Monday’s revelation that former minister Gonen Segev allegedly spied for Iran shocked Israel.
While he likely did not transmit to the enemy information that could cause great harm to Israel’s security, the mere fact that the Islamic Republic’s secret service managed to recruit a senior member of the Jewish state’s government, someone who could potentially have been privy to highly sensitive material, can be seen as a veritable achievement for Iran.
Just a few days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in late April, proudly revealed that the Mossad had obtained Iran’s secret nuclear archive in a stunning intelligence operation, the Shin Bet and Israel Police arrested Segev “on suspicion of having aided the enemy in wartime and spied against the State of Israel” and other crimes, the Shin Bet said.
According to the domestic intelligence agency, in charge of counter-espionage, Segev has been in touch with Iranian officials since 2012 and has since twice been to Tehran to meet with his handlers. Whether or not Segev provided Iran with valuable information, the mere fact that it took Israel several years to catch on may also harm its reputation as an intelligence powerhouse.
The Shin Bet said Segev gave his Iranian handlers, among other things, information about Israel’s “energy economy, security sites in Israel, and diplomatic and security personnel and buildings.”
So far, however, it seems that the regime is not particularly eager to celebrate the Segev episode. In the hours after the news broke in Israel, Iranian state media kept largely mum.
Only one Iranian news site, ISNA, reported on the disgraced former minister’s arrest, writing: “The Zionist regime is famous for faking files against Iran, and, after the violation of the [Iran nuclear deal] by the US government, has recently launched a new round of Iranophobia. The experts have assessed this accusation [against Segev] as part of Netanyahu’s effort to create fake files against Iran.”
Segev, who served as energy and infrastructure minister between January 1995 and June 1996, is the highest-ranking Israeli official ever charged with spying on Israel. He joins a long of senior officials, including MKs and top security brass, who have been charged with treason through the decades, though the 62-year-old is the first to have been credibly accused to have worked for Iran.
Just two years ago, newly discovered KGB files revealed the existence of an extensive Soviet spy ring in Israel, encompassing Knesset members, senior IDF officers, engineers, members of the Israeli intelligence community, and others who worked on classified projects.
Two-term MK Elazar Granot, who in the 1980s served on the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, was said to have been recruited by the KGB before the 1967 Six Day War, but the connection ended when the Russians closed their embassy in Israel in 1967.
According to the records of Vasili Mitrokhin, a senior KGB archivist who defected to the UK in 1992 with a suitcase of secretd documents, Russian intelligence in the 1950s targeted Israel’s ruling left-wing Mapam party. Moscow succeeded in recruiting at least three MKs.
Another alleged Israeli agent outed by Mitrokhnin was code-named “Boker” and was a senior engineer in a top-secret national project. A third was “Jimmy,” who had access to classified information about the Israeli aerospace industry, and was involved in building the ill-fated Lavi aircraft. Another Soviet spy was part of the team behind Israel’s Merkava tank.
Perhaps the most notorious Israeli spy was Marcus Klingberg, deputy director of the top-secret Israel Institute for Biological Research at Ness Ziona, south of Tel Aviv, and a professor of epidemiology at Tel Aviv University.
The Shin Bet arrested the Polish-born Klingberg in 1983, and subsequently charged him with having passed information to the KGB about Israel’s chemical and biological activities for three decades. He claimed to have spied for ideological reasons, saying he felt he owed the Soviet Union a debt for its central role in defeating the Nazis. He spent nearly two decades in prison and passed away in 2015 at 97.
Another high-profile case of a high-ranking Israeli official found guilty of espionage was Yisrael Bar, a senior employee in the Defense Ministry. An Austrian-born former lieutenant colonel in the IDF, Bar too spied for the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and died behind bars.
Israel’s intelligence community has also had to deal with double agents.
Jerusalem-born Shimon Levinson was a colonel in the IDF and former head of the documentation section of the Military Intelligence Directorate. In the 1960s and 1970s, he worked for the Shin Bet and the Mossad in various mid-level positions. In 1978, he retired from Israeli intelligence community and tried, unsuccessfully, to run a business.
Driven by financial worries, he offered to spy for the KGB, eventually handing the Soviets much classified material about the structure of the Israeli intelligence community.
“The information provided included names and details of units and sub-units, names of their chiefs as well as modus operandi,” the Shin Bet states on its website. “Due to Levinson’s varied background, his familiarity with and access to top secret information, he was considered one of the highest-ranking KGB agents in Israel, causing Israel the gravest intelligence scathe.”
After the Mossad found out Levinson was spying for the Russians, he was lured back to Israel and arrested in 1991. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison, where he shared a cell with Klingberg.
Lessons from Levinson’s case have been “learnt and assimilated,” the Shin Bet said at the time, “thus contributing to a process of implementing new working procedures, safeguarding from similar future occurrences.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.