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
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.