My lunch with an Iranian spy

Gerias Gerias, former mayor of Fasuta, is currently in jail for spying for Iran.

espionage generic 88 (photo credit: )
espionage generic 88
(photo credit: )
Four years ago, I drove up to the Christian village of Fasuta on the northern border. It was a week after a suicide bombing at Haifa's Maxim restaurant in which 19 people were killed, two of them residents of Fasuta. I had coordinated my visit to this 3,000-strong Melkite Catholic community with the mayor, Gerias Gerias. After travelling the beautiful, winding road up to Fasuta, I drove straight to the office of the mayor, who greeted me warmly, immediately offering a cold drink. Gerias, then 55, was an avuncular and gregarious man who spoke good English and was friendly and charming, perhaps a little too so. He drove me to the homes of Hana Francis, 39, and Sharbal Matar, 23, two employees who had been killed in the attack on the Maxim restaurant, a rare oasis of Arab-Jewish coexistence. We sat with the two families in their homes, sipped coffee and paid our respects in silence. Then, as if to reward me for this gesture, the mayor invited me for lunch at a nearby restaurant. Over mixed salads and kababs, we chatted about tourism and terrorism, and his dreams for Fasuta and the future. He confided that his wife, from whom he was apparently separated, and children lived in the United States. Having learned that he had been a Fatah activist, I ventured briefly into politics to ask what he thought of Yasser Arafat, and he replied candidly that although he and Arafat were still good friends, the Palestinian leader had "disappointed" him and his people. But he quickly added that Israeli leaders had disappointed him too, including his "old friend," Shimon Peres. He did not seem too enthusiastic about the chances for peace, but his eyes lit up and he became much more animated when talking about Fasuta, which he later drove me through. It's a picturesque place with lovely views of the green valley below, large houses and gardens, a few landmark churches and a rich archeological history. My day with Gerias was very pleasant, and I shook his big hand hard when we said goodbye, appreciating his generous hospitality. I remember even promising myself that I would try to reciprocate one day. Which is why I was so shocked when last January I discovered that he had been arrested for spying for Iran. Gerias fled Israel for Lebanon in 1970 after being caught operating a banned Fatah cell, returning only in 1996. He had been mayor of Fasuta from May 2001 to November 2003. In September 2004, according to police and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), he traveled to Cyprus to meet PLO member Hani Abdullah - a friend he had met in Lebanon - to promote the establishment of a Palestinian research center. Abdullah told Gerias that the center could be funded by Hizbullah and Iran. Gerias agreed. Two months later, police said, Abdullah called Gerias and told him to come to Cyprus to meet an Iranian donor for the center. During interrogation, Gerias admitted that the man he met was from Iranian intelligence. The agent asked him to "infiltrate the Israeli political system, to create political contacts and to join an existing Israeli political party," police said. And indeed, Gerias joined Meretz towards the end of 2004 and in conversations with political activists expressed interest in becoming a Knesset member. Three months later, he again visited Cyprus, where this time he met two Iranian agents who asked him to establish contacts with top Israeli leaders and garner information from them in exchange for money. An inveterate gambler, he evidently needed the money to pay off some large gambling debts. He was arrested on December 12, 2005, and his arrest marked the first known attempt by Iran to infiltrate Israel's government and political system, sources in the Shin Bet and police said. "Gerias's interrogation reveals a web of Iranian espionage activity against Israel," one official told The Jerusalem Post at the time. "The efforts included attempts to infiltrate an Iranian agent into the Knesset with the primary goal of obtaining classified information and influencing government decisions." This week I learned that the Haifa District Court recently sentenced Gerias to four years in prison for espionage on behalf of an enemy state. According to the indictment, Gerias joined Meretz in an attempt to network with figures in the Israeli government, but never really achieved his goal. Meretz rejected having any association with him and released a statement, claiming: "Gerias is one of 22,000 listed members of the party but is not at all involved in the party or in any of its institutions." Gerias confessed to the charges as part of a plea bargain. The state said it agreed to the deal because the harm he had caused to the country was negligible. The judges said in their ruling: "We aren't dealing with a young man who was caught up in an affair in which his actions could have caused potential damage, [but] the gravity of his actions must be emphasized because he is a public figure who once held the position of mayor." Although all of this sounds quite serious, and Iran is Israel's biggest foe today pursuing nuclear weapons to wipe us off the map, I'm not sure that Gerias did anything or could do anything for the Iranians. There certainly was no mention of the word "nuclear" in the indictment, and it's a safe bet that he had no real access to classified information. So what exactly were the Iranians after, and why did he agree to work for them? Perhaps when he's released from prison in 2010, I'll finally reciprocate his hospitality, invite him to lunch and ask him a few questions.