Analysis: Counter-espionage hard in a free society

By Anshel Pfeffer, May 13, 2010

In the wake of the arrests of Amir Mahoul and Omar Said, Israeli Arabs have accused the government and the security services of political persecution.

The State Prosecutor's Office will indeed have to work hard to prove that the arrests and the attendant secrecy was warranted. If the two are released without indictment, it will be a major embarrassment for the entire justice system. But there is a significant degree of disingenuousness in these accusations.

Mr Mahoul and Mr Said are central figures in Balad, the nationalist Arab party. Balad acts freely and has Knesset members despite its anti-Zionist views and the fact that its founder, Azmi Bishara, left the country three years ago following allegations he gave Hizbollah information during the Second Lebanon War, for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mr Bishara is now a regular commentator for Al Jazeera and does little to hide his support for the movement dedicated to Israel's downfall.

Why were these two, out of Balad's hundreds of members and activists, arrested?

The allegations also reflect wider issues regarding the political situation of Israel's Arabs. Although most Arab countries are still officially classified as enemies of Israel, local Arab politicians are allowed to travel there and take part in political events. But increasingly, these contacts have been used by Hizbollah and Iranian agents to gather information and recruit agents in Israel.

At what stage do these meetings cross the line from a technical infringement of the law, rarely prosecuted, to espionage and intention to harm the state?

There are other issues for the security and justice system to solve. While secrecy is integral to any intelligence operation, investigations become impossible to hide when public figures are arrested. A gag-order loses its teeth the moment the details are on the internet.

The Shabak has clearly learnt from the Anat Kam case. There, the former soldier, who had leaked hundreds of classified documents, was held under house arrest for months without the Israeli media being allowed to report it, despite the entire world reading the details on the web. This time it took them only five days from Mr Mahoul's arrest to partially lift the gag order.

But how does an embattled democracy ensure its security while its civilians insist on travelling everywhere and its media insists on publishing everything?

Last updated: 2:05pm, May 13 2010