Analysis: Why would a cabinet minister spy for Iran?

Former cabinet minister Gonen Segev is the latest in a string of Israelis alleged to have aided an enemy.

Then-energy minister Gonen Segev talks to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the opening of the Jerusalem Economic Conference in 1995 (photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
Then-energy minister Gonen Segev talks to prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at the opening of the Jerusalem Economic Conference in 1995
(photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
IN 1949, the British writer and essayist Rebecca West (Dame Cicely Isabel Fairfield) wrote “The Meaning of Treason.” This is an impressive and inspiring psychological analysis of William Joyce, better known as “Lord Haw Haw.” In her book, West analyzes the political, cultural, social and historical context, which cultivated and brought Joyce to his notoriety.
He was an Irish-American who in the 1930s joined the "British Union of Fascists and National Socialists" led by Sir Oswald Mosley.
It was a British home-grown, pro-German Nazi party which eventually was outlawed and its members interned. In August 1939, just days before the Second World War broke out, Joyce was tipped off that he would be arrested. He fled England to Germany and became a radio announcer broadcasting Nazi propaganda from Berlin.
In mid-June, Israelis were shocked to learn that Gonen Segev, a former MK and cabinet minister, allegedly turned into a traitor and an Iranian spy.
Due to its history and geography as a nation surrounded and threatened by enemies and terrorist groups, Israel has been at its essence, a cohesive society. Its Jewish nationals identify with the state, are loyal, committed to its core values and share a sense of common destiny. Yet, in recent years, because of the deepening political, social, ethnic and cultural differences, cracks appear in its cohesiveness.
Known to be talkative and eager to please foreigners, its secrets are often leaked. Thus Israel has become a heaven for intelligence-gathering and fertile ground to recruit spies. Despite the sense of common destiny, traitors and spies have been exposed in many of its most secret institutes including the military, the intelligence community, the Foreign Ministry, the nuclear reactor and some of its scientific institutions.
Zeev Avni, an ardent communist, worked as an economist in the Foreign Ministry.
He was posted abroad, where he carried out missions for the Mossad, Israel foreign espionage agency, when he was arrested and indicted in 1956 as a spy for the Soviet Union’s KGB.
Levi Levi, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust, immigrated to Israel and joined the operational department of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security service. In 1957, he was indicted as a communist spy for the Polish secret service.
In 1983, Prof. Marcus Klingberg, also a Holocaust survivor of Polish origins, was indicted and sentenced to 20 years in jail for spying for the GRU, (Soviet military intelligence).
Klingberg was deputy director-general of the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Nes Ziona, where according to foreign reports, Israel was producing chemical and biological agents and all sorts of poisons. What all three have in common is their belief in communism and readiness to serve the former Soviet Union out of ideological conviction.
On the other hand, Mordechai Vanunu, a technician at the Dimona nuclear reactor, and Ben Zygier, a Mossad officer involved in operations against Iran, decided to betray their secrets out of anger and revenge against their former employers.
Vanunu told London's Sunday Times in 1986 all about Israel’s secretive nuclear weapons program and was sentenced to 18 years in jail. Zygier committed suicide in 2010 after he was charged with espionage and treason, expecting to serve a long jail term for talking to an Iranian agent in Australia.
Both of them had been unstable and frustrated, and in retrospect, it turned out that they were not fit for their jobs and shouldn't have been recruited for such secret work in the first place.
And then we had Nahum Manbar, a paratrooper and businessman who sold chemical agents for Iran’s secret chemical weapons program. He was sentenced in 1997 to 16 years in jail.
In 2000, Col. Elhanan Tannenbaum, a crook and fraud, was lured into a drug deal by Kais Obeid, an Israel Arab who joined Hezbollah. Tannenbaum, who was declared bankrupt, was driven by greed when he flew on a forged passport to Abu Dhabi. He was kidnapped there in a joint Hezbollah-Iran operation and taken to a jail in Lebanon.
After three years, he was swapped for hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists.
It turned out that Tannenbaum had been privy to top secret artillery and rocket projects of the Israel Defense Forces, and was interrogated by Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence interrogators.
And now the Gonen Segev affair has hit Israel like a bombshell. Segev had been the golden poster boy of an Israeli self-made man. He became a captain in the IDF, a doctor and a farmer who lived in Tel Adashim, in the Jezreel Valley, one of Israel’s rural communities identified with the spirit and ethos of the founding fathers of Zionism.
He rose meteorically in the early 1990s as a gifted right-wing politician in Rafael Eitan's Tzomet party, but switched allegiance in 1994 and joined the center-left government of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin as minister of energy. He then became a key supporter of the Oslo Accords and the peace process with the Palestinians.
Segev left politics in 1996 and became a businessman but within a few years he was walking on the dangerous edges of society, In 2000, he was approached by Obeid, a Hezbollah operative, and offered lucrative business deals, sponsored by Iranian intelligence.
Segev was warned by the Shin Bet and disengaged.
But his unstoppable desire to make a quick buck led him to be involved in criminal acts. First in 2003, he cheated a credit card company in Hong Kong. Then in 2004, using an old diplomatic passport which he had forged, he smuggled drugs from the Netherlands to Israel disguised as M&M's candies.
The Israeli police was tipped off and Segev was arrested at the airport, charged, indicted and sentenced to five years in jail.
He served only three years but was released in disgrace, and his Israeli medical license was revoked. Segev then moved to Nigeria, married a foreign diplomat and after gaining a foreign passport, he left her.
He also obtained a local medical license and opened a clinic in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
Using his crooked charm, he soon earned a reputation as a good doctor. Foreign diplomats and businessmen rushed to be treated by him. Among them were some Israeli diplomats and their families, including the chief of security at the Israeli embassy there.
This is one of the most puzzling aspects of the story. It seems that after the Shin Bet warned Segev to distance himself from Obeid, the security service lost interest in him, probably due to a lack of resources. No warning was issued to Israeli diplomats and businessmen in Nigeria, including former IDF and members of the security establishment, to stay away from him.
In 2012, while in Nigeria, Segev allegedly established contact with Iranian diplomats who worked as officers of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security of the Islamic Republic of Iran (MOIS).
He was recruited as a spy in a classic way, by the book. He was offered business opportunities and deals in medical equipment. But very quickly it was clear to Segev that he was becoming involved in acts of espionage. He flew twice on his foreign passport as well as a passport prepared for him by his handlers to Iran, an enemy country which Israelis are forbidden to enter. He met with the Iranians in a clandestine manner in safe houses and hotels in some parts of Africa and Europe.
As requested by his case officers, he brought to some of the meetings Israeli security experts, who once served in the IDF and intelligence community, under the pretext of business deals. Most probably, one or more of them tipped off the Shin Bet about his suspicious encounters with Iranians.
Israeli intelligence agents began to shadow him, and eventually designed a sting operation, with the help of an Israeli businesswoman, Yardena Ovadia, who lives in Equatorial Guinea and owns a local hospital.
Segev was offered to travel to the country for a business deal in mid-May, 2018. As predicted, he couldn’t resist the temptation of making money and landed in the capital of Malabo.
Using her close ties, Ovadia persuaded the president to detain Segev because of his past criminal record and deport him to Israel.
Once in Israel, he was interrogated by officers in an isolated Shin Bet detention facility and as the law permits, deprived for nine days of seeing a lawyer. He is expected to be charged soon with espionage and probably treason. Since the gag order on the case was partially lifted, Israeli media sought frantically to evaluate the damage Segev caused to the state security.
Surely Segev was no longer privy to state secrets, certainly not in the realm of security. But as a former energy minister, he has learned a great deal about Israel’s energy installations, power station pipelines and water resources – all of which are considered as strategic sites that could be targeted by Iranian and Hezbollah missiles if a war breaks out.
Even more importantly, by recruiting and running Segev, Iran’s intelligence inflicted a blow to the proud and prestigious Israeli defense establishment and scored a psychological victory in the secret ongoing war between the two bitter enemies.
Segev is the first Israeli cabinet minister to have been caught as an alleged spy, and the most prominent catch for Iran, whose leaders call repeatedly to wipe Israel off the face of earth.
It is hard to find common traits between all the spies mentioned above and others who operated in Israel. They were motivated by different factors. Some volunteered because of ideology, some were extorted, while others agreed to spy because of greed, anger, frustration, excitement, thrills and the desire for revenge.
From years of covering and writing about spies, my conclusion is that a person is never motivated to betray his country for only one reason. It’s always a combination of a few of them. Nevertheless, the meaning of treason has always remained the same.