Israel’s Spy Thriller Puts Old Assumptions to the Test

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Israeli security services engage in a form of profiling that rests on a basic assumption: Jewish Israelis are on Israel’s side. They are not likely to be terrorists bent on blowing up the airport, or spies working for the enemy.

This form of profiling almost always works. But it is not foolproof. In mid-June, a Jerusalem court indicted Dr. Gonen Segev on charges of “assisting the enemy in wartime and espionage.” In a statement issued on June 15, the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, alleged that Segev was recruited by Iranian agents in 2012.

The suspect is not just any Israeli citizen. He is a former Israel Defense Forces combat officer, an ex-member of a prestigious Galilee farm cooperative, and a medical doctor. In 1992, at age 35, he was elected to the Knesset on a right-wing ticket.

Two years later, Segev crossed the aisle, joined the ruling Labor coalition, and cast a decisive vote in favor of the Oslo peace accords. As a reward, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin appointed him Minister of Energy and Infrastructure. Young and dashing, he was the very picture of what well-born Israelis call “ahad m’shelanu,” one of ours.

Segev wasn’t popular with fellow politicians. Right-wingers considered him an unprincipled opportunist. Left-wingers saw him as an interloper and unwanted rival. Colleagues felt he looked down on them. He gave the impression that he considered the political arena too small for a man of his gifts. He also made no secret of the fact that he wanted to get rich.

When Segev left public life in 1996, there were no tearful farewell parties at the Knesset. Still, even his critics expected him to succeed. He was the type, they said.

Segev’s first move was to offer his services to a corporation engaged in areas he had dealt with as a government minister. He didn’t invent this kind influence peddling, of course, but his overtures were too blatant and he wound up under police investigation. Though he was never charged his public image was tarnished.

After that, Segev was largely under the radar until 2004, when he was arrested for trying to smuggle 32,000 tablets of Ecstasy into Israel from Amsterdam. To avoid detection at the airport, he had forged new dates in an expired diplomatic passport, left over from his Knesset days. He claimed that he thought the boxes contained M&Ms, but was sentenced to five years in prison and served three. Upon release, Segev moved to Nigeria to seek his fortune. After a few unsuccessful business ventures, he opened the Step-In Clinic in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.

The clinic specialized in providing medical services to embassies and the expat community. Many of Segev’s patients were Israeli diplomats and entrepreneurs. They didn’t care that he had lost his medical license in Israel or that he had served time. He was a Hebrew-speaking doctor and a former government minister — “one of ours.” 

Iranian intelligence has been active in Nigeria for years. They surely knew all about Segev and his shady past.

Now we enter the realm of allegations. In its statement, the Shin Bet told the court that Segev worked for Iranian intelligence for at least six years; traveled the world on a German diplomatic passport (he had married a German diplomat in Nigeria); visited Iran at least twice; and was supplied with sophisticated encryption tools. The statement also alleged that he introduced Israeli friends to Iranian agents masquerading as businessmen. 

The Israeli media went into an immediate frenzy of speculation about Segev’s motives. Some said it was an act of revenge against Israel for canceling his medical license. Others, recalling the drugs smuggling scam, argued that he had sold out his country for money. A former Mossad recruiting officer told a television interviewer that Segev had a psychopathic personality.

Segev has a different version. In an interview with Hadashot, an Israeli TV channel, Segev’s attorney said that his client had attempted to mislead Iranians in order to return home a hero.

On Thursday, anonymous “security sources” told the daily Yediot Aharonot that Segev had informed an unnamed Israeli official of his contact with Iran. The sources also said Segev’s activities fell short of espionage as alleged by Shin Bet investigators. They conceded, however, that he had been in touch with Iranian agents, and that this could have resulted in “disastrous consequences.”

If Segev was recruited, it would be an unprecedented coup for Iranian intelligence. Although the ex-minister has been out of office for two decades, he still knows a great deal about Israeli energy and infrastructure. Even more importantly, he has invaluable insider expertise on the country itself. As Amos Har-el, a highly regarded defense correspondent for Haaretz, wrote: “Anyone who was once a member of the club understands how things in Israel work behind the scenes — the complex web of political and business ties, the defense establishment’s role and influence.”

The Segev case remains under a gag order. It is unlikely, given the sensitivity of any security issues in Israel and the fierce protection they are accorded by the courts, that the full story will ever come out, certainly not in open court. But if he is found guilty of working with Iran, whatever information he may have passed along will pale in comparison to the damage he will have done to the “one of us” assumption at the heart of Israel’s traditional counterterrorism profiling.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.