On Wednesday at about noon, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Paul Hirschson tweeted that it had been “cleared for publication”: Steven Sotloff, the American-Jewish journalist who was beheaded by Islamic State terrorists, was an Israeli citizen. A few minutes later, the official Twitter account of Israel’s embassy in London published a similar message. “Thoughts are with his family at this time,” the post concluded.
The news spread fast; Israeli media, which had refrained for weeks from publishing reports documenting Sotloff’s Israel ties, for fear of placing his life in still further danger, immediately published the articles it had hitherto withheld.
Despite the officials’ tweets, however, and the now countless accounts of Sotloff’s deep Israeli connections – Channel 2 on Thursday night showed pictures of his Israeli ID documents – Jerusalem is actually still formally refusing to acknowledge that Sotloff was a citizen of the Jewish state. Both the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office resolutely decline to comment on his death, and are neither confirming nor denying that the Florida native officially immigrated to Israel.
Which raises quite a few questions, including: With the cat long since let out of the bag, and by a Foreign Ministry spokesman and an embassy at that, why is Jerusalem keeping mum on the slain reporter’s Israeli connections? And, since he was a citizen in danger, did Israel try to rescue him or negotiate for his release?
The latter question is easier to answer. According to several well-placed sources, Israel almost certainly did not make concrete efforts to locate and rescue Sotloff, or to secure his release in non-military ways.
“It wasn’t Israel who sent him to Syria. He made an independent decision to travel to an enemy state, and Israel has no commitment to try to save him. None whatsoever,” a former top security official said. “Why would an Israeli soldier be forced to endanger his life to rescue someone who, on his own responsibility, went to a place where Israel has no way of reaching him?”
A second former senior official said that Sotloff’s Israeliness was a well-kept secret and that Israel had no interest to appear as a concerned party. Thus, the authorities in Jerusalem did not approach anyone in the Arab world about negotiating for his release, he said. And a daring military operation was not planned as it was simply not feasible, the source said. “No one knew where he was held.”
Sayeret Matkal, the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit known for daring rescue missions even in remote locales, does not usually “wade into Arab countries in order to free individuals. They didn’t even do it for Ron Arad or Elhanan Tannenbaum,” the source added, referring to a Israeli airman and an Israeli citizen captured in separate instances in Lebanon. “You don’t do these kinds of operations for individuals. The risk is just too high. The best thing Israel could do for Sotloff was make sure no one knew he was Israeli,” he said.
Now that Sotloff’s Israeli roots have been documented, Islamic State, the terrorist group that gruesomely beheaded him, may suspect any Westerners it manages to capture to be Zionist spies, or depict them as such for propaganda purposes, a former top official said. “This piece of information will also allow them to rewrite the Sotloff execution: they will say they executed a Zionist operative, and this will echo in many Muslim countries where people will willingly believe that he was a Mossad agent,” this source warned. “Never underestimate good conspiracy theories — they can undermine everything and then some, and they will.”
The revelation that Sotloff was Israeli could prove not only detrimental for future hostages, but also for international efforts to rally moderate Arab and Muslim countries against IS, the former official went on. Opposed as they are to the terrorist group, the fact that IS captured an American-Israeli could raise suspicions even among Jerusalem’s ostensible partners in the fight against Islamist extremism: “Why did you send one of your men to Syria without telling us?” the source envisaged Israel being asked, however risible the notion.
These and other concerns, according to various sources, go some way toward explaining why Israel is still refusing to officially acknowledge that Sotloff was a citizen. An official confirmation that the journalist held Israeli citizenship “can only wreak damage to any future efforts” to establish an alliance of some sorts with moderate Arab states to fend off the threat posed by IS and other extremist terrorist organizations, a former senior diplomatic official said.
In recent weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted repeatedly that Israel was encouraging the creation of such an axis, and he discussed the idea with Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday. “The regional change of moderate forces in the Middle East is creating a possible diplomatic horizon for the State of Israel. I think that it contains within it new possibilities for our country,” Netanyahu said last week.
Other sources reject this theory, arguing that confirming Sotloff’s Israeli identity would in no way undermine Jerusalem’s hopes to see moderate forces uniting against brutal terrorism sweeping the Middle East. The fact of Sotloff’s Israeli citizenship is now thoroughly documented, they argue. Keeping mum made absolute sense while there was even a faint hope of him emerging from captivity. It might even have been justified after he was killed because of various potential implications. But it makes no sense at all after Israel’s own officials acknowledged that Sotloff was, as one Hebrew newspaper called him, an “Israeli victim.”