Israel was stunned this week when New York police arrested an 84-year-old retired Jewish military engineer and accused him of handing dozens of classified documents to an Israeli agent between 1979 and 1985.
It raised the spectre of another Jonathan Pollard affair (former US Naval civilian intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel) and threatened to overshadow President Bush’s state visit for Israel’s 60th anniversary. Tom Stacey, a State Department spokesman, said: “This is not the kind of behaviour we would expect from friends and allies.”
Commentators said it made it less likely than ever that Bush would accede to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s request to release Pollard, jailed for life in 1986. He was granted Israeli citizenship in 1998.
Ben-Ami Kadish was charged with giving an Israeli consular official secret material on the US nuclear weapons programme, a modified version of the F-15 warplane being sold to Saudi Arabia and the Patriot air defence system.
He was said to have reported to Yosef Yagur, the same handler as Pollard. He was alleged to have phoned Mr Yagur recently and asked what he should do if questioned. Mr Yagur is said to have told him to deny everything.
The Hebrew-language conversation was apparently monitored by the CIA. They said this was evidence of a continuing connection and Mr Kadish could not hide behind the statute of limitations.
Prosecutors acknowledged that, unlike Pollard, Mr Kadish, who was born in the US but spent part of his youth in Israel and has a brother there, had received no payment. They said he told them that he “did it for Israel”. He was released on $300,000 bail and ordered not to leave his home state of New Jersey.
Israeli ministers and security veterans closed ranks, refusing to comment. Pensions Minister Rafi Eitan, who headed the agency involved, told associates he “had no idea” about the affair and denied knowing Mr Kadish. Mr Olmert, on holiday near Lake Kinneret, ordered his aides to find out what had happened. American officials briefed their Israeli counterparts only after the story was published.
Officials who spoke to the JC privately put a brave face on it, claiming that the affair would have no lasting effect on US-Israeli relations. They pointed to Mr Kadish’s release on bail as a sign that the Americans were not taking the case seriously.
“First of all,” one said, “it’s a very old story, 25 years old. It was before the Pollard event. We promised the Americans at that time that we would never do it again, and we have kept our word.”
The US had no interest in a confrontation at this time, the official argued. “The interest of the Bush administration is to see progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process while the President and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are still in office.
“They know that a dispute will not allow any progress on that issue. They are trying to show interest and maybe reap some rewards of progress. Obviously, Israel has no interest in any dispute with the Americans.”