Oversensitive interpretation, not aggressive collection

In the past, we have given the Americans enough reasons to distrust us, but perhaps misunderstood Israeli cultural norms have also contributed to making our partners overly suspicious.

Troubled waters (photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
Troubled waters
(photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
Recent articles in Newsweek by Jeff Stein, alleging Israeli spying on the US, make me sick to my stomach.
Stein quotes mostly anonymous sources who claim, “very quietly, behind closed doors,” that Israeli “operatives being run directly by the government” continuously and aggressively spy on the United States, mainly to steal technical secrets.
It reminds me of the time I led an Israeli team in a real-life US-Israeli coordination operation. With American lives at risk, my team bent over backwards in mobilizing Israeli assets until the crisis was over. Our US counterparts were overwhelmed and appreciative, but a State Department official, stationed in another country, wrote: “My sources tell me that the Israelis did not do much to assist.”
I learned how easily the truth can be distorted. After this I decided to always beware of the term “my sources tell me.”
Stein’s articles portray a completely false image of US-Israeli relations, and besmirch and vilify Israelis as untrustworthy and ungrateful troublemakers.
Luckily, transparent fabrications and half-truths allow people with minimal background and common sense to see through the slander, or at least figure out how these misconceptions came to be.
A ludicrous story told by an unnamed source tells of an Israeli agent who was caught crawling in the air vent of US vice president Al Gore’s hotel room during a visit to Israel. Of course, no serious espionage agency would act so clumsily. Assuming there is a kernel of truth here, it is obvious that an air conditioning technician was promoted to the rank of secret agent.
Stein tells about Israeli agents who “go after senior US Navy officers on shore leave in Haifa.” In another foolish accusation, he describes Israeli invitations to visit Israel as an elicitation technique to lure and trap naïve American scientists and intelligence officials.
There are even appalling and preposterous allegations of offering American officials drugs and sending women to their hotel rooms.
I have visited many defense facilities in the US, together with colleagues from the Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure (Maf’at). Contrary to the insulting allegations quoted by Stein, the goal was always to promote projects of common interest, certainly not to use the cooperation as a “cover vehicle for industrial espionage.”
By comparison to French students who had to report to the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), it is implied that Israeli travelers in the US report to the Mossad. Again, I can attest that this in simply untrue.
Attaching the term “frenemy” to Israel is outrageous, for it categorizes Israel as an enemy pretending to be a friend, when in fact Israel is one of the closest allies of the US.
Our alliance is vital for Israel, and invaluable for the US. Collaborative initiatives not only contribute to Israel’s security, but promote combined efforts that boost US capabilities and contribute to US interests. Israeli counter- proliferation efforts are very positively viewed. Joint exercises and mutual lesson-learning and doctrine development are equally beneficial for both sides, as demonstrated this week, in a combined urban search and rescue exercise in Tel Aviv. Israeli innovative developments in unmanned aerial systems, counterterrorism, ballistic missile defense, vehicle and personnel protection and cyber defense all serve to protect both country’s interests and citizens.
Throughout the spectrum of collaboration, from intelligence sharing to R&D, Israelis engage their US counterparts with friendship, comradeship, professionalism and enthusiasm. Newsweek’s articles insult many devoted friends of the US.
The US administration did not criticize, or even soften, the false allegations of Israeli spying. The Talmudic saying Shtika k’hodaah dami, meaning “Silence is like admission,” is applicable here. If you do not deny a claim, it is as if you agree with it. Therefore, we can’t brush this off as just another media outlet trampling the truth to increase its marketability. Sadly, we must interpret this silence as an admission that the articles serve a purpose and reflect real beliefs. A message is being delivered.
Israel is certainly not without blemish.
We have made many mistakes over the years, mainly related to treatment of sensitive technologies. Israel has constantly improved regulations and even changed organizationally to fully comply with US policy and be deserving of US trust and confidence.
The Pollard case was a shameful scandal, but the lesson has been learned, and Israel has not spied on the US since then. If there are forms of private or corporate industrial espionage, as there are worldwide, these cannot be labeled as espionage at a national level.
In the past, we have given the Americans enough reasons to distrust us, but perhaps misunderstood Israeli cultural norms have contributed to making our partners overly suspicious. Despite our close ties, immense cultural differences play a crucial role in our defense collaboration.
I have found that American interpretation of typical Israeli conduct is many times distorted and incorrect.
Israeli organizational culture gives great freedom of creativity to junior officers, who are indoctrinated to fulfill the mission at all costs. The preferred psyche is Maj.-Gen. Arik Sharon’s disregarding rules and doing what’s right, not a “follow orders and procedures” attitude. I have seen many occasions when plain Israeli naïveté was interpreted as aggressive information collecting.
If an Israeli wanders into an off-limits zone, it is because he is curious and fails to read the sign. He was not trained by the Mossad to obtain secret information and has no malicious intentions. An Israeli asking too many questions at a Pentagon briefing is not led by malice aforethought, but by over-enthusiasm and his typical Israeli informality. Smart people ask smart questions, and we also have smart-alecks who push the envelope even further.
I myself have made naive mistakes such as leaving a conference room in a US missile defense installation without an escort, or asking a witty question on a subject not listed on the agenda. The harsh reactions of my hosts reflected the seriousness with which these matters were taken.
I have been involved in the US-Israeli relationship for more than a decade and have never seen any evidence of Israeli spying on the US. As I am always aware that my American counterparts tend to be oversensitive and suspicious, I do my best to brief Israelis on cultural differences and how to minimize friction, follow the rules, and be extremely careful not to step on toes or over the line.
I am a patriotic Israeli, but I also take pride in my American heritage. I continue to serve, as a reservist, as the IDF liaison officer to the US Embassy in Tel Aviv during wartime, and am highly motivated to serve these two great countries. I have never done anything to compromise US or Israeli interests or betray their trust, and I never will.
The writer is a former pilot in the IAF, founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd. and Project Manager at CockpitRM.