The Cable

The former Mossad analyst Clinton couldn't avoid

It's no secret that relations between the Obama administration, which has committed itself to working for a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the newly formed coalition led by Israeli prime minister designate Benjamin Netanyahu, who favors an "economic peace" in the Fatah-controlled West Bank over Palestinian political sovereignty, already appear somewhat tense.

Israel's anxiety that Iran may go nuclear while Washington tries to reach out to Tehran is also straining the traditionally close U.S.-Israeli relationship. But what has not yet been reported is the degree to which another factor is further contributing to high-level awkwardness between the two countries.

Sources tell Foreign Policy that when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Netanyahu at the King David Hotel earlier this month, such was the concern that a certain former Mossad analyst who now serves as Netanyahu's security advisor may pose a counterintelligence problem that, after conferring with an aide, Clinton suggested to Netanyahu that they reduce the number of people in the room.

The former analyst, Uzi Arad, has recently headed an Israeli think tank that convenes the influential annual Herzliya strategy dialogue. Arad has been unable to get a U.S. visa for the past two years, he has suggested, because he was identified in a 2005 indictment (though not by name) as one of the Israelis who met with then-Pentagon Iran specialist Larry Franklin. Franklin pled guilty in 2005 on charges related to unauthorized disclosure of national-security information to people not authorized to receive it, including officials with the Israeli government.

Clinton's suggestion was made, sources say, in the hopes that Netanyahu would get the message and excuse Arad from the meeting. What happened instead, sources report, was that Netanyahu dismissed from the meeting Israeli ambassador to Washington Sallai Meridor, who has since announced his resignation. (An account of the meeting previously published on ForeignPolicy.com revealed that Clinton seemed remarkably constrained and tight-lipped during it.)

U.S. officials knowledgeable about the meeting declined to comment about the incident but did not deny that Arad's presence at the meeting was a concern to the U.S. delegation. The Israeli Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Arad maintains that his discussions with Franklin were about ordinary matters and that the two men discussed nothing sensitive. "We had coffee and we talked about the agenda of the day -- nothing classified, nothing secret, nothing related to espionage," he told the Associated Press this month. "If I was not a Mossad employee in the past, they would not have noticed me. My sin was that I was in the past in the Mossad. It's not a big deal, and I believe that this issue will be resolved."

According to what Arad told the AP, Arad's visa request was rejected "under section 212-3 (A) of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, which bars entry for those suspected of intent to engage in espionage or sabotage. Arad said he has not applied for a visa since." He told the wire service that he had offered to take a polygraph to resolve the matter, and sources tell The Cable he has written several letters to U.S. authorities to try to resolve the situation.

In its unnamed reference to Arad, the indictment against Franklin (pdf) states that "On or about February 20, 2004, Franklin met in the cafeteria at the Pentagon with this person previously associated with an intelligence agency of Foreign Nation A and discussed a Middle Eastern country's nuclear program." Foreign Nation A has previously been confirmed to be Israel, and the Middle Eastern country in question is Iran.

A Washington think tank hand familiar with the case said that the FBI mistakenly sees Arad as a counterintelligence risk. He speculated that U.S. officials preparing to brief foreign government officials on classified information might have been informed by security advisors not to share sensitive information with Arad.

Former U.S. officials who attended the Herzliya conference while still serving in government said they had been given no guidance or warnings about Arad, whose think tank convenes the influential annual strategy conference.

"They were not planning to have a classified conversation," the Washington think tank hand said, to explain the seeming discrepancy. If they were, "they would have to get a different counterintelligence brief."

After Meridor resigned as the Israeli ambassador to the United States, there was concern in Washington that Netanyahu might try to appoint Arad as his replacement, another source told The Cable, and the Obama administration communicated its preemptive disapproval.

In addition to Secretary Clinton, the U.S. attendees at the March 3 meeting at the King David Hotel were Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, ambassador to Israel James Cunningham, and NSC senior director on the Middle East Dan Shapiro. Netanyahu, Arad, political advisor Alon Pinkas, and attorney Yitzhak Molcho represented Israel.

"To the best of my knowledge, [Clinton] never indicated she wanted him [Arad] out," an Israeli diplomat apprised of the meeting told Foreign Policy Wednesday. "He slipped in when she asked Cunningham to stay in what was supposed to be a four-eyes meeting."

After Netanyahu suggested ending the meeting in a private conversation between the two principals, the diplomat continued, "Clinton said: ‘Let's start, but I want George [Mitchell] inside.' He agreed, of course, but then she called Cunningham and asked him to join, at which point Netanyahu asked Uzi -- his long time confidant -- to join. Meridor was away from the room."

"That said," he added, "it's not mutually exclusive from what you heard."

Multiple Israeli sources said Netanyahu was well aware of the American sensitivity about Arad, but apparently considers it "overblown." U.S. sources said that once Netanyahu officially forms his government and presumably makes Arad his national security advisor, an American visa would likely come through.

No government gets to decide who the other government's interlocutors will be, the think tank hand commented -- a diplomatic fact of life that is true not only of close American allies like Israel, but also its adversaries, such as Iran.

Photo: Ronen Zvulun-Pool/Getty Images

The Cable

Team Perezagruzka meets Mr. Perestroika

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden held an hour-long meeting last Friday with former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who oversaw the USSR's political and economic reforms in the late 1980s. President Obama dropped by for 5-10 minutes.

The meeting appears to fit with the Obama administration's ongoing attempt to "reset" relations with Russia in advance of the U.S. president's planned meeting with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, at the G-20 summit in London next month.

The Moscow-Washington relationship has seen many setbacks in the intervening years since the retirement of Gorbachev, who has become a controversial figure in a post-Soviet Russia that has often shown a greater interest in reasserting its sphere of influence than respect for his democratic reforms.

U.S. officials described the visit as a chance to exchange views with a respected former statesman of historic importance.

"VP Biden recognized Gorbachev's role in working to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and expressed the administration's desire to reach agreement with President Medvedev on launching negotiations on a post-START treaty arrangement and strengthening cooperation on nuclear security and non-proliferation issues," an Obama administration official told Foreign Policy, referring to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Both the U.S. and Russian governments have signaled interest in resuming negotiations for a follow-up treaty this year. Some Washington nonproliferation experts have suggested that high level US-Russia strategic relations is a subject Biden might seek to take a leading role in, similar to the Gore-Chernomyrdin channel. 

"Biden also recognized Gorbachev's historic role in starting democratization, market reforms, and closer ties with the West, and expressed the hope that this agenda could be revived again," the official said.

Obama made a brief appearance, a White House official who attended the meeting said. The president "praised Gorbachev for what he did to change history for the better. And Gorbachev said he believed the Obama administration's desire to reset relations was very encouraging."

"The president and Gorbachev discussed the importance of rebuilding trust between us and our efforts to reset U.S.-Russia relations, beginning with the president's meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 1 in London," the Obama administration official said. "President Obama said he was looking forward to having a substantive meeting with President Medvedev."

Veteran U.S. Russia hands said the Obama team understands that recasting the relationship will be an ongoing challenge.

"The people who came in with Obama have their eyes open," said one senior State Department official on condition of anonymity. "They are trying to do two things at once that are really hard: lean forward and move while the wind is to their backs and the weather is favorable for progress. And they are also mindful of the real differences and problems" in the U.S.-Russia relationship. "Obama people like [NSC senior director on Russia] Mike McFaul are neither starry eyed, nor cynical, which is the right way to approach the Russians.

"That said, there are difficulties that will occur," the State Department official said, pointing to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's reported blasting of the European Union over a "modest" EU-Ukraine agreement about refurbishing an oil pipeline, and a hard-line speech by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Brussels last week.

The Obama administration has also signaled possible flexibility on pursuing missile defense installations in Eastern Europe, in the hopes of securing increased Russian help in persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear enrichment program. Moscow's response isn't yet clear. Russia has reportedly signed a contract but not yet delivered an order for a sophisticated air defense system, the S-300, to Tehran.

"Russia's response to the idea of ‘resetting' relations with the U.S. has been encouraging but lacking in substance so far," observed Jeffrey Mankoff, associate director of international security studies at Yale University and an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The central difficulty is that Russia's leadership sees the country as fundamentally distinct from the West."

"On many of the critical issues," he said, "Moscow and Washington see their interests as fundamentally in conflict. This is the case in Georgia, in Ukraine -- and to a certain degree even in Iran, which Russia sees as a reliable customer and a potential troublemaker in the Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union.

"That said, what Moscow seems to most want is a seat at the table, and to the extent that a U.S. policy of engagement can encourage Russia to be a stakeholder in upholding stability, I think that policy should be tried," Mankoff continued. "The alternative, of alternately ignoring and punishing Russia, has done little to further the United States' interest in stability, security, and prosperity in the former Soviet Union."

Can engagement work?  "That depends whether Russia comes to believe it has more to gain from cooperating with the U.S. than confronting it," Mankoff said. "A debate on this issue appears well underway in Moscow already."