It is difficult to find better words than “treason” and “espionage” to describe the offenses attributed to former minister Gonen Segev.
This man, who was a government minister, a senior partner in the decision-making process, gave information to Iran. Large parts of this affair are still under wraps, but what can be said clearly indicates that Segev was not duped or extorted. He chose, with eyes wide open, to help Israel’s archenemy gather intelligence.
Segev was methodical and shrewd; he took measures to cover his tracks and tried recruiting others. The bumbling response currently coming from his camp that he had tried to help Israeli intelligence does not hold water. The case against him is strong, the evidence is abundant, and it is corroborated by Segev’s own testimony, which it is safe to assume was extracted in the course of the nine days he was held in special custody without access to a lawyer.
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. Some were recruited; others, such as Nahum Manbar, volunteered, usually for money; and still others, such as Mordechai Vanunu, were ideologically motivated.
Segev’s case is different because he did not have “gold” to benefit the Iranians in any significant way. He served in the government more than two decades ago, and it is safe to assume the classified information he had was not particularly relevant. The advantages to recruiting him stem from a different goal: Intelligence agencies seek to establish networks, to learn processes, to understand how decisions are made, to identify power centers and vulnerabilities. Segev could have helped the Iranians in all these areas.
That’s not all. Segev, who reportedly worked in Nigeria as a pediatrician even though his medical license was permanently revoked after he tried to smuggle drugs into Israel, arranged for his Iranian handlers to meet other Israelis, mainly from the defense establishment. It’s no secret that a considerable number of former defense officials roam the globe, predominantly in Africa, trying to wheedle business. They have knowledge, they have connections, and they have appetites (and some also have criminal histories). A skilled agent who takes up with any of these individuals could learn quite a bit about Israeli capabilities in a number of fields. Even worse, he could abduct one of them (as in the Elhanan Tanenbaum case, for anyone who needs a painful reminder).
Segev was a facilitator in all these areas. He knowingly met his handlers in secret locations across the globe, and worse, in Tehran itself. What prompted him to do this? It is safe to conclude he was motivated mostly by greed, and perhaps by a desire to exact vengeance on his own country, which, in his twisted perception, threw him to the dogs. Apparently, people like him do not admit to mistakes but tend to repeat them with increased severity while blaming the entire world for their problems.
Segev will surely pay for his actions, but there are other aspects to this affair. For example, Iran’s concerted efforts to recruit spies in Israel. Against the backdrop of the security branches’ successes against Iranian activities (the Mossad against its nuclear program, the IDF against Iranian activities in Syria, the Shin Bet in counterintelligence), there is a tendency to think that Israel is alone on the playing field. This is wrong. Iran is a formidable adversary; it is determined, patient and has nerves of steel. It is here to stay, and the working assumption needs to be that other “Gonen Segevs” are out there.
This approach is at the forefront for Israeli security officials. On the one hand, Segev’s detection and arrest are a success, due to the fact that he acted alone in a foreign country and took great pains to hide his tracks. On the other hand, he was able to spy for the Iranians for too many years until he was caught, after undoubtedly causing quite a bit of damage.
A thorough study is now required to understand what and who failed along the way—not for the purpose of casting blame, but to prevent the next spy before it is too late.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.