Tinker, Tailor, Journalist, Spy? Israel Expels Russian Journalist

If you thought the world of spy accusations died along with the Cold War, think again. Last Friday, Konstantin Kapitonov, a veteran Middle East reporter, was ordered to leave Israel after being charged with spying, Russian and Israeli media reported.

Citing an official document issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, Israeli media earlier reported that Kapitonov, who has worked in Israel since 2001, was working for Russian intelligence.

Kapitonov, 58, who since 1975 has worked as a journalist in the region, denies the allegations.

For their part, Russian officials did not provide any insights on the Israeli decision.

In his commentary published on Monday on the Web site of the Moscow News weekly newspaper, Kapitonov says the real cause for his expulsion was a recent article he published in a Moscow daily in which he sharply criticized Israel’s treatment of non-Jewish Russians who arrived in the Jewish state during the las! t wave of aliyah from the former Soviet Union.

“In order to find the facts of discrimination against the Russian ethnic minority in Israel, one does not have to be very resourceful. They are on the surface,” Kapitonov wrote in his July 13 article titled Being Russian in Israel.

Kapitonov alleged that Russians are banned from “more than 80 professions” in Israel, and that ethnic Russians can be fired from work if their employer spots a cross on them.

Russians in Israel “can be killed only for speaking Russian, and their murderers will not suffer the punishment they deserve,” he wrote in the popular Moscow daily Trud.

“In that article, I just touched upon an issue that is very sensitive for Israel: discrimination against ethnic Russians,” Kapitonov wrote in his commentary for a Moscow daily, written last week before he was expelled from Israel. “To be honest, I had no idea that my article would cause such a stir.”

The Israeli media earlier reported, citing ! an official document issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, that Kapit onov was a Russian spy.

“Kapitonov is a representative of Russian intelligence who is in Israel under the cover of journalistic work, through which he establishes connections with Israeli citizens, and uses some of them in intelligence purposes,” last Friday’s edition of the Israeli daily Ma’ariv said, quoting from a letter from Ariel Sharon’s office.

Kapitonov said that a few months before the recent scandal erupted representatives of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, demanded that he stop collecting intelligence data for Russia.

Yevgeny Satanovsky, the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, who has known Kapitonov for a number of years, said he was surprised by the Israeli move.

“I have no doubt that not all diplomats or journalists working abroad work only as diplomats and journalists,” he said. “But Israeli intelligence must have some more urgent business to take care of than chasing” a popular Russian journalist.

He said he did! not expect the scandal to mar Israeli-Russian relations.

But some of Kapitonov’s critics said that whether or not he was a spy is not of particular importance.

More important, they said, is the fact that Kapitonov poured salt on an open wound for Russian Israelis by lying about a controversial issue.

Semyon Dovzhik, a spokesman for the Jewish Agency in Israel in Jerusalem, clashed with Kapitonov in a live radio talk show shortly after Kapitonov’s controversial piece was published.

He told JTA that Kapitonov likely was paid to write the article in order to create an uproar in Israel and to aid a new group, recently founded to defend the interests of ethnic Russians in Israel, to raise funds.

Kapitonov denied the accusations but admitted that he used a news release by this group, the Russian Information and Cultural Center in Israel, to write his article.

“There are tensions in the Israeli society, tensions between various ethnic groups and between the! long-time resident and the new repatriates,” Dovzhik said. “But norma lly these tensions are resolved in a civilized manner, and not the way Kapitonov alleged in his article.”

A retired Russian diplomat who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity, said the Israeli move to expel Kapitonov was not surprising.

“Kapitonov is an experienced journalist but he could have some other interests while working in Israel,” the source, who has experience in the Middle East, said.

“Had he been a real spy he would rather sit quiet and not attract that much attention to his persona,” he said. “On the other hand, he was aware that Israel was suspecting him of working for intelligence, and that the days of his work in Israel were numbered, so he may have decided to slam the door by writing an article that was clearly offensive to Israel.”

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