yitzhak Shamir and the defense minister was Moshe Arens.They didn't know that then-IDF chief of Moshe Levy, his deputy David Ivry, and air force commander Amos Lapidot had given their blessings to a meeting between air force Colonel Aviam Sela, and an officer from the U.S. naval intelligence bureau. Few of them, both then and later, bothered to find out his name: Jonathan Jay Pollard. The upper echelons, particularly at the ministerial level, for the most part preferred not to know the identity and location of intelligence sources.

Much, but far from everything about the Pollard affair has been published since his arrest in 1985, caught by the FBI selling secret information to Israel. A great deal has also been forgotten, or distorted. Not everything is known even to Jonathan Jay Pollard himself, and not everything about him is known to the public.

There are secrets that have been buried in safes for practical reasons, and there are secrets that include embarrassing details that have been concealed to protect politicians, officers, and bureaucrats from being held responsible - whether for the negligence or policy - for the affair

But some details recently emerged following the death of former finance minister Yitzhak Modai. They come from a number of sources including documentation of conversations between ministers (among them Modai) while serving in the national unity government when it was headed by Shimon Peres after Pollard was uncovered by the U.S. authorities.

An innocent beginning

The beginning appeared to be innocent enough: Sela, formerly head of operations for the air force, later a base commander tipped as a candidate to one day become air force commander, was in New York for studies. Another air force colonel introduced him to Yossi Yagur, then serving as scientific consul in New York.Scientific consuls (in New York and Los Angeles) and the attaches (in Washington and European capitals) were engaged in the collection of scientific, technological and industrial data. For the most part this was open work, from public sources. Sometimes, however, it was clandestine, in which they reported to the Lakam, the Scientific Liaison Bureau, at the Defense Ministry, originally opened in 1962, and neglected to accustom itself to the difference between French and American backing. Twenty years later, it appears that the people at Lakam still persisted in using methods developed at the beginning of the 1960s.

Their appetite was insatiable. Israel wanted more and more information about weapons systems in the hands of the Arab states, among them weapons from the Communist bloc that had found their way into western hands, as well as western systems that had been sold to the Arabs.

The basic principle was simple: the naive Americans would give us military, economic and diplomatic backing, and with their generous financial assistance, we would acquire a knife to stick in their back.

Until 1981, the Scientific Liaison Bureau was run by Binyamin Blumberg. Already then, the gamble was daring to the point of madness, although there was a semblance of oversight. Zvi Tsur, chief of general staff at the time the bureau was established served as right-hand man (in effect, the deputy) to then-defense minister Moshe Dayan, and conscientiously held weekly meetings with Blumberg. By the mid-'70s, the secret services sub-committee of the Knesset Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, headed by Moshe Arens, was also regularly briefed on the activities of the bureau.

Enter Sharon

But when Ariel Sharon took over the defense ministry, he got rid of Blumberg and appointed Mossad veteran Rafi Eitan (not the same as Rafael "Raful" Eitan, the former chief of staff now minister of agriculture). The special relationship between Eitan and Sharon is evident in the timing of the bureau head's demands to strengthen the position of his mini-Mossad.

Only after Sharon lost his job as defense minister at the beginning of 1983, replaced by Moshe Arens, did Eitan take the trouble, in September of that year, to write to then-director general of the Defense Ministry, Menachem "Mendi" Meron, to tell him about Lakam. "It is an intelligence organization in every respect, which is engaged in the gathering, study and distribution of intelligence data," Eitan wrote, adding: "In essence, it is no different from the Mossad and the Shin Bet security services. It needs to be directly subordinate to the authorizing echelon."

Under the guise of recommending an organizational restructuring, Eitan asked that he be granted a status parallel to that of the heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet. Had this request been granted, a direct and undeniable connection would have been established between him and the political level.

When his request was refused - either for practical reasons or because of the suspicion with which Sharon's people were held by Arens' people - he satisfied himself with leaking reports to government ministers, and close collaboration with elements of the intelligence community. They had learned their lesson when they were caught with their pants down at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, and had stepped up their intelligence gathering efforts, ready to take information from wherever it came.

At first, Pollard served as a kind of department store for documents, photographs and transcripts. But from the fall of 1984, he was asked for specific information.

When they foolishly provided him with a document that had reached them from another source, they essentially laid the groundwork for the eventual suspicion, after Pollard was caught, that he was in fact part of a formal network of spies operating in the U.S. on behalf of Israel.

It was a mistaken assumption: Pollard worked alone and did not know any other sources of Israeli intelligence throughout the world. In this respect, Pollard, to the secret satisfaction of his controls, was "a simple case."

Had other sources, elsewhere in the world, been caught, the result would have been a catastrophe, or as one Moda'i associate said, "nuclear detonation" in Israel's relations with those countries.

Many of these sources elsewhere in the world had volunteered, or were recruited, to help Israel on Zionist grounds; in a few cases this commitment was fortified by a monthly salary. Such a salary not only clouds the source's motivations, it also endangers him in case anyone take an interest in the origins of regular deposits in his bank account.

The rule, as explained to then-finance minister Modai, who took a natural interest in the financial side of the affair, was that "the Mossad and the Shin Bet pay, and Lakam doesn't - except for expenses." But there were also exceptions to this rule.


Pollard wanted money. Lots of money. At their first meeting with him, after they made sure he wasn't bait in an American trap, Sela and Yagur got the impression that Pollard's motives were mixed between support for Israel and dissatisfaction with his superiors who did not sufficiently appreciate him (as Pollard saw it). But according to Sela, the economic motivation was of utmost importance to Pollard, who wanted thousands of dollars a month. Eventually, his recruiters would have to cool his ardor, telling him to tone down his behavior so as not to make his sudden wealth so obvious.

In their initial arrangement, after Sela gave him $2,000 (supposedly from his own private account), $1,500 was paid for every packet of documents delivered at the monthly meeting with Yossi Yagur, the scientific consul.

As he quickly proved himself an industrious, wholesale supplier of classified documents, Pollard earned his keep, which was raised to $2,500 a month plus a matching sum that was set aside as a a sort of scholarship or provident fund.

He betrayed the Americans, and Israel betrayed him: Yagur, who was based in New York, was presented to Pollard as someone who would fly in especially from Israel to meet with the spy. It appealed to his self-importance.

Only on the eve of his arrest did Sela tell Pollard that Yagur was stationed in New York - and then Yagur was surprised by distress calls from Pollard early in the morning.

Pollard was promised that Israel would deposit $30,000 in an account in Pollard's fictional Israeli name. (The first name he was given was "Yaron Cohen," which is Dana International's name; his forged Israeli passport was in the name Danny Cohen.)

When Pollard was arrested, he believed that there was $30,000 waiting for him in Switzerland. He didn't know that the sum actually deposited was a meager $500.

His delusions however did find an appreciative audience. He enjoyed impressing Sela - who planned the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor - with "private mind games," among them imaginative ideas for military operations throughout the Middle East.


Despite his image as a master spy, Eitan acted with astonishing amateurism. He personally met with Pollard in Washington, Paris - and at the department of ophthalmology at Beilinson Hospital, when he was recovering from surgery. He did not tell then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin about internal Lakam opposition to the Pollard ploy coming from the deputy head of the Scientific Liaison Bureau, Dr. S., who was strongly against the recruitment of Pollard and the use of Sela.

And Eitan made no preparations for an escape route for Pollard should the need arise.

Rabin would later say that involving Sela, one of the highest-ranking officers in the air force, was a greater indiscretion on the bureau's part than the actual recruitment of Pollard.

The famous - or infamous - details of Pollard's escape attempt, trying to get into the Israeli Embassy in Washington, has often been described in a distorted way.

It was not Pollard who was expelled from the embassy grounds, but rather his car, as no one in the embassy had a clue to the identity of the driver of the red Mustang that sped in, with his wife and their cat Dusty, directly behind the blue Caprice driven by then-diplomat Elyakim Rubinstein (now attorney general), attached at the time to then-defense minister Moshe Arens for diplomatic talks.

Rubinstein did not eject Pollard - he had no idea what was going on at the embassy. It was the administrative officer, who was summoned to prevent the entry of an unknown vehicle, perhaps a car bomb on its way to an attack, into the embassy parking lot.

A fateful, quadrilateral misunderstanding on the parts of Sela, Yagur, Eitan and Pollard, brought the spy to the embassy.

When he arrived, he insisted on driving in instead of entering on foot like anyone else, far from the reach of the FBI.

More reasonable behavior would only have cast suspicion on Pollard and on Israel, but without conclusive evidence. At most, Pollard would have been jailed for a short period.

Reward and Punishment

It was Pollard who brought the imbroglio down on himself. Israel contributed to it because it tried to conceal Sela's involvement, infuriating the Americans with crude attempts to prevaricate, eventually followed by self-restraint - until Pollard's sentencing. Not helping matters was that Israel rewarded Eitan (then-commerce and industry minister Ariel Sharon appointed him chairman of the board of Israel Chemicals) and gave Sela a promotion.

Thomas Pickering, then U.S. ambassador to Israel, warned against appointing Sela to commander of intelligence for the air force, with the rank of brigadier general, so the air force tried appointing Sela commander of Tel Nof base.

Rabin knuckled under twice - first to the air force officers in the "pilots' revolt" (two angry meetings at the Sde Dov airport with the force's top brass, Lapidot, Herzl Bodinger, Ron Huldai and others) which escalated into threats of resignation and petitions to the High Court of Justice, and then to the American pressure. The generals did not display political wisdom and Rabin did not display remarkable stamina.

The politicians tried to discredit their opponents by citing extraneous considerations.

Rabin attributed the personal career ambitions of then-federal prosecutor Joseph di Genova, who did a good job at finding out that the Israeli cover-up was crudely sewn together. According to Rabin, Genova hoped to use the Pollard case as a springboard to the head of the FBI.

After he was questioned by Judge Abe Sofer, the legal advisor to the U.S. Defense Department, Sharon claimed Sofer's wanted an appointment to the Supreme Court. According to Sharon, there was also a professional consideration: If Israel were to betray those who worked for the state, others would hesitate to be recruited to its service.

Shimon Peres was almost as concerned about domestic politics as he was about the American reaction. He was proud of the fact that he, Rabin, and Shamir refrained from mutual recriminations, and how it prevented the media from turning it all into an Israeli "Watergate" or a new version of the Lavon affair, with its troubling, echoing question "who gave the order" for a sabotage campaign in Egypt in the 1950s.

This wouldn't have happened to the chief rabbi, said Rabin, but it happened to us. "One of these days," Moda'i said to Rabin, "I'll ask who gave the order."

You can ask, Rabin told him, "because who hasn't? in all the long history of Israel."

Peres worked hard to prevent public discussion of that very question, assuming that a trial for the authorization (presumably Eitan would have been the one to go on trial) would have been an admission that it was Israeli policy to spy on the United States. That would be "a bombshell that would roll from party to party and from level to level." (Years later, Netanyahu would take pride in heading the Israeli government that admitted Pollard was an Israeli spy).

Like Moda'i, Ezer Weizman left responsibility for the affair on the shoulders of the troika (Rabin, Peres and Shamir, three prime ministers then-past and present who served as the inner cabinet of the national unity government). Weizman's view was "if you don't share all the information with us, there's no need to share the responsibility with us."

On another occasion, Rabin was asked to explain his association with Steve Stern, the man who introduced Pollard to Sela. Maybe Stern has a book with a dedication from me, said Rabin, but lots of people have books like that, photographs and letters from the time I was prime minister, or defense minister or ambassador.

The treatment of the Pollard affair was hurt by the fact that at the same time two other significant espionage scandals broke: the Shin Bet affair (where the head of the Shin Bet, Avraham Shalom, played a central role) and Irangate. The Pollard affair also has a link to the Rami Dotan affair. The Israeli-American lawyer Harold Katz played roles in both cases, as well as other affairs.

But the most depressing fact about the Pollard affair is that many of the people from the professional and political levels who failed so badly then, are still at the top - and still covering up for one another.



(c) copyright 1998 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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