WASHINGTON (JTA) – Is it connected to the classified-information case against two former AIPAC staffers? A bid to pressure Israel to concede more to the Palestinians ahead of a new round of peace talks? Connected to the murky circumstances of Israel’s mysterious airstrike in Syria last September?
For now, the main question surrounding the case of Ben-Ami Kadish, the octogenarian New Jersey man arrested this week for allegedly sharing classified information with Israel decades ago is: Why now?
The charges against Kadish are serious. He is accused of having shared with his Israeli handler U.S. nuclear secrets, plans for combat aircraft improvements and missile defense information.
But they should be way past their due date: The statute of limitations on the charges is 10 years, unless they incur the death penalty. Prosecutors have yet to say whether or not they intend to pursue the death penalty against Kadish, who has not been indicted.
Some Jewish community leaders are asking whether Kadish’s arrest is part of an attempt by federal agents to influence the outcome of the classified-information case against two former senior staffers for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman.
Rosen and Weissman were indicted nearly three years ago for allegedly sharing classified information on Iran and terrorism with journalists, colleagues and Israeli diplomats. But the case against the pair has yet to come to trial in large part because Judge T.S. Ellis III has limited its scope to proving that the defendants harmed U.S. interests with their alleged actions.
Assisting Israel in and of itself is not a crime, Ellis said. The judge also is allowing defendants to call senior Bush administration officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to testify. Those obstacles have led the government to file a rare pre-trial appeal with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.
One Jewish communal leader who spoke to JTA on condition of anonymity said the Kadish arrest constitutes an attempt “to taint the objectivity of jurors ahead of the trial” by creating an impression that spying for Israel has been pervasive.
Other U.S. Jewish leaders speculated whether the motive for the Kadish arrest was political, to give President Bush more leverage in pressing Israel in Israeli-Arab peace talks. Bush will be traveling to the Middle East next month for Israel’s 60th anniversary, and Israel has yet to agree to attend a summit in the Egyptian coastal city Sharm el-Sheik in the third week of May.
The president’s lame-duck status has hobbled his effectiveness, and he is eager for progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks he helped relaunch last November in Annapolis, Md.
“It’s not easy trying to conduct policy in Washington when you know that there is a powerful pro-Israel constituency out there that says otherwise,” said Lenny Ben-David, a former Israeli diplomat and a former AIPAC staffer. “One reoccurring tactic is to try to whittle support for Israel. So we get the occasional story of a spy, of weaponry sales to China, and it serves to whittle away the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
Another theory suggests that Israel might have leaked the information implicating Kadish in a bid to head off congressional inquiries into its Sept. 6, 2007 airstrike on Syria.
According to this theory, espoused this week in the American Conservative by former CIA agent Philip Giraldi, conservative Republicans in Congress and in the Bush administration want to use information implicating Syria and North Korea in nuclear weapons cooperation to tamp down outreach to both countries.
Anonymous sources from the State Department told The New York Times on Thursday that this was why the administration decided to release video evidence Thursday of North Koreans working at the Syrian site just before it was destroyed by Israel’s airstrike.
Giraldi suggested that Israeli doves who support Israel-Syria negotiations leaked the information on Kadish to create a distraction and scuttle efforts to further isolate the Assad regime.
“The leak of the information at the present time is believed to be linked to proposed closed congressional hearings at the end of this month in which the White House had planned to use several Israeli intelligence officers to provide evidence on the alleged Syrian nuclear program that was bombed on September 6, 2007,” he wrote. “It is now unlikely that Israeli intelligence officers will allow themselves to be questioned because they would almost certainly be asked about Israeli spying on the U.S.”
As for Kadish, if the complaint sheet filed by FBI agents is true, Kadish may have set his own trap by accepting a phone call on March 20 from his alleged former Israeli handler, Yosef Yagur.
According to the complaint, Yagur called just hours after Kadish apparently had been truthful with investigators in a first interview and urged Kadish to lie in subsequent interviews. The call was recorded.
Kadish allegedly lied in the March 21 interview, saying he had not spoken with Yagur – extending a conspiracy that otherwise ostensibly had ended in November 1985 to the March 20 phone call.
Yagur, who is not charged in the Kadish case, also had received classified information during the same time period from Jonathan Pollard. A civilian U.S. Navy analyst, Pollard was convicted of spying for Israel and sentenced to life in prison.
Ronald Olive, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service special agent who led the Pollard investigation, told JTA that the alleged continuing relationship between Yagur and Kadish might have raised flags. The FBI complaint reported that the two men maintained at least social ties over the years and met in Israel as recently as 2004.
If the allegations are true, Olive said, Kalish “is an agent of a foreign government, before in the 1980s and now having contact with him again. Because the contact hasn’t stopped, the FBI decided they had what they needed, they had probable cause.”
Olive said the Kadish case was nowhere near as serious as Pollard, who stole 360 cubic feet of documents as opposed to the relatively small amount of information Kadish is alleged to have handed over. Pollard also had top secret clearance, while Kadish had only secret clearance, meaning the quality of the information was less damaging.
Still, Olive was disappointed. He had viewed the Pollard case “as a major mistake by one of our closest allies, and countries make mistakes and move on.” At the time he had accepted Israel’s assurances that there were no other spies.
“I didn’t suspect that Israel would tell us there was no one else and there was,” he said.
There are signs the FBI initially was not seeking Kadish’s arrest. The complaint sheet emphasizes his candid cooperation in the initial interview and notes that the agents chose not to hand Kadish a subpoena they had obtained from a grand jury – a sign they viewed him as cooperative and not a target.
Even now, it’s not clear the FBI sees Kadish as a serious target: The agency did not object to bail set at a relatively low $300,000, allowing him to go free.
So if the FBI approached this as a case that might not have even obtained a criminal conviction, the question remains: Why now?
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Southern New York, which is prosecuting the case, declined further comment.
Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, would say only that the government takes such acts seriously, whenever they happened.