Last updated: 5 October, 2011

Israel’s deputy US envoy fired over leaks to press

Israel’s deputy ambassador to the United States has been dismissed for leaking “classified” information to the media, Israeli press reports said on Wednesday.

Dan Arbell was relieved of his duties after admitting he had leaked sensitive information to an Israeli journalist in an incident which occurred in Israel 30 months ago, before he took up his post in Washington.

News of Arbell’s dismissal was communicated to foreign ministry staff in a cable entitled “End of employment due to leak,” Haaretz newspaper reported.

Speaking to the paper, senior ministry officials described the incident as the latest episode in “a witch hunt” against anyone suspected of unauthorised contact with journalists.

The indiscretion which cost Arbell his job was reportedly a conversation with a political affairs correspondent in which he confirmed that a meeting had been held without first obtaining authorisation, the Maariv daily said.

There was no indication Arbell had given the reporter documents or other information, the paper said, in a move which was almost unanimously condemned as excessive by the local press.

A report in the English-language Jerusalem Post said the information, which allegedly concerned Iran, was leaked to a Haaretz correspondent in 2009.

Arbell has worked for the ministry for 25 years and was widely held to be one of the most senior diplomats in the foreign service.

“This is a disproportionate step,” one of his colleagues told Maariv. “The issue at hand isn’t treason or even a slip of the tongue, and the punishment is simply unreasonable.”

Foreign ministry officials were not immediately available to comment on the reports.

The conduct of the Shin Bet internal security agency which investigated the leak, was criticised as “disproportionate” by Maariv which said the agency had crossed “that fine line between necessary action and disproportionate action.”

The Shin Bet “is supposed to defend Israeli citizens from terror attacks, and not to prevent contact between journalists and their sources,” wrote columnist Ben Caspit.

“An attempt is being made here to instill fear, an attempt is being made here to deter people from talking to journalists.”

In recent months, the ministry had been clamping down on leaks of classified information, with dozens of employees obliged to sign a waiver saying they would submit to lie-detector tests in the event of a leak, Maariv said.

The move along with other similar steps had created “a sense of real fear” about talking to reporters, ministry officials told the paper.

Under Israeli law, anyone convicted of leaking information which could harm state security can face up to 15 years prison, in a penalty which can also be applied to those who reveal information without intending to harm state security.