If secret agents are supposed to be handsome, or seductive, masters of derring-do, then America's latest spy scandal has to come as something of a disappointment. The octogenarian Ben-Ami Kadish, whom the Justice Department is accusing of operating as an Israeli spy from 1979 to 1985 and who faces four counts of conspiracy, clad in a blue windbreaker and black sweatpants as he headed toward the courthouse, simply doesn't cut the mustard. But his arrest has already created an uproar in Israel, where officials are scrambling to deflect blame.
Kadish allegedly handed over documents related to the Patriot missile-defense system, F-15 fighter jets and nuclear technology between 1979 and 1985. Old news? Maybe. But Kadish apparently had the same handler as former civilian Naval intelligence officer Jonathan Pollard, who was sentenced to life in prison and whose early release Israel and a number of American Jewish organizations have been urging. In addition, Kadish, after his first meeting with the FBI in March 2008, was, according to court documents, told to keep mum by his handler.
At a moment when Hillary Clinton is threatening to "obliterate" Iran should it attack Israel and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer is demanding that any American president subscribe to a "Holocaust Declaration" explicitly linking Israel's survival to American national security, Kadish's exposure will embolden critics of America's ties with Israel. The most ardent, such as Patrick J. Buchanan, will surely maintain that this is further evidence of Israel's unreliability and sheer perfidy. And how far behind can John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (of Israel-lobby fame) be?
Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Aryeh Mekel preemptively sought to douse the looming verbal conflagration by declaring, "Since 1985, there has been strict adherence to the prime minister's instructions against involvement in these kinds of activities. The relationship between Israel and United States has always been based upon true friendship, respect and a recognition of mutual interests."
For one thing, the saga of U.S.-Israeli relations, as historian Warren Bass demonstrated in his book Support Any Friend, has been more fraught than that. Harry S. Truman may have recognized Israel at its birth in 1948, but Dwight D. Eisenhower was far more unsympathetic. Eisenhower undermined the Israeli, French and British expedition during the Suez crisis. "I gave strict orders to the State Department," he later said, "that they should inform Israel that we would handle our affairs exactly as though we didn't have a Jew in America." It was France, not the United States, that ensured that Israel could develop nuclear weapons at its Dimona project. In fact, the Israelis pulled the wool over the eyes of the CIA about their nuclear intentions. Relations warmed under John F. Kennedy, but it wasn't until the Nixon administration that America became Israel's savior. Even then, Jerusalem fretted about its influence in the United States. When Ronald Reagan sold AWACS airplanes to Saudi Arabia in 1981, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin campaigned against the sale, angering the president. Two years later, Reagan pressured Israel to sign a troop-withdrawal agreement with Lebanon. With these episodes in mind, Israel's American friends have worked overtime to secure Jerusalem's ties with Washington. But the Pollard affair threatened the basis of those ties.
By suborning Pollard-a Jewish-American-Israel entered dangerous territory. It inadvertently lent credence to the claims, however outlandish and malignant, of dual loyalty among Americans Jews. Pollard was sentenced to life in prison in 1986 for spying for Israel. By the late 1990s, however, Israeli leaders began pressing for his release. And his vocal supporters in the United States, including Harvard's Alan Dershowitz, have campaigned for a commutation of his sentence, arguing that he was simply an idealist run amok. He wasn't. He was a traitor. Former naval investigator Ron Olive contended in his 2006 book, Capturing Jonathan Pollard, that Pollard had also offered to sell secret information to other countries, including Pakistan.
After Pollard came accusations of illegal spying by Pentagon analyst Larry Franklin and Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, formerly officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). All three were indicted in 2005 by a federal grand jury for violating the Espionage Act. Franklin has been sentenced to twelve years in prison. The trial of Rosen and Weissman has been indefinitely postponed-adding to the general murkiness. Is the U.S. government unfairly targeting Israel's advocates or are there serious grounds for this case?
Meanwhile, some leading Israelis, for their part, are wondering whether Pentagon officials hostile to Washington-Jerusalem links are trying to sever them, including Israel's participation in the coveted Joint Strike Fighter program. According to the Jerusalem Post, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington, Zalman Shoval, asked, "The content is not the only interesting thing here. There is also the timing. If this is such an old story, why is it coming out now?"
But it is Israel that should have fessed up long ago to American authorities about the true extent of its spying. Instead, it claimed that it was confined to Pollard. And so, the Kadish affair offers a reminder of the tensions that periodically assail the intimate American-Israel relationship. This latest round of difficulties will not poison that friendship, but could end up leaving a markedly sour aftertaste.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.