The most intriguing question in the furor generated by Newsweek’s supposed exposés of “gonetoo- far” Israeli espionage is where the stories originate.

The answer might put the online magazine’s focus on this issue into context. It would be enlightening to learn whether a senior American intelligence source actually exists, and, if so, whether that source acted on a personal initiative.

If this is more than a private peeve, it would be pertinent from our perspective to discover whether the source was directed by Obama administration or State Department higher-ups to sling mud at Israel.

If so, this would certainly constitute overkill opposition to freeing prospective Israeli tourists from US visa requirements. Pesky as obtaining the visas may be, they should not be portrayed as a central Israeli interest for which it is worth this country’s while to make a fuss, much less to make concessions. If fewer Israelis are drawn to the lures of America, so be it.

But if the shenanigans extend beyond mere visa irritations, we would need to consider what the objective of the possible highly placed manipulators may be. They could be suspected of orchestrating attempts to blacken Israel’s reputation in Washington and cost it invaluable congressional support.

The key question, though, is whether any of this goes beyond the Newsweek newsroom. It is not unheard of in the world of journalism that rogue reporters, eager to make a name for themselves, attribute figments of their fertile imaginations to anonymous sources (i.e., Jayson Blair’s fraudulent features in no less than The New York Times).

Conversely, indispensable sources often refuse to be identified (i.e. “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame) and it is the reporter’s call whether to attribute credibility to what is imparted. None of this is clear in this case and, under the guise of protecting sources, the matter will probably never be clarified.

One thing is incontrovertible: Newsweek’s story is hokum, and not just because of indignant denials from everyone in Israel who may remotely be in the know.

Jeff Stein’s account appears lifted from a shoddy James Bond escapade parody. It describes an Israeli spy hiding in an air-conditioning duct above Al Gore’s Israeli hotel bathroom in 1998.

The source quoted in the article, purportedly a former Secret Service agent, says he saw “a guy starting to exit the vent into the room.” At that point, said agent coughed and “the guy went back into the vents.”

Not only would such a technique be exceptionally crude, but whoever trumped up the tale surely did not bother to bone up on Israeli architecture. Newsweek’s story fails the most minimal test of believability.

Our air ducts are nothing like their American counterparts.

They tend to be narrow and full of paraphernalia geared to prevent the spread of flames and smoke from room to room. This is the situation at all the hotels in which Gore and other American political headliners and top-rank security personnel stayed.

This is how it is now and how it was 16 years ago, during Gore’s visit to mark Israel’s 50th birthday.

Nobody can squeeze through an Israeli air-conditioning vent. This in itself discredits Newsweek’s account. It powerfully corroborates the heated denials of Israelis from diverse political orientations, ranging from cabinet ministers all the way to former Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin.

Israel would be mad to tempt fate with spy capers, especially of the preposterous agent-in-the-vent variety and especially after the Pollard fiasco. Concomitantly, it would be naïve to suppose that there is no American intelligence activity in Israel.

Most disturbing in this strange saga is the hypothetical scenario wherein Newsweek is being exploited in a non-too-subtle attempt to besmirch Israel.

The likelihood of this being the case has increased ahead of the American midterm elections this fall.

Neither the FBI nor the CIA lack senior officials with axes to grind against Israel. We can only hope that such antagonism does not extend higher in Washington’s hierarchy.

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