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Enquiry THURSDAY, 13 March 2008

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Operation Compatriots Ends in Debacle

According to a well-informed source, the leaders of Russian Foreign Intelligence (SVR) are worried about the scandal that broke out in Israel. On November 5, Israeli police's International Investigation department (Yakhbal) arrested the right-wing activist Avigdor Eskin and two private eyes, Rafi Pridan and Aviv Mor, on the suspicion of illegal wiretapping on Israel's Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Strategic Planning Avigdor Liberman and Businessman Michael Cherney.


Oligarch vs Oligarch
According to Israeli police, the customer was a certain "Russian oligarch". Israeli media names him, quoting the police sources: this is Oleg Deripaska, the richest man in Russia (Forbes estimates him at $20 billion) and a former partner of Michael Cherney, who is suing Deripaska in London for the alleged breach of contract.
But that appears to be just a tip of the iceberg.
SVR is worried that a further Israeli investigation might reveal a major amateur operation of spying and political sabotage, ordered by a number of Moscow oligarchs that will cast a shadow over Russian special services.


Our journalistic investigation showed that a number of Moscow-based oligarchs (some of them former business partners of Vladimir Gusinsky, Leonid Nevzlin, and Michael Cherney) had indeed formed an alliance to neutralize these businessmen who settled in Israel. The alliance's objective is to curry favor with the Kremlin and advance their own business interests: to protect themselves from the former partners' lawsuits, to get tax breaks from the government, et cetera. At the first stage the Russian special services granted tacit approval of this "operation", since the first two targeted oligarchs are the Kremlin's political foes, and the third one is at least not a friend.


In order to make sure that the campaign did not look like an obvious vendetta against ex-partners and to get extra points for "patriotism" from the Kremlin, Moscow oligarchs' special services turned it into an unofficial branch of Compatriots program. Its purpose is to establish Russian political influence over the Russian-speaking communities within the diaspora in order to control or discredit their political and business leaders who refuse to toe Moscow's line. In Israel among the former are Scharansky and Lieberman; among the latter, Gusinsky, Nevzlin, and Cherney.


At the time, the first target of Compatriots became Anatoly Scharansky. A broad Russian-sponsored campaign to discredit him and his party, Israel ba-Aliyah, was launched, with Israeli "civil-rights activist" Yuli Nudelman as the figurehead. A large staff of political experts and former KGB and GRU officers conducted a skillful operation that intensified attacks on Scharansky led by another Russian-Israeli party leader, Avigdor Lieberman (Our Home Israel party). Lieberman, with his huge PR resources and a network of local activists, finished the process of elimination of Scharansky as a political player.
Yet then Lieberman himself came under attack, since he was not merely a political leader who had to be controlled, but a friend of Michael Cherney, one of the targets of attacks on business leaders. A former GRU colonel, now an Israeli resident, who received money and instructions from Alexei Drobashenko, a Moscow associate of Oleg Deripaska, and passed them further down the line to Israel, coordinated this campaign.
At the first stage of the operation its organizers engaged Matara, an Israeli private-investigation agency, founded in 2004 by Yoram Hessel, former head of Tevel, Mossad's international-relation unit and formerly chief Mossad resident in Washington.
Matara was employed to maintain observation of the subjects, evaluate their influence on Israeli politics, and determine their vulnerabilities. Soon after finishing its work, Matara broke off with its customers, since Hessel realized that relations with Russian special services and the criminal acts his customers were planning could ruin his reputation. Based on Matara-gathered data, the organizers determined the directions of attack to discredit Liberman as a politician and deprive the three oligarchs of the state's legal protection by casting doubts on the legality of their Israeli citizenship.


Radical Coordinators


The organizers hired two Israeli private eyes to wiretap on the subjects, as well as two Russian-speaking coordinators called Avigdor Eskin and David Edelman, as well as a dozen "black PR" specialists of smaller caliber.
Eskin is a radical-minded writer who did a jail term in Israel for attempted acts of terror. In particular, he was found guilty of an attempt to catapult a pig head on the territory of Jerusalem's Al-Aksa mosque. Israeli nationalist camp suspects Eskin of being a provocateur who was in fact trying to compromise the right wing. After finishing his term Eskin moved to Moscow and became a Russian ultra-nationalist; among other things, he demands "Estonia be wiped off the map". Russian special services - both those who work directly for oligarchs and more general ones - appreciated and employed the services of this unorthodox Orthodox Jew. Eskin was attracted to the campaign against Lieberman ("traitor to Great Israel") and Gusinsky, Nevzlin, and Cherney ("traitors of great Russia") by a hefty fee - but it also dovetailed with his media posture.
The second campaign coordinator, David Edelman, was recruited for his position - the press secretary of Kadima, Israel's leading party, specializing in the Russian community. His job gave him access both to the media and the ministers who could affect the life of the targeted oligarchs. Eskin was directed to focus on Liberman and Cherney. Eskin used his contacts among Kach (an outlawed extremist movement) activists to put up posters "Liberman - Russian mafia's lap dog" and place articles in ultra-orthodox media accusing Liberman and Cherney of - of all things - Christian proselytizing.
In order to create an illusion of bipartisan attacks on Lieberman and Cherney, the campaign hired Mark Bibichkov, a former Russia advisor to Israel's Labor Party. He sent a query "from concerned public" to Israel's Ministry of Internal Affairs about depriving Cherney of citizenship and arranged for a similar letter from radical left-wing Meretz party. A similar query targeting Nevzlin was sent in the name of the above-mentioned "civil-right activist" Nudelman, who after "processing" Scharansky switched to the Yukos co-owner. Israeli attorney Yoram Mushkat was hired to push for Nevzlin's extradition to Russia.


Media Warfare


At the same time the campaign fed disinformation to Maariv daily, alleging that Israel's Ministry of Internal Affairs' commission led by Zvi Inbar recommended that Minister cancel Cherney's Israeli citizenship - and thus exposing Maariv to a potential lawsuit. Inbar disavowed the report, denying he had ever made the recommendation.
Edelman was charged with focusing on the campaign in the Russian media. Yet, most editors and leading journalists refused cooperation, even for money. Then the campaign leaders started two anonymous Russian-language websites and filled them with reprints of negative articles on Israeli public figures, from Olmert to Gaydamak, drawn from Israeli and Russian media. In between these pieces were mixed some original materials, commissioned especially for the site and focusing on Lieberman and the three oligarchs. The two sites ran articles that called Leonid Nevzlin "blood gambler" and "murderer" and claimed that "Israeli public" did not wish to protect him from Russia's demands to extradite him. It was tougher to get Gusinsky, who visits Israel rarely and behaves there very carefully. The campaign picked on the money-laundering label and the old affair of the Hapoalim Bank - a case that Israeli police has been dragging on for three years, in vain trying to incriminate Gusinsky, Nevzlin, and Gaydamak.
So that their Moscow sponsors could earn points with the state by claiming that the Compatriots Operation goes beyond personal vendettas and serves Motherland as well, the websites started playing out the theme of "anti-Putin conspiracy" by Gusinsky-Berezovsky-Nevzlin. In particular, the trio is alleged to plan to "explode the Volga region" by provoking ethnic strife. At the same time the sites dwelled on "impossibility of life in Israel" and the Russian-speaking immigrants choosing to return to Russia. Yet, despite huge investments, the campaign failed to yield the desired results. Lieberman did not rush to Moscow to be recruited, begging to stop the persecution. As for the three oligarchs, Vladimir Gusinsky is still popular in the community thanks to his TV channel, RTVi, and Leonid Nevzlin and Michael Cherney are famous for their charity. Nevzlin specializes in educational and informational projects related to Jewish identity, while Cherney sponsors information warfare on terror and have earned the name of "chief sponsor of neocons and enemy of Islam" on jihadist sites.
The inefficiency of the PR campaign in Israel forced Moscow sponsors to step up "active measures". They attempted to bribe Israel's Interior Minister Meir Shitrit and Internal Security Minister (responsible for police) Avi Dikhter to have them surrender Nevzlin to Russian justice system and deprive Cherney of Israeli citizenship, allegedly "under the pressure of Jewish public".
There are various versions of the latest events. According to one, police detected the bribery attempt and put the suspects under observation. According to the Israeli police's official, Liberman lodged a complaint, since the spies miscalculated and leaked his private telephone conversation to the media. According to some sources, the plot was exposed by Shabak, Israeli counterintelligence, who are in charge of protecting members of Israeli cabinet. Currently Lieberman possesses super secret information as the minister who coordinates Israeli policy vis-a-vis Iran, including a potential preventive strike on their nuclear facilities. Shabak discovered that the minister's telephones were being tapped, and the trail reached to Russia. In order to avoid a diplomatic scandal, Shabak chose not to publicize this as a counterintelligence operation; they simply got rid of the taps and passed the case along to police who arrested the suspects.
Up to now, Russian Foreign Intelligence has largely ignored these "Judean wars", but now it may change its tune. Wiretapping a minister in charge of strategic planning, and a bribery attempt, which leads to recruitment of Israeli ministers, all traceable to Russian security officers (even if retired and working for private clients), put Russia on the verge of yet another Litvinenko-type scandal and provides Israeli government with a trump card against Russia that the Kremlin would prefer to do without. Right now Israel is asking Russia not to sell Syria S-300 missiles that would render Israeli Air Force helpless. Besides the position of strength, Russia claims moral ground: its deal with Damascus does not violate international law. And Moscow will not hand Israel a morally grounded card of espionage accusations and attempted bribery of Cabinet members over the personal vendettas of just some businessmen, however close they could be to the Kremlin.


By Sergei Besikov
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