World News

Israel Charges a Former Minister With Spying for Iran

Posted June 18, 2018 6:23 p.m. EDT

JERUSALEM — The Israeli physician already had an extraordinary history: former legislator, agriculture expert, government minister and ex-convict imprisoned for having tried to smuggle 32,000 ecstasy tablets disguised as M&M’s into Israel.

On Monday, another entry was added to the record of the convicted Israeli, Gonen Segev, minister of energy and infrastructure in the mid-1990s. The Israeli authorities announced that he had been charged with spying for Iran and had been operating as an agent for Iranian intelligence.

Segev, 62, who has been living in Nigeria in recent years, was arrested in May “on suspicion of having aided the enemy in wartime and spied against the state of Israel,” the Israeli police and the Shin Bet internal security agency said in a joint statement.

He was arrested after he had traveled to Equatorial Guinea, where he was refused entry, having been declared wanted by Israel, and was held until the Israeli police could take him into custody. Segev was transferred to Israel and immediately detained for questioning.

The counterespionage operation was directed by the Shin Bet and carried out with the cooperation of the Mossad, which is Israel’s national intelligence agency, and Israel’s military intelligence.

Israel has long been engaged in a clandestine war with Iran, its arch foe, in efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear program and curb its expanding influence in the region. More recently the tensions have burst into open hostilities between the Israeli military and Iranian forces in Syria.

On Friday, after an investigation, state prosecutors charged Segev in a Jerusalem court on counts related to passing information to the enemy. The court allowed publication of some details of the case Monday, but other details remain classified.

While not denying the accusations, Segev’s lawyers said the details approved for publication portrayed the case in a much harsher light than the more comprehensive picture that emerged from the complete charge sheet.

The tidbits released by the police and the Shin Bet read like something from a classic spy novel. In 2012, they said, contact had been made between Segev and people from Iran’s embassy in Nigeria. The first contact was with Iran’s agricultural attaché in Nigeria. Segev’s biography on the website of the Israeli Parliament lists his profession as “agriculturalist.”

According to the Shin Bet, he was recruited to work as an agent for Iranian intelligence.

Segev is said to have traveled to Iran twice to see his handlers and met them in hotels and apartments around the world. He received secret communications equipment for encoding messages between him and his handlers, according to the statement by the Israeli authorities.

“Segev transferred to his handlers information on — inter alia — the energy economy, security sites in Israel, and diplomatic and security personnel and buildings,” the statement said. Explaining how Segev may have gained access to up-to-date information, despite his criminal record and sojourn in Africa, the Israeli authorities said he had maintained contacts with Israeli citizens in the foreign affairs and security fields and worked to put some of them in contact with Iranian intelligence agents by “misleading the former and presenting the latter as innocent Iranian businessmen.”

Segev may be the most prominent Israeli to date to be publicly suspected of espionage for the Iranians. But it is not clear that Segev had much to offer.

“The truth is that he was uninformed about anything and he was in touch with only a handful of people because people know who he is and didn’t cooperate with him,” wrote Nir Dvori, the military affairs correspondent for Hahadashot television news on the station’s website. Dvori said Segev had acted out of financial distress.

Eli Zohar and Moshe Mazor, lawyers who are representing Segev, said in an emailed statement: “We have been accompanying Mr. Segev since the date of his arrival in Israel about a month ago. An indictment was recently submitted, the details of which are overwhelmingly classified at the state’s request. At this preliminary stage one can already say that the publication that was approved lends a very severe semblance to the affair, even though the indictment, the full details of which are classified, as noted, paints a different picture.”

Segev, a medical doctor, had made a career for himself in the top rungs of Israeli public life. He was elected to Parliament in 1992 as a member of Tzomet, a right-wing party led by Rafael Eitan, a former chief of staff of the Israeli military. Breaking away with a few other legislators to form a new party, Yiud, he joined Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor-led government and served as minister of energy and infrastructure. He remained in the post for months after Rabin’s assassination, in the government led by Shimon Peres, until the 1996 election that first brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power.

His career went downhill from there.

Segev became a businessman but was convicted of credit card fraud and attempting to receive benefits fraudulently. In 2004 he was arrested after being accused of trying to smuggle dangerous drugs from the Netherlands into Israel. According to reports at the time, he stashed 32,000 Ecstasy tablets in bags in a locker at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport and tried to use an expired diplomatic passport with a falsified date to avoid airport security. Some of the drugs were hidden in M&M’s boxes. His lawyer at the time was quoted as saying a friend had asked Segev to take a gift of chocolates back to Israel.

Convicted in 2005 of drug smuggling, forgery and fraud, the former minister received a five-year prison sentence as well as a $27,500 fine. He was granted early release from prison in 2007 after his sentence was cut for good behavior.

More recently Segev worked as a doctor in Nigeria, where he treated the Israeli Embassy’s staff and members of the Jewish community. Hahadashot News said that while in Nigeria, Segev married a diplomat from the German Embassy, which may help explain how he obtained the foreign passport that had allowed him to travel to Iran. Segev and his German wife have since divorced.