Middle Israel: The spy who came in from Beersheba

What sounds like a Hitchcockian tale of espionage and madness is actually a parody of Israel’s deformed politics.

Gonen Segev (R) and the Iranian flag (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS AND KNESSET)
Gonen Segev (R) and the Iranian flag
Mental illness has been power’s companion since the dawn of politics.
Saul, the first king of Israel, suffered from depression – the “evil spirit” which would “terrify him” (Samuel I, 16:14) – before being haunted by the paranoia that made him throw a spear at his son after shouting at him “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!” Such mental agony among gifted leaders is recalled vividly from recent history as well.
Abraham Lincoln suffered from what was then called “melancholy” and we call depression; so did Winston Churchill, who called it “black dog”; and what Menachem Begin went through following the First Lebanon War and his wife’s death dejected millions of admirers and also many of his opponents.
Some leaders’ chemical imbalances were more than personal tragedies. The derangements of emperors such as Caligula, Nero and Nebuchadnezzar (as described in Daniel 4:30) helped shape history’s course, not to mention what happened last century when madmen seized history’s very helm.
Having said all this, this week’s Hitchcockian tale about a retired and apparently disturbed Israeli politician arrested on charges of spying for Iran is neither the tragedy of a towering figure nor the drama of an epochal event. Rather, it is a farce about Israeli politics’ deformities and travails.
NOW 62, the handsome and eloquent Gonen Segev is unique among Israel’s long list of criminal politicians because the multiple felonies for which he has been convicted had nothing to do with his brief, but striking, political career.
A pediatrician who graduated from Ben-Gurion University Medicine School in Beersheba, Segev did not embezzle, nor did he take a bribe or violate campaign finance laws, and he also did not sexually assault a secretary.
Instead, he withdrew from six ATMs in Hong Kong the equivalent of NIS 20,000 with a credit card he then reported as lost, claiming the withdrawals were made by the thief he invented.
Segev’s lie was easily exposed by surveillance cameras, and resulted in a conviction and fine. Jail – a five-year term of which two thirds were served – came not much later, after Segev was caught smuggling from Holland a shipment of Ecstasy pills camouflaged as M&M candies, and also forging a diplomatic passport’s expiration date.
This record alone suggests that Segev the MD has a serious disorder which made him repeatedly break the law, for financial gains he didn’t even need. Things then became altogether mind-boggling when Segev allegedly felt ready to proceed from small-scale theft, amateur forgery and beginners’ drug dealing to bigtime espionage.
He wasn’t.
Having been barred by the courts from practicing medicine (who, anyhow, would take their sneezing baby to a convicted drug dealer?), Segev wisely relocated to distant Nigeria and opened a clinic, where he seemed ready to turn a page and reboot his eventful life.
It was in that remote setting of a successful clinic’s largely expatriate clientele that Segev was approached by Iranian agents, whom he allegedly began informing about Israel’s energy infrastructure and assorted security installations.
The good news in this disgrace-turned-menace is that Segev – whose four year political stint ended 22 years ago – could apparently offer only dated and publicly available information before being intercepted by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Equally soothing is the knowledge that – unlike what some claimed this week – Segev did not tip the scale in the September 1993 Knesset vote on the Oslo I Accord. Like the rest of Lt.-Gen. (res.) Rafael Eitan’s Tsomet faction, Segev voted against the accord, which was endorsed by 61 MKs from Labor, Meretz and the Arab factions, helped by the six-member Shas faction’s abstention.
The bad news is that the man who later emerged as a serial felon was for nearly two years a member of Israel’s security cabinet, and that his vote tipped the scale in favor of the 1995 Oslo II Accord, which expanded the Palestinian Authority’s rule from Jericho and Gaza to the rest of the Palestinian cities and some 450 villages.
THE SCANDAL in all this starts well before one considers Segev’s unique personality, because the first question his brush with power raises is not who he was, but how he got there.
Well, it worked this way.
War-hero Eitan, the stocky, hawkish, secularist crusader, resolved to enter politics on his own rather than through an existing party. However, in the Israeli system, he could not run for something like a Senate seat. Instead, he had to field a list of candidates who would run collectively.
Eitan therefore collected a bunch of acquaintances, beginning with the pediatrician of his community, Moshav Tel Adashim in the Jezreel Valley. The immensely popular Eitan won eight seats, and thus parachuted into the Knesset one provincial mayor, one retired colonel and five completely anonymous citizens, including Segev.
That was in 1992. In 1994 Segev and two others broke up with Eitan and set up an independent faction, which later entered the Labor-led coalition instead of the departed Shas, with Segev becoming energy minister.
That is how lawmakers elected by right-wing votes used those very votes to serve the cause that was anathema to those voters, who thought they were voting for Eitan the war hero, but instead voted for Segev the political cheat.
Segev is not Kim Philby, the senior British spy who defected to the Soviet Union and became a colonel in the KGB. Philby was a product of the secret services, and he was driven by conviction, having believed in communism since his student days in Cambridge.
Segev, by contrast, never believed in anything other than greed, and the habitat where his criminality fermented was not big-time espionage but small-time politics – Israeli politics, the deformed system where someone nobody had ever heard of can suddenly emerge in the inner cabinet, where issues of life and death are decided, and while there mock with impunity the gullible voters who had no idea they were empowering a psycho and arming a man who, rather than fight for their ideas, would subvert them.