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May 2, 2001

Israel Arrests Ex-General as Spy for Spilling Old Secrets


JERUSALEM, May 1 - Itzhak Yaakov, 75, a retired brigadier general who once oversaw weapons development for the Israeli military, is at the center of a supposed spy story that may turn out to be more Kafka than le Carré.

For more than a month Mr. Yaakov, an Israeli-American with dual citizenship who has lived in Manhattan for the last two decades, has been in an Israeli prison on charges of "high espionage" that carry a maximum penalty of life behind bars.

Mr. Yaakov, known here as the father of the Israeli technology industry, was quietly taken into custody by a special security division of the Defense Ministry on March 28. That was four days after his 75th birthday was celebrated in the wealthy town of Savyon outside Tel Aviv by a who's who of Israeli political and economic leaders who regaled him as "Mr. Security."

Mr. Yaakov was arrested at Ben-Gurion Airport after he finished checking in for a flight to Istanbul.

His case was sealed and an order was issued barring the principals from speaking to the press, so his friends thought at first that he was simply away, enjoying himself as planned on vacation in Turkey.

Then on April 22, The Sunday Times of London reported Mr. Yaakov's detention and added that he was being questioned about his "relationship with a Russian woman who may have had access to his work" from the time when he is said to have played a role in the development of Israel's nuclear industry.

With the secrecy of his arrest broken, Israeli courts partly lifted the order withholding information from the press, and state attorneys made public some of the charges.

Mr. Yaakov is accused of passing confidential information to "unauthorized individuals" with the intention of "compromising the security of the state." The indictment says that despite warnings from security officials, he divulged classified information he had obtained during his service in the Israeli military, which ended 27 years ago.

His wife, Tatiana Mendoza, is a Russian-born American, but a "relationship with a Russian woman" does not appear to be a factor in the case, despite the initial report, which set the country buzzing about an aging Mata Hari.

Despite the accusations, Maj. Gen. Amos Yaron, director general of the Defense Ministry, said on Israel Radio on Monday, "We are not talking about a spy case." He called the incident "very unfortunate" and referred to Mr. Yaakov as a "man with a history of admirable deeds."

Nonetheless, General Yaron obliquely said that the authorities had had "no choice" but to arrest Mr. Yaakov for distributing sensitive information.

Friends, who call Mr. Yaakov by his nickname, Yatza, say they believe that his only offense was speaking to an Israeli reporter during a series of recent interviews in New York. They say that he felt compelled to tell his story, making a case for his own contributions to Israeli history, after an incident that hurt him: he was disqualified, or so he believed, as a potential nominee for the state's highest honor, the Israel Prize, because he was an expatriate.

Mr. Yaakov came from Israel's pioneer generation, and his personal history is interwoven with the state's. He was born in Tel Aviv in 1926 and attended the same elementary school as Yitzhak Rabin, several years behind the future prime minister. He served in the Palmach, a paramilitary branch of the Haganah, the Jewish underground self- defense force before independence, and commanded an important company during the 1948 war.

He graduated as an engineer from Technion in Haifa. From 1955 to 1973 he served in the Israeli military, heading a weapons development unit for a decade. During that time he is believed to have played a role in the nuclear program.

It is unclear to what extent the charges against Mr. Yaakov concern Israel's nuclear weaponry. Israel is considered by experts to have the sixth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, but it has maintained a policy of "deliberate ambiguity" about its nuclear program for decades. Israeli military censorship, which has loosened considerably in recent years, is still almost airtight on nuclear arms.

Mr. Yaakov's information would be very dated, older than the detailed revelations of Mordechai Vanunu, a nuclear technician who blew the whistle on Israel's nuclear arsenal in 1986 and was convicted of treason in 1988.

Much is now known about Israel's nuclear capacity, and Mr. Yaakov's friends said they doubted that he had fresh or detailed inside information.

After two decades as a businessman in the United States, where nuclear arms are discussed more freely, Mr. Yaakov may have lost the keen Israeli sense of the subject as taboo, his friends said. Still, he was not supposed to talk, regardless of his motives, which the authorities acknowledge publicly do not involve sharing secrets with an enemy of Israel.

An Israeli critic of the state's opacity on nuclear policy said, "There is a state within a state" on the nuclear issue.

"The myth that this issue stands apart allows them to justify all sorts of outrageous behavior," the critic said. "It appears they are using a 75- year-old man to send a message to a generation of people that they should die with their secrets, even if they are such old secrets that they're not of much value anymore in intelligence or military terms."

Mr. Yaakov left the military a week before the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. He went to work for Israel's Trade Ministry as chief scientist, nurturing the research and development companies that blossomed into Israel's lucrative technology industry.

He emigrated to the United States in the late 1970's, largely for personal reasons. Last year he retired as chairman of Constellation 3D, a company that develops advanced data storage products, with offices in New York, Florida and California and laboratories in Israel and Russia.

The birthday extravaganza for Mr. Yaakov was given by two technology entrepreneurs. Before the party, Mr. Yaakov gave a series of interviews to Ronen Bergman of the daily Yediot Ahronot for an article that was supposed to be published in conjunction with the gala.

He asked Mr. Bergman to sign a written contract pledging that he would submit the article to the military censor first. Friends of Mr. Yaakov say he would not have insisted on that condition if his intent had been to harm state security as the indictment alleges.

Mr. Bergman complied, the friends said, and the censor killed the entire article, a magazine-length piece of some 7,500 words. Not long afterward, the arrest warrant for Mr. Yaakov was issued.

General Yaron suggested that Mr. Yaakov had done more than talk to Mr. Bergman. He referred to a "manifesto," which some officials believe to be memoirs that Mr. Yaakov was preparing for publication. Mr. Yaakov's lawyers say there is no manifesto; friends say he was working on a novel that might have been partly autobiographical.

An American official said Mr. Yaakov had declined assistance from the American authorities. Friends say he is too proud and embarrassed to turn to his second country for help in dealing with the authorities in the homeland in which he used to be an authority. The United States offered help twice, but he declined.

Mr. Yaakov, who recently recovered from two heart operations, is confined in a prison hospital in Ramle. In a hearing on Wednesday, his lawyers plan to request that he be moved to house arrest, although he does not have a home in Israel. His wife, who is staying at a Tel Aviv hotel, cried when a reporter located her and asked her about her husband.

"It would be very unwise for me at this point to say anything," she said. "I can't afford to talk now. I would love to shout, but I cannot do this now. He is not well."

Mr. Yaakov's lawyers and several legal commentators here have asked aloud why Israeli officials chose to file charges of aggravated espionage against him when they are saying publicly that his alleged offenses cannot be considered spying in the classic sense. The legal experts said lesser charges exist relating to unauthorized dissemination of confidential information.

They have also criticized the director of the internal Defense Ministry security agency for what they see as overzealousness, and lamented the secrecy around the case.

"This type of secret arrest has no place in a democracy," the newspaper Haaretz said. One columnist said, "The idea that Israel, in this day and age, can have such X-files is cause for concern."

State Attorney Edna Arbel protested the contention that Mr. Yaakov had "disappeared."

"People do not disappear in Israel," she said. "This is not Russia or Latin America. He was accompanied by four lawyers and his wife when he was arraigned."

Jack Chen, one of his lawyers, said: "We see this as a very sad story of a person who dedicates his life to the security of Israel and ends up caught in a huge story that gets blown out of proportion and jeopardizes his reputation, his career, his legacy, everything. It's a huge shock for him, but he's sure that eventually the truth will come out."

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