Unexchanged Spies

Yossi Melman - Ha'aretz - December 12, 1997

IDF officer Yosef Amit was convicted of spying for the United States in the 1980s. Yossi Melman asks why Israel did not try to use this affair to help convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, who was caught during the same period.

"No, I don't remember the incident," former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said in response to questions about whether Israel, under his leadership in the later half of the 1980's, missed a rare opportunity to mitigate Jonathan Pollard's punishment. "Maybe Shimon Peres remembers more," he suggested., Peres, who was deputy prime minister and foreign minister at the time, did not respond to questions posed to him.

The Israeli leadership might have been unable to help Pollard, who was exposed as an Israeli spy, even if it had tried. It did, however, have the means to take more aggressive action. And the leverage was Military Intelligence Major Yosef Amit.

Amit's story was partially covered by the press in the past, but here, for the first time, is the full story of his espionage and of the linkage that could have been made to Pollard., Jonathan Pollard, who worked at the American naval intelligence center in Maryland, was arrested on Nov. 21, 1985. Four months later, on March 24, Amit was arrested at his home in Haifa, on suspicion of spying for the United States. The fact that it was the United States he was accused of spying for was not even noted on the indictment he was served, and Israel never made that aspect of the affair public.

Yosef Amit was born in Haifa in 1945. In 1963, he enlisted in the IDF, and completed officer's course with distinction. Later, according to Foreign Report, he joined Intelligence Unit 504. The unit, according to the foreign press, is an intelligence gathering unit responsible for activating Arab agents in neighboring countries. Amit was given command of a military intelligence base on the Lebanese border. In 1978, he was arrested for drug dealing. According to Foreign Report, Unit 504 paid agents in drugs given to it by the police.

Journalist Uzi Mahanaimi, a former military intelligence officer who today writes for the London Sunday Times, wrote in 1996 that Israel also had a plan to swamp Egypt with drugs.

Amit attempted to sell some of the drugs from his base for personal profit. He was brought in to military court but was declared psychologically unfit to stand trial. He was hospitalized at the Mizra psychiatric hospital near Acre upon being discharged from the IDF.

Three years later, he was released and began to work as a private investigator. During that time, Amit befriended an American naval officer whose ship had docked at the Haifa port. They met at a pub, and Amit boasted about his experience in intelligence. The officer told his supervisors. At one point, the American officer told Amit that he wished to retire from the service, settle in Germany, and start a business. Amit hinted at his strong desire to make money and suggested that they do business together. The American agreed.

Sometime later, Amit went to Germany and met with his new friend. The American officer introduced him to some "friends," who turned out to be members of the U.S. intelligence community, officers from the CIA station at the U.S. embassy in Bonn. It is not clear whether the naval officer had been recruiting for American intelligence from the start, or whether he simply passed Amit's history on out of patriotic loyalty. The contacts, which all took place in Germany, continued for several months.

The Americans called upon Tom Waltz, a Jewish officer at the CIA station of their embassy in Israel, to find out just how much Amit had to offer. Coincidentally, Waltz and Amit flew to Germany on the same plane. Waltz came to his first meeting with Amit disguised. During his interrogation, however, Amit noted that he had recognized his flight companion anyway: The CIA officer had indeed changed his clothes and his appearance, but he had forgotten to change his shoes. In any event, Waltz became Amit's direct handler. The American intelligence officer instructed Amit on the types of materials the Americans would be interested in. In particular, the Americans requested information on Israeli troop movements and intentions in Lebanon and in the occupied territories. The contacts continued until just before Amit's arrest in 1986.

It was information given to the Shin Bet general security services and the police by a friend of Amit's that aroused suspicion. The friend reported that Amit spoke of ties he had with American intelligence. Amit cooperated with his interrogators during questioning and gave complete details of his relationship with the CIA. He noted meeting places, dates, and names of individuals he had met with, including Tom Waltz. He revealed the information he had given to the Americans and admitted that he had received several thousand dollars from the CIA in exchange for his services. Classified military documents, as well as secret material belonging to the Shin Bet, were found when Amit's house was searched.It turned out that a childhood friend of Amit's had received material from the Shin Bet research department in his capacity as Shin Bet coordinator in the Galilee. Amit had convinced his friend to give him some of the material, claiming he needed it for some private investigations against Arab citizens. Copies of such material were found in Amit's house.

The Shin Bet quickly arrested the friend, who admitted his guilt, expressed remorse and claimed that he did not know Amit was using the materials for other purposes. He was dismissed from the Shin Bet, tried, and sentenced to three months in prison and a one-year suspended sentence. In April 1987, Amit was convicted on the basis of his confession and sentenced by the Haifa district court to twelve years in jail. His trial was held in closed chambers, and aside from a few brief and inexact stories that appeared in the foreign press (The Israeli emigrant newspaper Israel Shelanu in New York reported the arrest of a Military Intelligence officer for spying for Syria), the military censor prevented any mention of the incident from being reported in Israel.

Even more surprising was the fact that the Israeli government did not decide to use the Amit affair with the Americans. The United States was not even asked to remove Waltz from the embassy in Tel Aviv, and about two months after Amit's arrest, Waltz even accompanied a Shin Bet and Israeli Military Intelligence delegation to a meeting in Washington. The delegation was briefed by Shin Bet official Yossi Ginosar shortly before its departure and told to refrain from even hinting at any knowledge of Waltz's activities. The delegation was also warned against discussing Pollard. At the time, Ginosar was head of the Shin Bet department in charge of counter-espionage and foreign liaison.

Members of the intelligence community were silenced when they tried to question why Israel did not use the issue to offset the Pollard affair.

The only step that was taken was a meeting between Shin Bet head Yosef Harmelin and the CIA station chief in Tel Aviv, in which the Shin Bet official presented the facts and asked for an explanation. The CIA chief informed the Shin Bet a few days later that Amit had approached the Americans on his own initiative and had been turned away.

In 1992, an opportunity to link the Pollard affair with the Amit affair once again presented itself. Amnon Dror, chairman of the Public Committee for the Release of Jonathan Pollard, learned that a former officer was serving a sentence in an Israeli jail for spying for the United States.

The committee actually served as a "front" for the Israeli government, which wished to hide its involvement in attempts to free Pollard and improve his prison conditions. It was funded by the Ministry of Finance. Dror tried to find out from his supervisors whether the Amit affair could be utilized on Pollard's behalf, but says "they told me to leave it alone."

He called the American embassy in Tel Aviv and spoke to the political attache. The attache denied that the United States had activated an Israeli in Israel. Dror later gave some of the details he knew to an Israeli journalist.

The journalist published the story in the American newspaper Newsday, and mentioned the possibility that Israel may be interested in exchanging Pollard's release for Amit's. The brief story appeared in a few papers in Israel but did not attract much attention.

Amit, however, sent a harsh letter to Rachel Sukar of the State Attorney's office, stating that he had no wish to be released as part of an exchange. Sukar replied, assuring him that neither she nor any other official party stood behind the story, and that in any event he would not be released against his will. Amit, who claimed that his confession was extracted illegally, was ultimately released in 1993. He was paroled for good behavior (even though he often violated prison regulations) and because of his psychological condition. It is highly doubtful whether a major spy like Pollard could have been released in exchange for Amit, who was considered a minor spy and was not important to the Americans.

It seems, however, that Amit could have been used to try to pressure the Americans to lighten Pollard's punishment, or to try to make a secret deal in which the Americans would at least promise to release him in the future. But nothing was done. Why?

Those familiar with the affair suggest a number of possibilities. The Israeli leadership of that period - Peres, Shamir, and Yitzhak Rabin - as well as the heads of the intelligence community, feared that demands for an exchange would only exacerbate the rage of the Americans, who were furious enough about the Pollard affair. The Israeli leadership wanted to placate the Americans at any cost.

They may also have feared that the issue would attract attention to the delicate operations of Unit 504.

Perhaps it was a matter of pride. In the 1980s, the intelligence community still felt that exposing the involvement of a former military intelligence officer and a Shin Bet official in espionage for the United States would embarrass them and damage their reputation.

The Israeli leadership and heads of intelligence preferred, it seems, to maintain their honor and professional pride rather than taking care of a spy that had been imprisoned because of them.

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