Minister, doctor, smuggler, spy: 9 things to know for June 19
Israel media review

Minister, doctor, smuggler, spy: 9 things to know for June 19

The Shin Bet reveals it captured a former lawmaker spying for Iran, but despite his past and lack of current access to secrets, nobody is ready to dismiss it as numbskullduggery

Then-MK Gonen Segev seen outside the Knesset on March 15, 1993. (Flash90)
Then-MK Gonen Segev seen outside the Knesset on March 15, 1993. (Flash90)

1. The capture of former minister, drug smuggler, and now apparently Iranian spy Gonen Segev takes the cake as biggest and most bizarre piece of news during Israel’s summer of weirdness, breaking into the open Monday as the Shin Bet revealed some details of the case and shunting news of flammable kites and flying condom bombs to the side.

  • Segev is accused of taking information to the Iranians, but what exactly that info was and why the disgraced ex-politician would take it to the Iranians remains one of the many gaping holes in the case, even as new details come out in dribs and drabs.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth recycles its prisoner X moniker — last used for Ben Zygier — in detailing the secrecy surrounding the case as the Shin Bet brought Segev back to Israel, dressing him in disguise for middle of the night remand hearings at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court, with the court agreeing to shut off security cameras and forgo a transcription to keep the whole thing off the books.
  • The paper also reports that officials feared he could suffer the same fate of the last prisoner X — suicide — and so they put him in solitary confinement in a Shin Bet holding facility, where they could keep an eye on him themselves.
  • The parallels with Zygier don’t end there. According to several reports, Segev told investigators that his actual plan was to be a double agent and come back to Israel a hero. (Zygier had apparently tried to make up for a mistake by creating his own sting operation that ended up getting an agent killed and was arrested as a spy for Iran.) In Hadashot News’s telling, he fashioned himself an “Israeli James Bond.”

2. The man who knew too little may be a more apt description of Segev’s spy career. Having been out of government for decades, many wonder what damaging info he would have had access to.

  • Haaretz reports that defense officials doubt he had up-to-date info to pass along to Tehran, but the paper also quotes sources saying that his work as a doctor for the Israeli embassy at Nigeria gave him an “open door” there, and that during his interrogation, which he is cooperating with, he was presented with proof that his actions did hurt Israel.
  • Chuck Freilich, a former deputy head of the national security council, tells ToI that “I would guess there’s very little that’s still relevant.”
  • As ToI’s Judah Ari Gross notes, “the information that Segev had access to would be valuable, for instance, if Iran planned to conduct cyber attacks on Israeli infrastructure. However, given that more than 20 years have passed since he held the position, much of this information is likely to have been outdated and therefore less useful.”
  • “While Segev is the most senior spy to have been caught operating in Israel, he is not the worst. Others have caused far greater damage. Marcus Klingberg, who gave the Soviets secrets from the Israel Institute for Biological Research, is the most prominent,” notes Israel Hayom’s Yoav Limor. “Segev’s case is different because he did not have the goods to help the Iranians in any significant way. He served in the government over two decades ago, and it is safe to assume the classified information he had was not particularly relevant.”

3. Speaking of Klingberg, lawyer Michael Sfard, who co-authored a book with him, tells ToI’s Raoul Wootliff that the death penalty is on the table for Segev, though Klingberg, who passed information about Israel’s chemical and biological activities to the Soviet Union, only got 20 years.

  • A Justice Ministry official confirms to ToI that that the death penalty is an option for prosecutors to pursue in Segev’s case, but admits it would be an “unprecedented penalty” for espionage.

4. More damaging than the info Segev had is the very fact of his position, which makes him a veritable get for Iran, even if his information wasn’t all up to date.

  • “Assuming the charges prove true, this case shows how focused Iranian intelligence is on Israel. In addition to gathering military information and increased efforts at cyberspying, Iran and Hezbollah haven’t neglected that traditional source of information, human agents,” writes Amos Harel in Haaretz.
  • Yedioth’s Ronen Bergman quotes a Shin Bet source saying that the case shows that the “Iranians are shooting in all directions,” showing the breadth of Iran’s efforts to recruit humint: “The Iranians are recruiting anyone they can, from valuable targets like Segev to more junior Palestinians, in the hopes that they will each bring some info. The Iranians, like us, see themselves in the midst of a battle against Israel and are prepared for a possible escalation in the form of intelligence gathering.”

5. Segev’s past as a disgraced former politico sent to jail for smuggling drugs, and then in self-imposed exile in Nigeria because Israel revoked his medical license, may or may not knock his value down a notch, but it does seem to temper the shock of the case, or at least provide for good comedy fodder.

  • “A man who forged a passport and smuggled ecstasy has no god, so what’s it to him to spy for the Iranians,” Yedioth quotes a source who knows Segev saying.
  • “If you judge him by his actions, it seems that Gonen Segev is trying to prove that he has few red lines,” reads the lede to Israel Hayom’s news story on the case, seemingly mocking the man whose M&Ms defense already made him an object of derision.
  • And the drugs weren’t even his biggest crime to some. Right-wing news site Israel National News quotes ministers slamming Segev for his vote that allowed the Knesset to pass the Oslo Accords in 1995. “He underwent a moral deterioration in the Oslo Accords, when he sold his votes, and then when he sold drugs – personal and moral deterioration,” the site quotes Gilad Erdan saying.
  • Eitan Haber, who was Yitzhak Rabin’s chief of staff (Rabin being the one who made Segev a minister), tells the Daily Beast he recalls Segev was “obsessed with money. It was money, money, money, always. He was money-crazed.”

6. Yet in Nigeria he seemed to have found himself again. The Walla news site notes that Segev was extremely popular among Israelis, including diplomats, in Nigeria, and was well known as a doctor for them, even receiving an official thank you from the Foreign Ministry in 2014 for saving the life of an embassy guard who came down with a disease.

  • “We joked that he came all the way here because nobody in Israel wanted to work with him. Most of the doctors that foreign nationals go to in Nigeria are locals, so it seems that to be able to go to an Israeli doctor was a lot nicer, even if it is Gonen Segev,” an Israeli living in Nigeria tells the site.

7. The media is also having a field day Monday with the revelation in the New Yorker that US President Donald Trump signed a secret pledge to not pressure Israel on its nuclear program.

  • The New Yorker article describes a tense scene at the start of the administration as Ambassador Ron Dermer came into the White House and demanded the pledge, which other presidents in the past have signed.
  • “This is our fuckin’ house,” an unnamed US official was quoted saying in response to Dermer’s demands, which came as Michael Flynn was about to resign.
  • The pledge helps Israel keep the lid on what Haaretz calls “Israel’s worst kept secret,” i.e. Israel’s reported nuclear arsenal.
  • A SIPRI report Monday kept the count of Israeli nuclear warheads at 80, the same as years past and wholly unconfirmed.
  • Jumping on the report, though, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif attempts to turn the conversation about nukes in the Middle East back on Israel: “None are in #Iran; rather, they’re at the fingertips of a warmonger who howls incessantly about fabricated Iranian ‘ambitions.’”

8. Israelis are also casting a surprisingly close look at the migrant issue rocking America. Haaretz features a picture of a small girl during an arrest on the border as its main front page picture and the paper’s Tali Krupkin profiles Stephen Miller, the Jewish aide who she says is apparently behind the policy of separating kids from parents.

  • Krupkin quotes a number of Miller high school classmates who note his nativist tendencies back then as well.
  • Miller acted in a way that attested to “his strong hate for non-white, especially Latinos,” one person is quoted saying.

9. To Israel Hayom’s Yoram Ettinger, Americans should be paying closer attention to Israel, particularly Israeli claims on the Golan Heights which affect America, after Ambassador David Friedman chided MKs for trying to pressure the US to recognize the annexation.

  • “In the modern era, Syria has become a center of incitement against the US, anti-US terror, drug terror, human rights violations, threats against any pro-America Arab regime, strategic cooperation with the ayatollahs, China and North Korea and close ties with the anti-American Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador,” Ettinger writes.“An Israeli retreat from the Golan, heaven forfend, would harm Israel’s deterrence and its role as a forward American position, and would encourage Syria’s aggressiveness against Israel.”
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