Tom Gross Mideast Media Analysis

Dershowitz: The selective targeting of Netanyahu “endangers Israeli democracy” (& Is Israel’s electoral system good after all?)

February 28, 2019

I have long argued that an important factor in the rise of anti-Semitism among some people in the UK (and elsewhere) are fake and inflammatory news headlines of the kind that appear today (above) by the “award-wining” star journalist Robert Fisk in the liberal-left British newspaper, The Independent -- Tom Gross



[Note by Tom Gross]

Israel holds general elections on April 9. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loses office, many fear Israel will return to the period of instability and endless coalition crises that used to dog the Jewish state. They believe that the current crop of rival politicians lack the political skills of Netanyahu, and will probably find it hard to hold a fractured coalition together, and that Israel’s currently generally good economic and security situation may suffer as a result.

In an essay below, Shany Mor argues that Israel’s much-criticized proportional electoral system is actually a superior system to the kind that exists in other democracies such as the US and UK.

Mor says he disagrees with “Naysayers, particularly from the English-speaking world, who have accused Israel’s proportional representation system of breeding constant instability and empowering fringe elements and extremists, while an undercurrent of domestic discourse pines for ‘strong leadership’ that isn’t always looking over its shoulders to please coalition partners.”


I disagree with him. The Israeli system is in some ways too democratic and out of control – in the past, it has produced political paralysis of a kind that makes the current gridlock in Washington and Westminster look mild by comparison.

There are a record number of 47 party slates running in April, and 6.3 million registered Israeli voters. The record number of slates is almost double the 24 parties that ran in 2015 and significantly more than 2013’s then-record of 34.

To make sure they don’t run out of voting slips 8 million will be printed for each of the 47 parties and party alliances – that is 376,000,000 ballot slips to be printed.



Before Mor’s article there is a piece reporting on Alan Dershowitz’s open letter to the Israeli Attorney General yesterday decrying “the unprecedented application of a broad and expandable criminal statute, thereby endangering democracy”.

Netanyahu is expected to be charged later today in what many believe is a part of a political witch-hunt by his opponents, who fear they can’t defeat him through the popular vote at the ballot box and wish to drive him from office instead over exaggerated and out of context charges for “crimes” (including meetings with media owners to try and get more favorable coverage, or gifts of cigars when meeting business leaders) of the kind that that barely cause a murmur when politicians of all parties undertake similar activities in the UK, France, Germany and the US.

“The relationship between politics and the media – and between politicians and publishers – is too nuanced, subtle and complex to be subject to the heavy hand of criminal law,” writes Dershowitz (who is a longtime subscriber to this Mideast email list.)

Perhaps Netanyahu has been in office too long. But the way to defeat him is for the opposition to put up a strong (and ideally, experienced) candidate and positive policies that will attract voters. -- Tom Gross



In recent days, many western media have again been telling us that Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (who has not now resigned after all, as was reported earlier in the week) is “a moderate”.

Here is an item that I first published last year where Zarif is caught on tape joining a crowd in a chant calling for the destruction of the US, UK and Israel. The chant broke out after a speech delivered in Tehran by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last May.

While the crowd chants “Death to America”, “Death to Britain” and “Death to Israel,” Zarif mouths the fanatical words shouted by the audience, here.



Alan Dershowitz publishes open letter to A-G defending Netanyahu
By Uri Bollag
Jerusalem Post
February 27, 2019

Alan Dershowitz, one of the most prominent Jewish lawyers in the United States and in the world, published an open letter on Wednesday addressed to Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, in which he defended Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the ongoing investigations against him.

Mandelblit is expected to publish his decision on whether or not to indict Netanyahu on Thursday, with possible consequences on the current election cycle.

Dershowitz, in his letter published in Haaretz, negates charges of bribery and fraud against Netanyahu and said that an indictment against the prime minister would threaten the democratic process.

“To bring down a duly elected prime minister on the basis of an expansive and unprecedented application of a broad and expandable criminal statute endangers democracy,” Dershowitz wrote.

The Harvard professor expanded on the three cases – 1000, 2000 and 4000, which might bring forth an indictment – and rejected the legitimacy of the charges based on the existing evidence.

In Case 1000, in which Netanyahu is accused of handing out favors in return for gifts – cigars and champagne – from friends, Dershowitz wrote that there is no applicable law that defines the line of what would constitute bribery in this case.

“The accusation is that Netanyahu took too many such gifts and made too many favors in return. But how many are too many? The law doesn’t say,” Dershowitz asserted, adding that “no one should be charged with a crime unless he has willfully crossed a bright line and plainly violated a serious criminal statute.”

Cases 2000 and 4000, in which the prime minister is accused of supporting legislation in return for positive media coverage, “pose even greater dangers to democratic governance and civil liberties,” he said.

Dershowitz wrote that no substantial proof can be brought forth that a law was broken and that the complex relationship between political and media figures cannot be subject to prosecution. Instead this should be decided upon by the public, who can choose to vote in favor or against the representatives who “transgress” such statutes.

In Case 2000, Netanyahu allegedly supported a law that would curtail Israel Hayom to gain fairer coverage from its competitor Yediot Aharonot in a deal struck with its publisher Noni Mozes. Netanyahu ultimately voted against the law, leaving prosecutors to deal with possible motives, but found no real evidence.

Similarly, Dershowitz noted, in Case 4000 in which Netanyahu allegedly supported regulatory decisions made by civil servants in return for fairer coverage, a prosecution would be based on “speculation concerning the state of mind of the participants.”

“The relationship between politics and the media – and between politicians and publishers – is too nuanced, subtle and complex to be subject to the heavy hand of criminal law,” he wrote.

Dershowitz asserted that politicians’ decisions are often motivated by the coverage they would receive from the media and to achieve some sort of self-serving result.

“To empower prosecutors to probe these mixed motivations is to empower them to exercise undemocratic control over crucial institutions of democracy,” he reiterated.

The nature of politics, he added, and the relationship of it with media institutions to ‘“scratch my back and I will scratch yours’ is as Israeli as falafel and as American as apple pie.”

Dershowitz called on Mandelblit to let Netanyahu “continue his important work,” and to let Israelis decide at the ballot whether they accept the prime minister’s behavior or not.

“To criminalize these political differences is to endanger democracy and freedom of the press,” Dershowitz wrote.



The Accidental Wisdom of Israel’s Maligned Electoral System
By Shany Mor
Fathom journal (UK)
February 2019

The Israeli electoral system has never wanted for critics nor for well-intentioned reformers, yet its basic contours have remained remarkably unchanged since the first general election in 1949. Unchanged and unloved, it is also vastly underappreciated. Its quirks and supposed deficiencies, by historical accident rather than design perhaps, have made an enormous contribution to Israeli political stability and to the normalisation of democracy in a society that by any comparative reckoning should never have had it so good.

Naysayers, particularly from the English-speaking world, have accused Israel’s proportional representation system of breeding constant instability and empowering fringe elements and extremists, while an undercurrent of domestic discourse pines for ‘strong leadership’ that isn’t always looking over its shoulders to please coalition partners.


When I first wrote a version of this article six years ago in 2013, it was a matter of nearly universal consensus among critics that the electoral threshold for the Knesset is simply too low. It stood then at 2 per cent, having been raised twice already (from 1 per cent and 1.5 per cent). If we were to judge by the indignation this supposedly low threshold inspired, we might expect to see a Knesset with lots of tiny parties just squeaking past the 2 per cent with only two seats. In fact, parties entering the Knesset near the threshold are extremely rare (in the last four elections, only one – Kadima in 2013 – did).

Nor is Israel’s low threshold particularly unique. A threshold of 4 per cent or 5 per cent is common in many democracies, but of those, some, like Poland and Romania, make exceptions for national-ethnic minorities, and others, like Germany or New Zealand, don’t apply the threshold to parties which win direct mandates in regional districts. Mature democracies in Finland and the Netherlands, among others, do just fine with no threshold. Only Turkey imposes a high 10 per cent threshold.

Raising the threshold to 3.25 per cent, as happened by law in 2014, has had almost no appreciable effect on the makeup of Parliament. The number of parties has not changed. Three previously separate Arab lists combined into one aptly named Joint List in the most recent election in 2015, but they have split again into two lists for the upcoming 2019 election.

To be sure, there are quite a few parties in the Knesset, though the number is far from extraordinary when compared to some European parliaments. Even the UK, the most radically anti-proportional parliament in Europe, returned ten parties after the most recent general election (and, lest anyone think that was a fluke, eleven in the one before that). In Israel, the number of parties returned at each recent election has held steady at around twelve, and this number, believe it or not, is an accurate reflection of the existing political cleavages in Israel’s very diverse and deeply divided political society. Israel’s real ‘problem’ is not the proliferation of tiny parties but the growth of medium-sized parties and, in the last two decades, the decline of large ones. In all of Israel’s first thirteen general elections (out of eighteen so far), at least one party was returned to Parliament with 40 or more seats (out of 120). In the Seventh and Eighth Knessets, one party even exceeded 50, and in the Tenth and Eleventh, two parties topped 40. Since 1996, no party has come even close, and three of the last four Knessets have been elected without any party even crossing 30 seats. Is this because of inroads made by small parties creeping across a low threshold? Not at all. In fact, at the peak performance of the two large parties in the 1980s, there were more parties in the Knesset than today (15 rather than 12).

Election results for the Knesset have evolved in three distinct, identifiable phases. The first eight elections (1949-1973) returned Knessets with one large party and its satellites and opponents. The next five (1977-1992) gave us two large parties and ten or more small ones. And the most recent five (1996-2009) have left us with a smattering of medium-sized parties. The action, as it were, has simply not been anywhere near the threshold.

The ethnic, religious, and ideological cleavages in Israeli politics are more or less faithfully represented by the existing parties. Raising the threshold much higher than it is today won’t push out the cranks. It will, rather, leave entire constituencies unrepresented by their own parties, with no real leverage over larger parties to broaden their bases either. Do we really want to see a consolidated Arab bloc pandering only to its Islamist element? A joint ultra-Orthodox list with no issue binding it but draft-dodging and welfare entitlement? These would be the comparatively optimistic scenarios with a higher threshold. The more likely outcome would be a complete exit from democratic politics by precisely those groups whose connection to the state’s ‘rules of the game’ is already tenuous at best.

The kinds of parties ordinarily believed to be swatted away by higher thresholds exist more in people’s imaginations or exaggerated memories than in the actual Knessets of recent years. Single-issue parties rarely cross the threshold and never survive more than one Knesset anyway. The vanity list, a faction built around a notable figure and one or two hangers-on, has largely disappeared from the Israeli electoral scene. These parties were almost always led by prickly former generals who were either frustrated and bewildered by their less than meteoric rise to the top of an established party or who left an established party in a huff over some principle which no one can remember a week or two after the dramatic split. In the original article leading up to the 2013 election, I predicted that the one extant vanity list (a result of Ehud Barak’s split of the Labor party) of the time wouldn’t make it into the next Knesset, and indeed it did not.

Of course, the scourge of tiny parties isn’t the only thing critics of Israel’s proportional representation find fault with. We are commonly told that it is nearly impossible to put together a coherent government here, though in fact every election – even the most seemingly indecisive ones (1984, 2009) – has led to a government being formed within the allotted 45 days. This is in stark contrast to situations that routinely emerge in Belgium where months pass between an election and a coalition. Britain had to go to the polls twice in 1974 to get a manageable governing majority.

Minority governments, too, have been a rarity in Israel, though they are currently in power in both Denmark and the Netherlands. The longest-lived minority coalition, from 1993 to 1996, rested on the anomaly of Arab parties remaining outside a government they supported. So much has changed in Israeli politics since the 1990’s. The Joint List, as presently constituted, couldn’t realistically enter into any governing coalition. But there’s no reason to assume that at least one of its non-Islamist non-nationalist components – specifically the Hadash party – couldn’t be a part of a future left-wing coalition, especially if its votes are pivotal in defeating the right.

If the threshold is not really ushering in tiny parties, governing coalitions are relatively easy to form, and minority governments are rare and not genuinely minorities anyway, then what’s left on the charge sheet? A common complaint is that elections are too frequent and parliaments rarely last their full terms. The latter is true of the Knesset, but it is equally true of nearly every parliament. In the Knesset’s first sixty years, there were exactly seventeen Parliaments, an average duration of three and a half years – not bad considering a full term is four years. Even this statistic leaves out the good part of the story, as it includes in it two very short-lived Knessets from the state’s early days. In the last fifty years, no Knesset has sat for less than three years.

But aren’t governing coalitions unstable? Aren’t prime ministers always struggling to hold on to precarious majorities? The short answer is no. The long answer is no, too, actually. Again, it helps to separate out the first five Knessets – two of which were ‘short Knessets’ lasting only two years each, and one of which featured no fewer than four governing coalitions – from the twelve subsequent Knessets, each of which has served between three and four years and none of which had more than one reshuffle. In fact, even the numbers for the first five Knessets hide a certain stability – all were dominated by the same man, David Ben-Gurion, who was prime minister for the duration of all five, save for two years at the end of the Second Knesset and two years at the end of the Fifth.

After my original article was published, Israel elected another ‘short’ Knesset which sat for only two years from 2013 to 2015. Three short parliaments out of 20 is not terribly alarming, but it’s notable that all three occurred not in periods of governmental instability but rather in the middle of periods of exceptional stability. Ben-Gurion and Netanyahu are the only Prime Ministers to have served for more than a decade and the only ones to have served for more than seven consecutive years. All three short parliaments were during their tenures.

And nevertheless, we are told that governments are unstable and prime ministers are always struggling for survival rather than making long-term decisions. Perhaps they’re not thinking for the long-term, but parliamentary survival can’t take all the blame. The total number of governments that have fallen by no confidence votes in all of Israeli history is one (in 1990), and if it were zero, I would argue that that is a defect.

The Knesset is a noisy and chaotic place, but Israel is a noisy and chaotic place. The problem, if it is one, isn’t in the elections. The noise and chaos of people who don’t agree with me tends to be particularly annoying. To me. But that is the point, isn’t it? Even after 70 years of statehood, it remains the only forum in the entire country where Israelis of all kinds actually have to listen to each other. Even when the outcome of a decision is easily known in advance, it still must go through trial by discussion according to formalistic procedures that gives it a status no other public decision has. No other Israeli institution does this – not the army, which doesn’t draft Arabs or Haredim, not the High Court, certainly not the media.


A society as deeply divided as Israel is – across race, religion, ideology – with such a high tolerance for violence and such a broad familiarity with weapons, should have by all comparative measures long ago descended into civil war. Nearly every other newly independent post-1945 state certainly did. Political violence has not been a completely absent feature of Israeli political life (November 1995 and October 2000 are two recent examples), but its few actual outbursts are memorable precisely for being so rare; it is generally experienced more as a menacing threat in potentia, a foreboding presence sublimated beneath the surface (the 1981 general election campaign, for example).

How did Israel manage to avoid the fate of nearly every other post-colonial state and avoid descending into civil war? At the moment of statehood, two immediate factors stood out. First, there was an enormous imbalance between the potential factions, unlike, say in Ireland of 1922 where those that were willing to accept partition and those that insisted that anything less than the entire island was a betrayal were roughly even. Second, Israel’s national liberation, unlike so many other post-colonial births, wasn’t just the end of one foreign domination, it was also the most threatening moment of another. Having to fend off a combined Arab invasion united disparate pre-statehood factions as no ideology could have.

Beyond 1948, though, there are two more factors that precluded a descent into internal fighting. The first is the civic religion which was constructed in Israel and known by the untranslatable Hebrew word mamlakhtiut. This austere republicanism, created almost entirely in the image of one man, David Ben-Gurion, never demanded from its citizens that they put aside their own communal or ideological attachments, but only that those always take second place to the institutions and interests of the state and its value as an end, rather than a means. The high point of this civic religion came four years after Ben-Gurion left the Prime Minister’s Office for the last time in the Six Day War. In one of those historical ironies that should only exist in the theatre, mamlakhtiut’s greatest success ushered in its undoing, unnoticed at the time by nearly everyone save for Ben-Gurion himself.

But by far the biggest institutional keeper of the peace, even in the face of the decline of the old republicanism – no, especially in the face of its decline – has been the very broad and inclusive basis of representation in the Knesset. The payoffs for marginal groups to stay in the legitimate game of Israeli domestic democratic politics are often quite small (and why should it be otherwise?), but they have always, thus far at least, been big enough to keep nearly everyone inside arguing rather than outside shooting. The only significant election boycott was in 2001 by the Arab sector in a special election for the Prime Minister only – a one-of-a-kind event that was made possible by the now defunct Direct Election Law. The stakes were low – Arik Sharon was due to win by a landslide with or without Arab participation – and no Knesset seats were up for grabs. Very few of this community’s grievances were answered in the two years that ensued, yet when the Knesset was dissolved in 2003, there was no recurrence of the boycott. The risks to Arabs of a boycott are too high, and the kind of Knesset that could be elected without their votes would make a return from such a boycott in a subsequent election exceedingly difficult and costly. It would be a breaking point for Israeli democracy, and, while the tacit, implicit threat might yield modest results, its actual use is saved only for extreme circumstances.

The Arab minority is not the only social group in Israel with a problematic relationship with the state and its institutions. Other sectors have their own resentments and parochial agendas, but having to present them in speech acts and public acts of bargaining, having to phrase them, however hypocritically and piously, in terms of the general interest, has a moderating influence on all parties. And the few policy treats the establishment throws at marginalised groups have been enough to keep the talking game going.

Bringing in as many voices as possible was the animating idea behind the electoral system the first time it was used in 1949. What is largely forgotten was that this was for a constituent assembly, not a regular Parliament. It was only once the assembly met that it retroactively declared itself the First Knesset and put off the business of writing a constitution – indefinitely (and, in my opinion, wisely). A different electoral system would have had to surmount logistical hurdles and need some sort of constitutive moment to legitimate itself, so the status quo, which has done so much to preserve the internal peace, has survived and thrived, despite all the scorn heaped upon it. If there was ever any hope that Israel might introduce an element of geographic representation into its electoral rules, the settlement of civilian populations in territories occupied but not annexed rendered that nearly impossible. Drawing constituency boundaries would require an honest discussion of the state’s boundaries and risk highlighting the anomalies of Israeli democracy for the Israelis who have made their home beyond the frontier.


Why then does the Israeli electoral system attract so much ire? And how do easily refutable claims about the supposed instability of Israel’s governments, the frequency of its elections or the proliferation of its parties attain such an impressive intellectual shelf-life despite being so clearly wrong?

One explanation is the dominance in Israeli political discourse of a referent which couldn’t be any less relevant to Israeli democracy. Two centuries of American constitutional self-government leave much to admire and study, but very little of it will be useful to anyone trying to tackle the problems of Israel’s democracy. For reasons that are obvious, but which have nothing to do with institutional or constitutional questions, the American example – or, more accurately, the American example as imagined by partially informed outside observers – looms very large in the Israeli imagination, largely due to its availability and familiarity, not to its applicability. The latest round of legislative elections in Sweden or Switzerland don’t excite the news-consuming public in Israel in quite the way that American mid-term elections understandably do. As a result, Israelis often have a familiarity with the workings of American democracy and governance far beyond that which they have for any other country. It becomes the most readily available source for alternatives – even if only for ones that are to be rejected.

This is understandable but regrettable, because we are now learning from the experience of the one democracy that resembles Israel the least. To see this, it might help to list some of the salient structural features of Israeli democracy and come to grips with the kind of problems Israel’s electoral method needs to provide solutions for.

Israeli democracy is characterised first by its (1) moderate (between 5 and 20 million citizens) size – not a micro-state or one large metropolis surrounded by hinterland, nor an enormous country with tens or hundreds of millions stretching over a gigantic land mass. It is further characterised by its (2) central, unitary government (rather than a federal system) and lack of natural geographic divisions which might lend themselves to a federal administration. Its national identity has been an enormously successful project of (3) linguistic and cultural consolidation across diverse immigrant groups, rather than a projection of an old identity (or an image of one) on small numbers of newcomers. Its national ethos, though retaining many civic, republican, and ideological aspects, has a strong affinity to a particular (4) religious tradition; religious symbols are part of its flag and national narrative, and they are deeply meaningful for most of the population, even the majority that are not actively practising. It has a large (5) ethnic-linguistic minority, with its own collective memory and political traditions, and its own affinities with nations outside its boundaries; this minority is native to the land and not just an immigrant group in a suspended state of assimilation. And, as a mirror image to that, the majority ethnic group has a (6) large diaspora in other countries throughout the world. It retains a (7) large extra-territorial settler population with full voting rights in domestic elections in a territory where the non-settler majority enjoys no such right and no realistic hope or desire of gaining full citizenship.

Of lesser importance, though still relevant, is Israel’s geo-strategic position. It is surrounded (8) by much less developed, economically as well as politically, neighbours whose attitudes range from quite to very hostile. There is no plausible scenario in which the gaps in standards of living or quality of life between Israel and any of its neighbours will close; nor is there much more hope that the hostility will attenuate dramatically in our lifetimes. It (9) does not have borders which are both internationally recognised and domestically accepted. And it has for its entire history been (10) firmly in the pro-American camp of the post-1945 international order.

Of all these eleven characteristics of Israeli democracy, only (7) is unique. To the best of my knowledge, nothing like it has existed in any other advanced state since the end of the Portuguese presence in Mozambique and the French presence in Algeria. What is astonishing about the remaining ten items on this list is how many are shared with other advanced democracies – and how few are relevant for US democracy, except for (3) and, trivially, (10). On the other hand, countries as diverse as Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan all share between five and eight of the traits enumerated above. Each has carved a different path to its present democratic arrangements, with all the expected burdens of history and accident. Israelis would do well to learn from both the successes and failures of those countries’ institutional arrangements long before trying to foist upon their own country a provincially misunderstood American method.

Too much viewing of The West Wing could leave anyone longing for a presidential system, but we easily forget what little power over legislation an American president has at the federal level, and that anyway most law-making occurs at the state level where he has none. No such balance is plausible in the Israeli context, where the predictable result of a strong president with no one to report to would more closely resemble presidential experiments of other small and young democracies – intrigue, excess, attempts by the winner to shut out the loser, and a hunt by whoever is shut out for forums outside the constitutional order to press their cause.

It’s easy to look at a newly elected Parliament and say, there’s far too little of me in there and way too much of you. But this cannot be the basis for any serious institutional reform. When I first approached this topic seven years ago, the problem that most vexed critics of Israel’s electoral system was governmental instability; today it is the lack of term limits. Oddly, the only electoral change in the interim was the raising of the threshold. On the other hand, there has been a steady tenure of a Prime Minister that most of the intellectual class dislikes intensely. You’ll have to pardon my cynicism.

Israeli parliamentarism has served its people well, and we should exercise extreme caution in changing it. Some caution would have been in order before Israeli political parties rushed headlong into the single most destructive reform in democratic life in Israel (and not just in Israel): primaries. But this was a reform that was never legislated and is anyway fading.

More meaningful electoral reform has been more difficult to pass, and we should probably be grateful for that. Not that I don’t have my own wish list. At 120 seats, the Knesset is far too small to adequately represent Israel’s large population and its various divisions. Occasionally a crucial constituency only has two or three representatives. When one becomes a minister or deputy minister, there is really no one left to do important parliamentary work. At least 60 more MKs (or even 120 more), with some elected on a regional basis, would be a welcome modernisation.

But I’d rather keep the current system than risk letting today’s winners entrench their victories with an imagined efficiency that solves problems we don’t have and erases the unique benefits of a system that has managed to keep everyone inside, gives everyone a voice to be heard, and lets no one dominate. The stakes on the outside are just too high.


* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook

How could Rashida Tlaib get caught using Israeli technology? (& Gaza is not Belsen)

February 26, 2019

Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (pictured last month, above right, with another leading U.S. campaigner for a boycott of Israel, Linda Sarsour) has been caught using a Tel Aviv company for her official campaign website.



* Haaretz: If U.S. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was serious about her BDS [boycott of all things Israeli] and had troubled to take 30 seconds to do a Google search, she would have discovered that the company who makes her website (Wix) is headquartered in occupied Tel Aviv.

* And in other cases for Israel-boycotters, if it isn’t an Israeli company that’s providing the technology, it’s Israelis who invented it. That’s because some 250 multinational companies [including Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Intel, AT&T, AOL, HP, IBM, PayPal, Samsung, DropBox, SanDisk, Sony, and Yahoo] have major research and development centers in Israel, most of them set up after the company bought an Israeli start-up. These companies not only forked over tens of billions of dollars over the years to acquire these Israeli startups but are now employing tens of thousands of well-paid Israelis in Israel, who are paying taxes to the Israeli government, doing army reserve duty, and may well (shock, horror!) be voting Likud.

* So every time you use Facebook or Gmail or buy the next-generation iPhone (both Facebook and Apple have Israeli R&D centers), you become a small cog in a great machine oppressing Palestinians.

* After it was caught using Wix for its website six years ago, the Cornell University branch of Students for Justice in Palestine offered a long-winded defense about why it was okay to use Israeli technology while telling others they should be boycotting Israeli products.

* Last week, it was revealed that a well-known Dutch BDS advocate, Robert-Willem van Norren, has been riding around Amsterdam with signs calling to “Free Palestine” and “Boycott Israel” on an Israeli-made mobility scooter. He declined to comment.


Above, a toy shop and shopping mall in Gaza, as shown on Al-Jazeera but not on the BBC or CNN or in The New York Times or Guardian.



[Note by Tom Gross]

One of Haaretz’s better columnists, I think, is their business page columnist, David Rosenberg. He avoids the kind of anti-Israeli hysteria often found on Haaretz’s main op-ed page, in which the government of Israel is denounced as “Fascist” on an almost daily basis by one writer or another.

Or earlier this month, in a Haaretz comment article about Benny Gantz (the leader of a new centrist party making a strong challenge against the incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party in the current Israeli election campaign) Gaza was compared to Bergen-Belsen slave labor and death camp.

Gantz’s mother is a survivor of Belsen, so the comparison by Haaretz is all the more unpleasant. (Gantz is a subscriber to this email list.)

Gaza is, of course, nothing like Belsen.

Don’t take my word for it?

See this video from Al Jazeera if you scroll down here for example:

The good news about Gaza you will hear on Al Jazeera but not in the Western media

Or this video last year from a pro-Erdogan (Muslim Brotherhood sympathetic) Turkish TV station.

Below, I attach an article from David Rosenberg about the hypocrisy of many of those who support the BDS movement against Israel. (I placed extracts at the start of this dispatch for those who don’t have time to read the article.)

-- Tom Gross




How Could Rashida Tlaib Get Caught Using Israeli Technology?
The Palestinian-American congresswoman isn’t the only BDSer with a spotty boycott record, partly because Israeli tech is too ubiquitous, but partly because of plain old hypocrisy
By David Rosenberg
February 19, 2019

Presumably it was embarrassing for Rashia Tlaib, the Palestinian-American newly elected to Congress and a supporter of the BDS campaign, that her official campaign website was found to be using website-building tools made and marketed by the Israeli company Wix. Or maybe not.

The Wix connection was exposed by the Israel Advocacy Movement, by the simple technique of pushing the “view page source” option in Chrome (it’s a pity investigative journalism isn’t always so simple).

In any case, Tlaib, who rushed to defend herself against accusations of anti-Semitism last month, hasn’t responded to the BDS faux pas.

That could be because the news was limited mainly to the right-wing media and blogosphere. My guess is the real reason is that the BDS movement itself doesn’t take the economic boycott so seriously.

Last week, for instance, JTA reported that a well-known Dutch BDS advocate, Robert-Willem van Norren, has been riding around Amsterdam with signs calling to “Free Palestine” and “Boycott Israel” on an Israeli-made mobility scooter. He declined to comment.

Other BDS advocates have been found using Wix tools, but it’s hard to know how prevalent this kind of quiet boycott-breaking is. My guess is that it is pretty common.


Wix is unusual because it is a discrete product sold directly to consumers. If Tlaib was serious about her BDS and had troubled to take 30 seconds to do a Google search, she would have discovered that the company is headquartered in occupied Tel Aviv. But most of the time, however, Israeli products, in particular tech products, are buried deep in the bowels of the device you own, the app you use or the website you visit.

If it isn’t an Israeli company that’s providing the technology, it’s Israelis who invented it. That’s because some 250 multinational companies have research and development centers in Israel, most of them set up after the company bought an Israeli start-up. These companies not only forked over tens of billions of dollars over the years to acquire these startups but are now employing tens of thousands of well-paid Israelis, who are paying taxes to the government, doing army reserve duty, and may well be voting for the Likud.

So every time you use Facebook or buy the next-generation iPhone (both Facebook and apple have Israeli R&D centers), you become a small cog in a great machine oppressing Palestinians – if you were to buy value the BDS contention that everything Israel does is contaminated by the occupation.


However, if you look at the BDS movement’s boycott, this overwhelming reality doesn’t exist. The link to the section of boycotting Israeli products features a picture of Jaffa oranges and then goes on to suggest boycotting SodaStream, a maker of soda machines for the home; Ahava cosmetics; and Sabra brand hummus.

Does BDS think that this is going to have any effect? For the record, Israel exported $198 million of citrus fruit in 2018, equal to 0.36% of total merchandise exports for the year. Sabra products are made in the United States, not in Israel, by a joint venture between Israel’s Strauss Group and PepsiCo. Apropos of PepsiCo, it bought SodaStream last year.

After it was caught using Wix for its website six years ago, the Cornell University branch of Students for Justice in Palestine offered a long-winded defense about why it was okay to use Israeli technology while telling others they should be boycotting Israeli products.

Anyone with the patience to read its long and bombastic statement of principles will find it hard to pin down exactly what the SJP Cornell’s thinking was. But it seems to come down to BDS being a marketing tool for shedding light on Israeli “racialized super-exploitation” of Palestinians.

In other words, you shouldn’t actually boycott Israeli products, because it’s just too complicated. The world economy is a “largely hidden network of financial pipes and tunnels” that makes it difficult if not impossible to known which products have Israel inside (although, to repeat, Wix hardly qualifies as a stealth technology).

It’s an interesting defense, if for no other reason than as an exercise in how to drown out hypocrisy and cynicism inside a torrent of self-justification. But it falls flat on its face because if you look at SJP Cornell’s website today, it is built on WordPress, a Wix alternative. Evidently, not everyone bought the explanation or felt the hypocrisy was too hard to endure.

The BDS hypocrisy goes deeper than this. When push comes to shove, its activists prefer that others do the boycotting and make the sacrifices. Thus Caterpillar and in the past the security company G4s have been popular targets because, after all, how many ordinary people are going to ever be buying a earthmover or employ a security guard? It’s likewise painless to ask a university’s trustees or a big pension fund to divest Israeli shares from their portfolios because that’s someone else’s money.

The requirement to fight the good fight against Israeli oppression is supposed to be borne by others whether they are big, anonymous institutions or useful idiots who take the boycott call seriously. Meanwhile, a boycott campaign is being managed using Israeli website building tools. In the words of SJP Cornell, “BDS is not abstention, nor an absolute moral principle … it is a tactic.”


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Kushner: Trump Peace Plan to address Israel’s borders, call for united Palestinian entity

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei hugs Syrian President Assad in Tehran yesterday. It was the first time the two dictators met publicly since they started to massacre and then ethnically cleanse Syria’s majority Sunni Arab population into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey (and in many cases, on into Europe), eight years ago. (Photo provided to media by the Office of The Supreme Leader.)



1. Kushner: Trump Plan to address Israel’s borders, call for united Palestinian entity
2. Has Netanyahu already agreed to sign on?
3. Bypassing Abbas if needs be
4. Cautious welcome
5. Assad publically meets Iran’s Khamenei for first time since Syria war began
6. Head of MI6 “visits Israel to discuss ongoing Iranian nuclear threat”
7. Britain to ban Hizbullah’s political wing, classify it as terrorist group
8. Leaders from EU, Arab League hold first-ever joint summit



[Notes by Tom Gross]

Donald Trump’s senior aide Jared Kushner told Sky News Arabia yesterday evening that the forthcoming Trump peace plan – the details of which remain a closely guarded secret – will address all the main issues of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including borders.

Kushner, who is also Trump’s son-in-law and who last year successfully brokered the agreement between Mexico and the US, as well as the initial talks between North Korea and the US, also told Sky News Arabia in Abu Dhabi that the White House would like to see a unified Palestinian government, instead of having the West Bank and Gaza ruled by rival Palestinian factions.

“We want to see Palestinians under one leadership that will allow them to live in dignity,” Kushner, who rarely gives interviews, told the pan-Arab TV network. “We are trying to come up with realistic and fair solutions that are relevant to the year 2019,” he added.

Kushner said the plan would include freedom of opportunity and religion and increased “freedom of movement for people and goods.” He said it would economically benefit the wider Arab region, not just the Palestinian economy.

Video clips from Kushner’s interview here:



The Trump plan is due to be released after Israel’s election on April 9 and it is understood that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have already signaled his tentative agreement to Trump.

Kushner told Sky News Arabia that Iran was the main obstacle to stability in the Middle East and to a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran continues to back terror groups in Gaza, Syria, southern Lebanon, and elsewhere.



Officially, the Palestinian Authority has refused to speak to the Trump administration for over a year now, but from discussions I had last week with someone who is close to Kushner, it appears that if Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas won’t discuss the peace plan or tries to avoid providing details of the plan to the Palestinian public, the Trump administration will release full details of the plan in Arabic to the Palestinian people directly. (The only previous Palestinian ruler in history, Yasser Arafat – at a time when household internet access was still limited – refused to let the Palestinian public know details of the 2000 Clinton/Barak peace offer, and Abbas refused to let Palestinians know details of the 2007-8 Bush/Olmert peace plan.)

Abbas, now aged 83, is currently serving the 15th year of the four-year term as president of the Palestinian Authority. He was elected (in a rigged election) in January 2005. His administration has been brutal and corrupt (though perhaps less so than other Arab dictators) and Abbas is detested by most of those whom he supposedly serves.



I also attended an off-the-record briefing this month with Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, and the person who has worked with Kushner most closely on the plan. One of the other attendees was a leading Israeli left-wing peace activist and she told me afterwards that she was cautiously optimistic by what she heard, especially because unlike previous plans, the Trump administration is intending to unveil a comprehensive plan to the public in one go, rather than aim for an incremental ‘road map’ type plan.

See also: Trump plan allegedly “creates Palestinian state with east Jerusalem capital”


(For Arab speakers on this list who might be interested, I was also on Sky News Arabia last week, discussing European matters: .)



Syrian state television reported last night that Syrian President Bashar Assad made his first public visit yesterday to his closest ally, Iran, since the start of the Syrian war eight years ago.

(It is believed there has been at least one clandestine visit by Assad during the war, as Iran continued to orchestrate the bombardment of Syria’s majority Sunni Arab population and the ethnic cleaning of Syrian Sunnis into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and in many cases, on into Europe.)

Syrian TV showed Assad meeting Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran yesterday, and said the two leaders (dictators) agreed “to continue cooperation at all levels for the interests of the two friendly nations.”

Assad also said he had come to Teheran to pay his respects to Khamenei on the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

(For a related dispatch, see: Forty years on, gays are still hanged and women repressed.)



Alex Younger, the head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence, “secretly visited” Israel last week to discuss the growing threat of Iran’s nuclear program, according to a news report on Israel’s Channel 13 news on Friday.

Younger reportedly met with the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, and other Israeli intelligence officials.

The report said that international intelligence agencies, including the American, British and Israeli are “100% certain” that Iran is still trying to develop nuclear weapons by “preparing its nuclear infrastructure in an accelerated fashion,” in violation of the 2015 Obama-Kerry-EU “appeasement” deal with the Islamic Republic.

Iran’s nuclear efforts were also the subject of discussions among participants at last week’s Munich Security Conference, and at the Warsaw summit between Arab countries and Israel two weeks ago.



At the urging of the Arab world and Israel, among others, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced yesterday that Britain will end the fiction that the military and political wings of the Iranian orchestrated and financed Lebanese terror group Hizbullah are distinct.

The UK had already proscribed Hizbullah’s external security unit (i.e. the wing of Hizbullah that has carried out terror attacks in Argentina, Bulgaria, Thailand, Africa and elsewhere) and its military wing in 2001 and 2008 respectively, but said yesterday it would outlaw its political arm too.

“Hizbullah is continuing in its attempts to destabilize the fragile situation in the Middle East – and we are no longer able to distinguish between their already banned military wing and the political party. Because of this, I have taken the decision to proscribe the group in its entirety,” Javid said.

Hizbullah has also carried out a wave of attacks on Sunni civilians across Syria in recent years.

Hizbullah is already deemed a terrorist organization by the United States and most Arab countries. Israel yesterday urged other European countries to follow Britain’s lead.

By contrast, Britain’s opposition Labour Party had attempted to prevent the ban, sending a leaflet last month at Jeremy Corbyn’s initiative to lawmakers suggesting Hizbullah could be useful for peace efforts.

Hizbullah was set up in 1982 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The British ban will come into force on Friday subject to parliament’s approval. It will mean that in future anyone who is a member of Hizbullah or aids the group will be committing a criminal offence with a potential sentence of up to 10 years in jail.

In the past, Labour leader Corbyn described Hizbullah (and Hamas) as his “friends”, remarks he later tried to backtrack from.

Ansaroul Islam, an armed group active in Burkina Faso, and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam Wal-Muslimin, an Islamic group based in North Africa, will also be included on the list of organizations set to be banned by the UK on Friday.



Leaders from the European Union and Arab League met in the Egyptian Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday for the first-ever joint summit between leaders of the blocs.

Among issues discussed were the fight against terrorism and prevention of illegal migration.

European leaders asked Egyptian President Abdel al-Fattah al-Sisi to start detaining migrants leaving Libya and return them to the African mainland. In return, the EU reportedly offered Cairo various economic deals, the promotion of tourism to Sinai and a muting of criticism of Sisi’s (abysmal) human rights record.


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Former US air force officer charged with spying for Iran (& “Private Mossad for Hire”)

February 14, 2019

Monica Witt, left, as US counter-intelligence investigator, and now in Iran



[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach two articles about intelligence matters.

The first concerns Monica Witt, a cryptologist and former counter-intelligence investigator for the US air force. It was revealed today that last July she was charged with spying for Iran, and exposing US agents working undercover in the Islamic Republic to extreme danger. The charges were unsealed today.

The US Department of Justice statement is here.

It is known that Iranian intelligence is increasingly formidable. Last month a former Israeli government minister confessed and was sentenced for spying for Iran. (More here in this dispatch from last June at the time of his arrest:
“The highest ranking Israeli spy for Iran”.)

The second, very long article below (“Private Mossad for Hire”) appears in the February 18 & 25, 2019 print edition of The New Yorker magazine under a different headline (“Deception, Inc.”) Not everything in the article is accurate.



In separate news, Venezuela’s new internationally recognized (but not yet in power) president Juan Guaido says he is working to restore ties with Israel, after the anti-Semitic Chavez era and the anti-Zionist Maduro presidency.




Former US air force officer charged with spying for Iran
Monica Witt, who defected in 2013, worked as a cryptologist and a counter-intelligence investigator for more than 10 years
Julian Borger in Washington
The Guardian
February 13, 2019

A former US air force intelligence officer who defected to Iran in 2013 has been charged with espionage, giving away the identity of a US agent and other secrets.

Monica Witt, aged 39, was a cryptologist and a counter-intelligence investigator for the US air force for more than 10 years before working as an intelligence analyst for the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton for five months in 2008 and doing other private sector work.

According to charges unsealed on Wednesday by the justice department, she defected to Iran in August 2013, taking with her details of US counter-intelligence agents she had worked with who were then targeted by Iranian hackers, four of whom are named in the indictment and charged alongside Witt.

“It is a sad day for America when one of its citizens betrays our country,” the assistant attorney general for national security, John Demers, said.

Demers said: “Ms Witt was recruited by Iran as part of a program that targets former intelligence officers and others who have held security clearances. Following her defection to Iran in 2013, she is alleged to have revealed to the Iranian government the existence of a highly classified intelligence collection program and the true identity of a US intelligence officer, thereby risking the life of this individual.”

The indictment suggests Witt defected for ideological motives, and was recruited when she visited Iran in February 2012 to attend a conference on US cultural influence called “Hollywoodism”.

The conference was organised by an group called New Horizon, which was put under US sanctions on Wednesday for allegedly serving as a front from the Quds Force, the external arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF).

“New Horizon Organization hosts international conferences that serve as a platform for the IRGC-QF to recruit and collect intelligence from attendees,” a US treasury statement said. Witt is alleged to have made videos at that time identifying herself as a US veteran, criticising the US government and publicly converting to Islam.

Witt was warned by the FBI that she was a target for recruitment as an Iranian spy, and she said she would not disclose information about her time in air force intelligence. But she went on to help make a propaganda video and return to Iran for a second Hollywoodism conference in February 2013, where she allegedly approached the IRGC and offered to defect.

Over the next few months, before she defected, her point of contact is alleged to be an Iranian woman, referred to as individual A. At one point Individual A flatters her by saying: “Should I thank the sec [secretary] of defence … u were well trained.”

Witt replied: “LOL thank the sec of defence? For me? Well, I loved the work, and I am endeavouring to put the training I received to good use instead of evil. Thanks for giving me the opportunity.”

In July 2013, according to the indictment, individual A told Witt that Iranian officials were suspicious of her and wondered how she managed to travel around Asia while claiming to have no money.

Witt replied: “Grrr … No matter what, they are just going to be suspicious, right? I just hope I have better luck with Russia at this point. I am starting to get frustrated at the level of Iranian suspicion.”

The indictment quotes her as threatening to “slip into Russia quietly” and contact the WikiLeaks organisation from there. She had already threatened to “do like Snowden”, a reference to the NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden, and go public with what she knew about US intelligence operations.

Prosecutors say she eventually defected to Iran on 28 August 2013, flying to Tehran from Dubai, writing to individual A “I’m signing off and heading out! Coming home.”

An FBI missing person poster from the time shows two pictures of Witt wearing a headscarf and saying she was last known to be traveling and working in south-west Asia.

The FBI alert read: “She was last believed to be in either Afghanistan or Tajikistan in July 2013, where she was working as an English teacher. Witt may have also traveled to the United Arab Emirates or Iran, where she had previously traveled on at least two other occasions.

“The last known contact with her is believed to have been in June 2013. She had been working overseas for more than a year. Witt’s friends recently reported her missing after not receiving any response from her in several months.”

In the few weeks before her defection, Witt is alleged to have conducted searches on Facebook for the names of former fellow counter-intelligence agents, and the spouse of one of them. On arrival in Iran, the Tehran government is said to have provided her with housing and computer equipment for her to help track down US intelligence officers.

The indictment alleges that between January 2014 and May 2015, she created “target packages”, or dossiers on her former counter-intelligence colleagues, including the identity of an undercover agent and a secret US counter-intelligence operation against a particular target, which is not named.

Over the same period, the four Iranians charged in the same indictment, named as Mojtaba Masoumpour, Behzad Mesri, Hossein Parvar and Mohamad Paryar, as well as unnamed co-conspirators, are alleged to have mounted hacking attacks against the current and former US intelligence agents Witt had identified.

They are said to be charged with using malware, phishing attacks and false identities, including one called Bella Wood on Facebook, who successfully friended one of the US agents while they were deployed as a military intelligence officer in Kabul.

That was followed by an email offering a link to a “pretty card” which, if opened, would have taken the intelligence officers to an Iranian-controlled server.



Private Mossad for Hire
Inside an effort to influence American elections, starting with one small-town race.
By Adam Entous and Ronan Farrow
The New Yorker
February 18 & 25, 2019 issue

One evening in 2016, a twenty-five-year-old community-college student named Alex Gutiérrez was waiting tables at La Piazza Ristorante Italiano, an upscale restaurant in Tulare, in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Gutiérrez spotted Yorai Benzeevi, a physician who ran the local hospital, sitting at a table with Parmod Kumar, a member of the hospital board. They seemed to be in a celebratory mood, drinking expensive bottles of wine and laughing. This irritated Gutiérrez. The kingpins, he thought with disgust.

Gutiérrez had recently joined a Tulare organization called Citizens for Hospital Accountability. The group had accused Benzeevi of enriching himself at the expense of the cash-strapped hospital, which subsequently declared bankruptcy. (Benzeevi’s lawyers said that all his actions were authorized by his company’s contract with the facility.) According to court documents, the contract was extremely lucrative for Benzeevi; in a 2014 e-mail to his accountant, he estimated that his hospital business could generate nine million dollars in annual revenue, on top of his management fee of two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars a month. (In Tulare, the median household income was about forty-five thousand dollars a year.) The citizens’ group had drawn up an ambitious plan to get rid of Benzeevi by rooting out his allies on the hospital board. As 2016 came to a close, the group was pushing for a special election to unseat Kumar; if he were voted out, a majority of the board could rescind Benzeevi’s contract.

Gutiérrez, a political-science major, was a leader of the Young Democrats Club at the College of the Sequoias, and during the 2016 Presidential campaign he attended a rally for Bernie Sanders. Gutiérrez grew up watching his father, a dairyman, work twelve-hour shifts, six days a week, and Sanders’s message about corporate greed, income inequality, and the ills of America’s for-profit health-care system resonated with him. Seeing Benzeevi and Kumar enjoying themselves at La Piazza inflamed Gutiérrez’s sense of injustice. He spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s knocking on doors and asking neighbors to sign a petition for a recall vote, which ultimately garnered more than eleven hundred signatures. Gutiérrez later asked his mother, Senovia, if she would run for Kumar’s seat; the citizens’ group thought that Senovia, an immigrant and a social worker, would be an appealing candidate in a community that is around sixty per cent Hispanic.

The recall was a clear threat to Benzeevi’s hospital-management business, and he consulted a law firm in Washington, D.C., about mounting a campaign to save Kumar’s seat. An adviser there referred him to Psy-Group, an Israeli private intelligence company. Psy-Group’s slogan was “Shape Reality,” and its techniques included the use of elaborate false identities to manipulate its targets. Psy-Group was part of a new wave of private intelligence firms that recruited from the ranks of Israel’s secret services—self-described “private Mossads.” The most aggressive of these firms seemed willing to do just about anything for their clients.

Psy-Group stood out from many of its rivals because it didn’t just gather intelligence; it specialized in covertly spreading messages to influence what people believed and how they behaved. Its operatives took advantage of technological innovations and lax governmental oversight. “Social media allows you to reach virtually anyone and to play with their minds,” Uzi Shaya, a former senior Israeli intelligence officer, said. “You can do whatever you want. You can be whoever you want. It’s a place where wars are fought, elections are won, and terror is promoted. There are no regulations. It is a no man’s land.”

In recent years, Psy-Group has conceived of a variety of elaborate covert operations. In Amsterdam, the firm prepared a report on a religious sect called the Brunstad Christian Church, whose Norwegian leader, Psy-Group noted, claimed to have written “a more important book than the New Testament.” In Gabon, Psy-Group pitched “Operation Bentley”—an effort to “preserve” President Ali Bongo Ondimba’s hold on power by collecting and disseminating intelligence about his main political rival. (It’s unclear whether or not the operations in Amsterdam and Gabon were carried out. A spokesperson for Brunstad said that it was “plainly ridiculous” that the church considered “any book” to be more important than the Bible. Ondimba’s representatives could not be reached for comment.) In another project, targeting the South African billionaire heirs of an apartheid-era skin-lightening company, Psy-Group secretly recorded family members of the heirs describing them as greedy and, in one case, as a “piece of shit.” In New York, Psy-Group mounted a campaign on behalf of wealthy Jewish-American donors to embarrass and intimidate activists on American college campuses who support a movement to put economic pressure on Israel because of its treatment of the Palestinians.

Psy-Group’s larger ambition was to break into the U.S. election market. During the 2016 Presidential race, the company pitched members of Donald Trump’s campaign team on its ability to influence the results. Psy-Group’s owner, Joel Zamel, even asked Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, to offer Zamel’s services to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. The effort to drum up business included brash claims about the company’s skills in online deception. The posturing was intended to attract clients—but it also attracted the attention of the F.B.I. Robert Mueller, the special counsel, has been examining the firm’s activities as part of his investigation into Russian election interference and other matters.

Psy-Group’s talks with Benzeevi, after the 2016 election, spurred the company to draw up a plan for developing more business at the state and local levels. No election was too small. One company document reported that Psy-Group’s influence services cost, on average, just three hundred and fifty thousand dollars—as little as two hundred and seventy-five dollars an hour. The new strategy called for pitching more than fifty individuals and groups, including the Republican National Committee, the Democratic National Committee, and major super pacs. The firm published a provocative brochure featuring an image of a goldfish with a shark fin tied to its back, below the tagline “Reality is a matter of perception.” Another brochure showed a cat that cast a lion’s shadow and listed “honey traps” among the firm’s services. (In the espionage world, a honey trap often involves deploying a sexually attractive operative to induce a target to provide information.)

Psy-Group put together a proposal for Benzeevi, promising “a coordinated intelligence operation and influence campaign” in Tulare to preserve Kumar’s seat on the hospital board. Operatives would use fake identities to “uncover and deliver actionable intelligence” on members of the community who appeared to be leading the recall effort, and would use unattributed Web sites to mount a “negative campaign” targeting “the opposition candidate.” All these activities, the proposal assured, would appear to be part of a “grass roots” movement in Tulare. The operation was code-named Project Mockingjay, a reference to a fictional bird in the “Hunger Games” novels, known for its ability to mimic human sounds.

The modern market for private intelligence dates back to the nineteen-seventies, when a former prosecutor named Jules Kroll began hiring police detectives, F.B.I. and Treasury agents, and forensic accountants to conduct detective work on behalf of corporations, law and accounting firms, and other clients. The company, which became known as Kroll, Inc., also recruited a small number of former C.I.A. officers, but rarely advertised these hires—Kroll knew that associating too closely with the C.I.A. could endanger employees in countries where the spy agency was viewed with contempt.

In the two-thousands, Israeli versions of Kroll entered the market. These companies had a unique advantage: few countries produce more highly trained and war-tested intelligence professionals, as a proportion of the population, than Israel. Conscription in Israel is mandatory for most citizens, and top intelligence units often identify talented recruits while they are in high school. These soldiers undergo intensive training in a range of language and technical skills. After a few years of government service, most are discharged, at which point many finish their educations and enter the civilian job market. Gadi Aviran was one of the pioneers of the private Israeli intelligence industry. “There was this huge pipeline of talent coming out of the military every year,” Aviran, who founded the intelligence firm Terrogence, said. “All a company like mine had to do was stand at the gate and say, ‘You look interesting.’ ”

Aviran was formerly the head of an Israeli military intelligence research team, where he supervised analysts who, looking for terrorist threats, reviewed data vacuumed up from telephone communications and from the Internet. The process, Aviran said, was like “looking at a flowing river and trying to see if there was anything interesting passing by.” The system was generally effective at analyzing attacks after they occurred, but wasn’t as good at providing advance warning.

Aviran began to think about a more targeted approach. Spies, private investigators, criminals, and even some journalists have long used false identities to trick people into providing information, a practice known as pretexting. The Internet made pretexting easier. Aviran thought that fake online personae, known as avatars, could be used to spy on terrorist groups and to head off planned attacks. In 2004, he started Terrogence, which became the first major Israeli company to demonstrate the effectiveness of avatars in counterterrorism work.

When Terrogence launched, many suspected jihadi groups communicated through members-only online forums run by designated administrators. To get past these gatekeepers, Terrogence’s operatives gave their avatars legends, or backstories—often as Arab students at European universities. As the avatars proliferated, their operators joked that the most valuable online chat rooms were now entirely populated by avatars, who were, inadvertently, collecting information from one another.

Aviran tried to keep Terrogence focussed on its core mission—counterterrorism—but some government clients offered the company substantial contracts to move in other directions. “It’s a slippery slope,” Aviran said, insisting that it was a path he resisted. “You start with one thing and suddenly you think, Wait, wait, I can do this. Then somebody asks if you can do something else. And you say, ‘Well, it’s risky but the money is good, so let’s give it a try.’ ”

Terrogence’s success spawned imitators, and other former intelligence officers began to open their own firms, many of them less risk-averse than Terrogence. One of the boldest, Black Cube, openly advertised its ties to Israeli spy agencies, including Mossad and Unit 8200, the military’s signals-intelligence corps. Black Cube got its start with the help of Vincent Tchenguiz, an Iranian-born English real-estate tycoon who had invested in Terrogence. In March, 2011, Tchenguiz was arrested by a British anti-fraud unit investigating his business dealings. (The office later dropped the investigation and paid him a settlement.) He asked Meir Dagan, who had just stepped down as the director of Mossad, how he could draw on the expertise of former intelligence officers to look into the business rivals he believed had alerted authorities. Dagan’s message to Tchenguiz, a former colleague of Dagan’s said, was: I can find a personal Mossad for you. (Dagan died in 2016.) Tchenguiz became Black Cube’s first significant client.

In some respects, Psy-Group emerged more directly from Terrogence. In 2008, Aviran hired an Israel Defense Forces intelligence officer named Royi Burstien to be the vice-president of business development. Social networks such as Facebook—whose profiles featured photographs and other personal information—were becoming popular, and Terrogence’s avatars had become more sophisticated to avoid detection. Burstien urged Aviran to consider using the avatars in more aggressive ways, and on behalf of a wider range of commercial clients. Aviran was wary. After less than a year at Terrogence, Burstien returned to Israel’s military intelligence, and joined an élite unit that specialized in PsyOps, or psychological operations.

In the following years, some of Burstien’s ambitions were being fulfilled elsewhere. Russia’s intelligence services had begun using a variety of tools—including hacking, cyber weapons, online aliases, and Web sites that spread fake news—to conduct information warfare and to sow discord in neighboring countries. In the late two-thousands, the Russians targeted Estonia and Georgia. In 2014, they hit Ukraine. Later that year, Burstien founded Psy-Group, which, like Black Cube, used avatars to conduct intelligence-collection operations. But Burstien also offered his avatars for another purpose: influence campaigns, similar to those mounted by Russia. Burstien boasted that Psy-Group’s so-called “deep” avatars were so convincing that they were capable of planting the seeds of ideas in people’s heads.

Tulare seemed an unlikely target for an influence campaign. The town took its name from a lake that, in 1773, was christened by a Spanish commandant as Los Tules, for the tule reeds that grew along the shore. The town was later memorialized in a song, “Ghost of Bardsley Road,” about a headless spectre who rode a white Honda motorcycle.

Today, the city is home to just over sixty thousand people. The county leads the nation in dairy production. In the summer months, dry winds churn up so much dust that many residents suffer from what’s known as valley fever, a fungal infection that causes flulike symptoms. Not long ago, when wildfires were raging across California, winds pushed the smoke into Tulare, leaving an acrid smell in the air.

Citizens for Hospital Accountability began as a simple Facebook page. At first, the group’s leaders hoped that Alex Gutiérrez would run for Kumar’s seat, but he was planning to stand for a position on the city council. Senovia was the backup choice. She had grown up as the youngest of twelve children, in the central Mexican state of Aguascalientes. Her parents were impoverished farmers who cultivated corn and beans until a drought forced them to abandon their land. She started working full time when she was sixteen; when she was twenty-four, she crossed the border at Tijuana to join her boyfriend, Miguel Gutiérrez, who was living in Los Angeles. They married and, two years later, moved to Tulare, where Senovia raised five boys and supplemented the family’s income by working part time as a housekeeper. When she was thirty-five, she got her high-school diploma, then attended community college and went on to earn a B.A. at California State University, Fresno. In 2015, she became an American citizen and completed a master’s degree in social work.

Alex doubted whether his mother would agree to enter the race. She had never shown much interest in politics. “Growing up as immigrants, parents know what’s happening, but, aside from voting, they don’t really want to get involved,” he said. Over family dinners in Senovia’s three-bedroom home, Alex told her stories about the “corruption and mismanagement” that he said was hurting the hospital. “I will happily do it because you’re so involved,” Senovia told him.

Hospital-board races are usually small-time affairs. One former member of the Tulare board said that her campaign had cost just a hundred and fifty dollars, which she used to buy signs and cards that she handed out door-to-door. In the recall, which had been set for July 11, 2017, voter turnout was expected to be fewer than fifteen hundred people. Still, Alex decided to take a break from college and serve as his mother’s campaign manager. He suspected that the race would be bitterly contested, and expensive. He calculated that ten thousand dollars should cover the costs. To help, Citizens for Hospital Accountability hosted a fund-raiser on Cinco de Mayo. The invitation featured a photograph of Senovia in a pink dress, surrounded by her husband and five children, standing in front of a mural depicting the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.

Senovia was nervous about her first big campaign event, which was held in an orchard, where guests ate handmade tacos. Tulare County is largely Republican; Trump won it with fifty-three per cent of the vote in 2016, and the district’s representative in the House, Devin Nunes, has spearheaded efforts to counter the Russia investigation. But the hospital board was a crossover issue. One of Senovia’s supporters, a dairyman of Portuguese descent, pulled Alex aside at the fund-raiser to tell him that Senovia’s “classy” appearance and her foreign accent somehow reminded him of Melania Trump, whose husband he had supported in the 2016 election. (Alex, a Bernie Sanders fan, laughed and suggested that this might not be an apt comparison.)

After giving a speech, Senovia told Alex that she was pleased that the event had been held on Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the Mexican Army’s victory over France in the Battle of Puebla. “The French could not believe they were defeated by Mexico,” Senovia told her son. “I am going to beat Kumar, and he won’t be able to believe that a Mexican woman defeated him.”

But Benzeevi wasn’t going to let his opponents win without putting up a fight. While Alex and Senovia were soliciting small donations from neighbors, Benzeevi got on a plane to Israel to meet with Psy-Group.

Psy-Group operated out of a nondescript building in a commercial area about twenty minutes outside Tel Aviv. Its offices were on the fourth floor, behind an unmarked door. Employees used key cards to enter, and yet, for a private intelligence firm, security was comically lax, particularly between noon and 2 p.m., when men carrying motorcycle helmets raced in and out, delivering lunch. Clients were escorted through a communal room, which had a big-screen TV facing a large, listing couch, where twentysomethings in faded jeans and T-shirts spent their breaks playing Mortal Kombat and fifa 17.

Burstien tried to position Psy-Group as a more responsible alternative to Black Cube, which was known for a willingness to break the rules. “I’m not saying we’re good guys or bad guys,” Burstien said in one meeting. “It’s not black or white. The gray has so many shades.” In 2016, Romanian police arrested two Black Cube operatives for illegal hacking and harassment of the country’s leading anticorruption officer. (The pair pleaded guilty and received probation.) Psy-Group tried to capitalize on Black Cube’s legal troubles. Burstien reassured prospective clients that lawyers vetted everything the company’s operatives did. Former company officials said that Psy-Group didn’t hack or appropriate the identities of real people for its avatars. It clandestinely recorded conversations, but never in jurisdictions that required “two-party” consent, which would have made the practice illegal.

The company’s claims of legal legitimacy, however, skirted the fact that regulations haven’t kept pace with advances in technology. “What are the regulations? What’s the law?” Tamir Pardo, who was the director of Mossad from 2011 to 2016, said. “There are no laws. There are no regulations. That’s the main problem. You can do almost whatever you want.”

Psy-Group went to great lengths to disguise its activities. Employees were occasionally instructed to go to libraries or Internet cafés, where they could use so-called “white” computers, which could not be traced back to the firm. They created dummy Gmail accounts, often employed for one assignment and then discarded. For particularly sensitive operations, Psy-Group created fake front companies and avatars who purported to work there, and then hired real outside contractors who weren’t told that they were doing the bidding of Psy-Group’s clients. Psy-Group operatives sometimes paid the local contractors in cash.

In one meeting, Burstien said that, before a parliamentary election in a European country, his operatives had created a sham think tank. Using avatars, the operatives hired local analysts to work for the think tank, which then disseminated reports to bolster the political campaign of the company’s client and to undermine the reputations of his rivals. In another meeting, Psy-Group officials said that they had created an avatar to help a corporate client win regulatory approval in Europe. Over time, the avatar became so well established in the industry that he was quoted in mainstream press reports and even by European parliamentarians. “It’s got to look legit,” a former Psy-Group employee said, of Burstien’s strategy.

Most Psy-Group employees knew little or nothing about the company’s owner, Joel Zamel. According to corporate documents filed in Cyprus, he was born in Australia in 1986. Zamel later moved to Israel, where he earned a master’s degree in government, diplomacy, and strategy, with a specialization in counterterrorism and homeland security. Zamel’s father had made a fortune in the mining business, and Zamel was a skilled networker. He cultivated relationships with high-profile Republicans in the U.S., including Newt Gingrich and Elliott Abrams, who served in foreign-policy positions under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and whom Psy-Group listed as a member of its advisory board. (The Trump Administration recently named Abrams its special envoy to oversee U.S. policy toward Venezuela.) Documents show that Zamel was a director of a Cyprus-based company called ioco, which controlled Psy-Group. (Zamel’s lawyers and Burstien declined to say how much of an ownership stake Zamel held in ioco, or to identify who else provided funding for the venture.) Using Cyprus as a front made it easier for Psy-Group to sell its services in Arab states that don’t work overtly with Israeli companies.

Initially, Psy-Group hoped to make money by investigating jihadi networks, much as Terrogence did. In an early test of concept, a Psy-Group operative created a Facebook account for an avatar named Madison. Burstien’s idea was to use Madison as a virtual honey trap. The avatar’s Facebook page depicted Madison as an average American teen-ager from a Christian family in Chicago. She was a fan of Justin Bieber, and after graduating from high school she took a job at a souvenir shop. She posted Facebook messages about religion and expressed interest in learning more about Islam. Eventually, a Facebook member from Casablanca introduced Madison online to two imams at Moroccan mosques, one of whom offered to guide her through the process of becoming a Muslim.

Madison’s conversion was conducted through Skype. The call required a female Psy-Group employee to bring Madison to life briefly and chant the Shahada, a profession of faith, from a desk in the company’s offices. “Finally! I’m a Muslim,” Madison wrote on Facebook. “I feel at home.” She added a smiley-face emoticon.

After her conversion, Madison began to come into contact with Facebook members who espoused more radical beliefs. One of her new friends was an isis fighter in Raqqa, Syria, who encouraged her to become an isis bride. At that point, Burstien decided to end the operation, which, he felt, had demonstrated the company’s ability to create convincing “deep” avatars. Not long afterward, he sent representatives to pitch State Department officials on an influence campaign, “modeled on the successful ‘Madison’ engagement,” that would “interrupt the radicalization and recruitment chain.” The State Department never acted on the proposal.

Psy-Group had more success pitching an operation, code-named Project Butterfly, to wealthy Jewish-American donors. The operation targeted what Psy-Group described as “anti-Israel” activists on American college campuses who supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, known as B.D.S. Supporters of B.D.S. see the movement as a way to use nonviolent protest to pressure Israel about its treatment of the Palestinians; detractors say that B.D.S. wrongly singles out Israel as a human-rights offender. B.D.S. is anathema to many ardent supporters of the Israeli government.

In early meetings with donors, in New York, Burstien said that the key to mounting an effective anti-B.D.S. campaign was to make it look as though Israel, and the Jewish-American community, had nothing to do with the effort. The goal of Butterfly, according to a 2017 company document, was to “destabilize and disrupt anti-Israel movements from within.” Psy-Group operatives scoured the Internet, social-media accounts, and the “deep” Web—areas of the Internet not indexed by search engines like Google—for derogatory information about B.D.S. activists. If a student claimed to be a pious Muslim, for example, Psy-Group operatives would look for photographs of him engaging in behavior unacceptable to many pious Muslims, such as drinking alcohol or having an affair. Psy-Group would then release the information online using avatars and Web sites that couldn’t be traced back to the company or its donors.

Project Butterfly launched in February, 2016, and Psy-Group asked donors for $2.5 million for operations in 2017. Supporters were told that they were “investing in Israel’s future.” In some cases, a former company employee said, donors asked Psy-Group to target B.D.S. activists at universities where their sons and daughters studied.

The project would focus on as many as ten college campuses. According to an update sent to donors in May, 2017, Psy-Group conducted two “tours of the main theatre of action,” and met with the campaign’s outside “partners,” which it did not name. Psy-Group employees had recently travelled to Washington to visit officials at a think tank called the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which had shared some of its research on the B.D.S. movement. In a follow-up meeting, which was attended by Burstien, Psy-Group provided F.D.D. with a confidential memo describing how it had compiled dossiers on nine activists, including a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. In the memo, Psy-Group asked the foundation for guidance on identifying future targets. According to an F.D.D. official, the foundation “did not end up contracting with them, and their research did little to advance our own.”

Burstien recruited Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy director of Mossad, to help with the project. As the director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, from 2014 to 2016, Ben-Barak had drawn up a plan for the state to combat the B.D.S. movement, but it was never implemented. Ben-Barak was enthusiastic about Butterfly. He said that the fight against B.D.S. was like “a war.” In the case of B.D.S. activists, he said, “you don’t kill them but you do have to deal with them in other ways.”

Yaakov Amidror, a former national-security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also became an adviser to Psy-Group on Butterfly. Before accepting the position, Amidror said recently, he spoke to Daniel Reisner, Psy-Group’s outside counsel, who had advised five Israeli Prime Ministers, including Netanyahu. “Danny, is it legal?” Amidror recalled asking. Reisner responded that it was. While active Israeli intelligence operatives aren’t supposed to spy on the United States, Amidror said, he saw nothing improper about former Israeli intelligence officers conducting operations against American college students. “If it’s legal, I don’t see any problem,” Amidror said with a shrug. “If people are ready to finance it, it is O.K. with me.”

On April 22, 2017, Benzeevi arrived in Tel Aviv. He checked into the Dan Hotel, across from the city’s seafront promenade. At the start of his first full day in Israel, he was greeted by a “Welcome home!” e-mail from Scott Mortman, a former lawyer who managed Psy-Group’s American clients. The e-mail described their schedule for the day. At lunch, Mortman would give Benzeevi a briefing on Psy-Group’s offerings. Then Benzeevi would meet with Burstien, who would walk him through the company’s proposed campaign to keep Kumar on the hospital board. Burstien and Mortman were a well-practiced tag team. “Royi would give his ‘cloak and dagger’ spiel and then Scott would come on and give his ‘Boy Scout’ spiel, which is ‘What we’re doing is completely legal,’ ” a former colleague said.

Benzeevi had already received a draft of Psy-Group’s battle plan, contained in an e-mail that was password-protected and marked “privileged & confidential.” The proposal assured Benzeevi that Psy-Group’s activities would be “fully disconnected” from him and his hospital-management company.

To close the deal, Burstien called in Ram Ben-Barak, one of his biggest hired guns. Lanky and charismatic, Ben-Barak looked like someone from Mossad central casting. A former company employee said that Benzeevi “appeared to like the idea that someone from Mossad would be on his side.” Before Benzeevi flew back to California, he was given the number of a bank account where he could wire Psy-Group the fee for the Tulare campaign—two hundred and thirty thousand dollars. On May 8th, just days after Senovia’s Cinco de Mayo party, Benzeevi’s company sent the first of three payments, which was routed to a bank in Zurich. The project was set in motion, and its code name was changed from Mockingjay to Katniss, a reference to Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist in the “Hunger Games” novels.

A hospital-board election in central California wasn’t exactly what Burstien had in mind when he set out to establish Psy-Group in the U.S. election market. In early 2016, as the Presidential race was heating up, he and Zamel both tried to pitch much bigger players. Being hired by one of the main campaigns initially seemed like a long shot for an obscure new company whose services sounded risky, if not illegal. Lawyers at firms in New York and Washington expressed curiosity about Psy-Group, but most were too cautious to sign contracts with the company.

The Trump campaign, however, presented an opportunity. Early in 2016, a Republican consultant with ties to the Israeli government put Psy-Group in touch with Rick Gates, a senior Trump campaign official. Eager to secure a potentially lucrative project, Burstien drew up plans for an intelligence and influence campaign to promote Trump and undermine his rivals, first in the Republican primary and then in the general election. In the proposal, dubbed Project Rome, which was first reported on by the Times, last October, Psy-Group used code names for the candidates: Trump was Lion, and Hillary Clinton was Forest. Psy-Group also hired the Washington law firm Covington & Burling to conduct a legal review of its work. Former Psy-Group officials said that the resulting memo gave a green light to begin offering the company’s services in the U.S. (A spokesperson for Covington & Burling said that the firm could not discuss its advice to clients.)

Zamel often operated independently of Burstien, and it’s unclear how closely the two coördinated, but both saw the Trump campaign as a potential client. Trump’s vocal support for Israel and his hard-line views on Iran appealed to Zamel, and he reached out to Trump’s inner circle. In early May, 2016, Zamel sent an e-mail to Gingrich, saying that he could provide the Trump campaign with powerful tools that would use social media to advance Trump’s chances. Zamel suggested a meeting in Washington to discuss the matter further. Gingrich forwarded the e-mail to Jared Kushner and asked if the campaign would be interested. Kushner checked with others on the campaign, including Brad Parscale, who ran Web operations. According to a person familiar with the exchange, Parscale told Kushner that they didn’t need Zamel’s help. (A 2016 campaign official said, “We didn’t use their services.”)

Also that spring, Zamel was introduced to George Nader, a Lebanese-American with ties to the Emirati leader Mohammed bin Zayed and other powerful figures in the Gulf. Born in 1959, Nader was almost twice Zamel’s age. Both men preferred to operate behind the scenes, but were consummate networkers who touted their connections to high-level political figures. Some viewed Nader as an influence peddler; others said that he had been intimately involved in high-stakes negotiations in the Middle East for decades. Martin Indyk, an adviser to Presidents Clinton and Obama on Middle Eastern affairs and now a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “We used to joke that George was in the pay of at least three intelligence services—the Syrian, the Israeli, and the Iranian.”

In June, 2016, Nader was attending an international economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, when Zamel approached him and requested a meeting. According to a representative for Nader, Zamel told Nader that he was trying to raise money for a social-media campaign in support of Trump; he thought that Nader’s Gulf contacts might be interested in contributing financially. Nader listened to Zamel’s pitch but didn’t make any commitments, according to the Nader representative. (Zamel’s representatives denied that he spoke to Nader in St. Petersburg about trying to help Trump.)

Zamel had another opportunity to pitch his services in early August, 2016, when Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater security firm, helped arrange a meeting at Trump Tower among Zamel, Nader, and Donald Trump, Jr. (Prince, whose sister Betsy DeVos became Trump’s Education Secretary, was a major Trump donor and had access to members of his team.) In the meeting, Zamel told Trump, Jr., that he supported his father’s campaign, and talked about Psy-Group’s influence operations. (Zamel’s lawyer, Marc Mukasey, played down the encounter, insisting that Zamel made no formal proposals during the meeting.)

Burstien said that his talks with the Trump campaign went nowhere; a representative for Zamel denied that his client engaged in any activity having to do with the election. But, according to the Nader representative, shortly after the election Zamel bragged to Nader that he had conducted a secret campaign that had been influential in Trump’s victory. Zamel agreed to brief Nader on how the operation had worked. During that conversation, Zamel showed Nader several analytical reports, including one that described the role of avatars, bots, fake news, and unattributed Web sites in assisting Trump. Zamel told Nader, “Here’s the work that we did to help get Trump elected,” according to the Nader representative. Nader paid Zamel more than two million dollars, but never received copies of the reports, that person said.

A representative for Zamel denied that he told Nader that he or any of his operatives had intervened to help Trump during the 2016 election. If Nader came away with that impression, the representative said, he was mistaken. “Nader may have paid Zamel not knowing when, how, or why the report was created, but he wanted to use it to gain access and new business,” the representative said. “In fact, it used publicly available material to show how social media—in general—was used in connection with the campaign.”

Information warfare is as old as warfare itself. In “The Art of War,” Sun Tzu declared that “all warfare is based on deception.” In modern times, both Soviet intelligence and its American counterpart used disinformation as a tool of persuasion and a weapon to destabilize the other side. Long before the advent of social media, Moscow concocted fantastical rumors that the aids virus had been manufactured by American government scientists as a biological weapon. The C.I.A. supported the publication of underground books in the Soviet Union by such authors as Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a ploy that the agency knew would enrage the Kremlin leadership and deepen anti-Soviet sentiment among dissident circles inside the country.

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. government convinced itself that it was now free of many of the challenges it faced during the Cold War, and its interest in information warfare faded. The military’s special forces stepped into the information-warfare void. “We knew we needed to operate in this space,” Austin Branch, who specialized in PsyOps, said. “It was the information age. We didn’t have a road map.” Branch became one of the military’s first “information operations” officers, in the early nineties. He and other specialists created experimental Web sites aimed at readers in Central Europe and North Africa. The sites were designed to look like independent news sources; the U.S. military’s role was revealed only to readers who clicked deeper. “We didn’t hide who it was from, but we didn’t make it easy to find,” a former military official who specialized in psychological operations said.

U.S. leaders were generally skeptical about the effectiveness of these kinds of operations. They also worried that the open flow of information on the Internet would make it difficult, if not impossible, to insure that misinformation disseminated by the United States wouldn’t inadvertently “blow back” and reach Americans, in violation of U.S. law. The result, according to retired Army Colonel Mike Lwin, who served as the top military adviser to Pentagon leaders on information operations from 2014 to 2018, was that a cautious approach to information warfare prevailed in Washington.

Russian military and intelligence agencies, on the other hand, didn’t see information warfare as a sideshow. They invested in cyber weapons capable of paralyzing critical infrastructure, from utilities to banks, and refined the use of fake personae and fake news to fuel political and ethnic discord abroad. “We underestimated how significant it was,” Lwin said, of these online influence operations. “We didn’t appreciate it—until it was in our face.”

The 2016 election changed the calculus. In the U.S., investigators pieced together how Russian operatives had carried out a scheme to promote their preferred candidate and to stoke divisions within U.S. society. Senior Israeli officials, like their American counterparts, had been dubious about the effectiveness of influence campaigns. Russia’s operation in the U.S. convinced Tamir Pardo, the former Mossad director, and others in Israel that they, too, had misjudged the threat. “It was the biggest Russian win ever. Without shooting one bullet, American society was torn apart,” Pardo said. “This is a weapon. We should find a way to control it, because it’s a ticking bomb. Otherwise, democracy is in trouble.”

Some of Pardo’s former colleagues took a more mercenary approach. Russia had shown the world that information warfare worked, and they saw a business opportunity. In early 2017, as Trump took office, interest in Psy-Group’s services seemed to increase. Law firms, one former employee said, asked Psy-Group to “come back in and tell us again what you are doing, because we see this ability to affect decisions that we weren’t fully aware of.” Another former Psy-Group employee put it more bluntly: “The Trump campaign won this way. If the fucking President is doing it, why not us?”

To capitalize on this newfound interest, Burstien started making the rounds in Washington with a new PowerPoint presentation, which some Psy-Group employees called the “If we had done it” slide deck, and which appeared similar to the one that Nader saw. Titled “Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential Campaign—Analysis,” the presentation outlined the role of Web sites, avatars, and bots in influencing the outcome of the election. In one case highlighted in the slide deck, pro-Trump avatars joined a Facebook page for Bernie Sanders supporters and then flooded it with links to anti-Hillary Clinton articles from Web sites that posted fake news, creating a hostile environment for real members of the group. “Bernie supporters had left our page in droves, depressed and disgusted by the venom,” the group’s administrator was quoted as saying. As part of the presentation, Burstien pointed out that Russian operatives had been caught meddling in the U.S.; Psy-Group, he told clients, was “more careful.”

Psy-Group’s post-election push into the U.S. market included a cocktail reception on March 1, 2017, at the Old Ebbitt Grill, near the White House, “in celebration of our new D.C. office.” The next day, an article in Politico briefly mentioned the gathering and described Psy-Group as a multinational company with “offices in London, Hong Kong and Cyprus.” There was no mention of Israel; Burstien thought it would be better for business to play down the Israel angle.

In fact, the reception was part of Psy-Group’s campaign to shape perceptions about itself. The image it projected was mostly bluster; the company’s “new D.C. office” consisted of a desk at a WeWork on the eighth floor of a building across the street from the White House.

In June of 2017, strange things began happening in Tulare. A series of ominous Web sites appeared:,, and The sites directed visitors to articles that smeared Senovia Gutiérrez and her allies in the hospital-board fight.

Tony Maldonado, a reporter for the Valley Voice, the local newspaper, saw the sites and thought, What the fuck? He knew that residents were fired up about the hospital-board election, but these shadowy tactics, he said, were “completely out of left field.”

“I guess you might see that in a big city or on a national level,” Maldonado said. “But to see it in a small town, about a hospital board in Tulare, is just insane.” The domain names appeared to be playing off themes from the 2016 Presidential campaign. Trump liked to use the phrase “drain the swamp” to rally his anti-Washington base. The address was similar to, a site allegedly set up by Russian intelligence officers to publish hacked e-mails with the aim of influencing the 2016 race. Along with the Web sites, online personae, who claimed to be local residents but whom nobody in town recognized, began posting comments on social media. Some of the messages suggested that Senovia took bribes. Others pointed to her Mexican background and her accent and questioned whether she was an American citizen.

Psy-Group also conducted “off-line” operations, as the company sometimes termed clandestine on-the-ground activities, according to a former company employee. Early on the evening of June 9th, a woman with short blond hair knocked on Senovia’s front door, and told Senovia’s adult son Richard, who answered, that she was a supporter of his mother’s campaign. The woman handed Richard an envelope that read “To: Mrs. Sanovia,” misspelling her name. Richard noticed that a man was standing across the street, next to a Yukon Denali S.U.V., taking photographs with a telephoto lens. Later that night, the S.U.V. returned to Senovia’s street, and the man took more photographs.

Some of the photographs soon appeared on, under the title “Who Is Pulling Senovia’s Strings?” The accompanying article said, “This post is addressed to one member of our community in particular. The public should be watching Martha Senovia closely. This past week a very expensive black car was seen parked in front of the home of Mrs. Senovia in addition to several other unidentified cars.” The Web site used Senovia’s nickname, Martha. The photographs seemed designed to make it appear as if Senovia had taken a bribe. (The envelope contained a thirty-dollar Tommy Hilfiger gift certificate.) Later, the Valley Voice posted an article under the headline “Tulare Politics Get Fishy as Hospital Recall Nears.” Psy-Group, one of the company’s former employees later said, was engaged not in “serious intelligence” but in “monkey business.”

Other articles on questioned whether Senovia was fit to manage finances, and published records showing that she had filed for bankruptcy in 2003. (The bankruptcy records were authentic.) “It was horrible—they put out stuff that we couldn’t believe, and they were turning it out so fast,” Deanne Martin-Soares, one of the founders of Citizens for Hospital Accountability, said. “We couldn’t trace anything. We didn’t know where it was coming from.” On Facebook, Alex Gutiérrez responded to the smear tactics, writing, “The gall of their campaign to fabricate and move forward with such trash speaks volumes of their desperation and fear!”

On June 15th, campaign flyers ridiculing Senovia for having “zero experience,” and directing residents who “want proof” to visit, appeared on door handles around town. The small businessman who printed and distributed the flyers said that he had been paid in cash by a stranger who used the name Francesco Manoletti, which appears to be a made-up persona. (In another Psy-Group operation, a similar-sounding name—Francesco Gianelli—was used to hire contractors.)

Parmod Kumar had hired his own political consultant, a California campaign veteran named Michael McKinney, to fight the recall. When rumors started to spread that Kumar or Benzeevi was behind the attacks on Senovia, McKinney tried, unsuccessfully, to discover who had created the Web sites. “Recall elections are about voter anger,” McKinney said. “To win a recall, you have to keep the electorate angry enough to vote. To stop a recall, you have to diminish the voters’ anger.” The attacks, McKinney felt, had the opposite of the intended effect: they motivated Senovia’s supporters to turn out on election day. When McKinney asked Kumar about the Web sites, Kumar said that he didn’t know where they had come from. McKinney said that he also confronted Benzeevi, urging him to tell whoever was orchestrating the campaign to “knock it off.” Benzeevi stopped returning McKinney’s calls after that. “It didn’t really hurt Senovia,” McKinney said. “It made it look like she was being harassed. It hurt Kumar. It backfired.”

On the eve of the election, Alex’s house burned down and he lost almost everything, including his final batch of campaign flyers. He suspected that the blaze could have been election-related, but local fire-department officials said that they saw no evidence of foul play. A former Psy-Group official told me, “I never initiated any physical fire on any project whatsoever.”

Burstien hoped that Psy-Group’s work in Tulare would help the company land other small campaigns, but that proved overly optimistic. He told colleagues that he was close to finalizing several deals, but the new clients fell through, and, in February, 2018, Burstien found that he couldn’t make payroll.

Psy-Group’s financial woes coincided with sudden scrutiny from the F.B.I. The Bureau had taken an interest in George Nader for helping to organize a secretive meeting in the Seychelles ahead of Trump’s Inauguration, with the aim of creating an unofficial channel with Vladimir Putin. In January, 2018, F.B.I. agents stopped Nader, an American citizen, at Dulles International Airport and served him with a grand-jury subpoena. Nader agreed to coöperate, and told F.B.I. agents about his various dealings related to the Trump campaign, including his discussions with Zamel. (Nader has been granted immunity in exchange for testifying truthfully, according to one of his representatives. “Someone who has this kind of immunity has no incentive to lie,” the representative said.)

The following month, F.B.I. agents served Zamel with a grand-jury subpoena. Agents also tracked down Burstien in the San Francisco area, where he was on a business trip. Burstien returned to his hotel room and found a note under his door informing him that the Bureau wanted him to come in for questioning. Burstien told friends that he was “in shock.” The F.B.I. also visited Psy-Group’s so-called D.C. office, at the WeWork, and seized a laptop computer that had been hidden in a desk drawer, where it had been running continuously.

The F.B.I. questioned some of Burstien’s employees about Psy-Group’s activities. In the interviews, agents acted as if “there’s no smoke without fire,” a former company official said. “There was a lot of smoke,” the official acknowledged. “We had to show them, it’s smoke, it’s smoke, it’s smoke, and not fire.” Psy-Group officials referred the F.B.I. to the letters they had received from law firms, attesting to the legality of their activities and telling the company that it didn’t need to register as a foreign agent. “The F.B.I. seemed genuinely surprised that this shit wasn’t illegal,” a former Psy-Group employee said.

In an interview, Burstien said that he was comfortable with how Psy-Group had operated but believed that changes were needed to protect average citizens. “I’m coming from the side of the influencer, who really understands how we can make use of online platforms,” he said. “There needs to be more regulation, and it’s up to our legislators, in each and every country. What have U.S. legislators done since they learned, more than two years ago, about the potential of these new capabilities? They have the power to move the needle from A to B. Nothing substantial has been done, as far as I know.”

Ram Ben-Barak, who helped woo Benzeevi on behalf of Psy-Group, said that he decided to leave the company after he learned about the extent of its operations in Tulare, which he objected to. Ben-Barak said that he regrets his decision to work with the firm. “When you leave the government and you leave Mossad, you don’t know how the real world works,” he said. “I made a mistake.” Ben-Barak, who is now running for a seat in Israel’s parliament, said that he believes new regulations are needed to stem the proliferation of avatars and misinformation. “This is the challenge of our time,” he said. “Everything is fake. It’s unbelievable.”

Gadi Aviran, the Terrogence founder, said that he “never dreamed” that the business of fake personae, which he helped establish, would become so powerful. “In order to understand where we are, we have to understand where we started,” he said. “What started as a noble cause ended up as fake news. What you have today is a flooded market, with people that will, basically, do anything.”

In Tulare, the test of Psy-Group’s strategy came on the night of July 11, 2017. The hospital-board election resulted in a landslide—but not for Psy-Group’s client. There were more than a thousand ballots cast, and only a hundred and ninety-five people voted for Kumar to keep his seat. Senovia Gutiérrez won with seventy-five per cent of the vote. In the end, the Web sites attacking Senovia attracted scant attention in the community. “It was like they organized a concert and nobody showed up,” a computer-security expert said after reviewing trace data from the sites, which were taken down after the election.

After Senovia’s victory, Benzeevi’s contract was rescinded. Larry Blitz, a hospital-turnaround specialist, stepped in as the interim C.E.O., and discovered that the hospital’s financial records were completely disorganized, with “entries that indicated artificial means of balancing the books.” Eventually, Blitz said, his team realized that the accounts contained a “hole as big as the Grand Canyon.” The hospital was more than thirty-six million dollars in debt, and had to close for nearly a year. (It reopened in October, 2018.) One morning, Blitz’s chief financial officer found police carting away computers and telephones. The local district attorney has issued more than forty search warrants as part of a fraud investigation, one of the largest such investigations in Tulare County history. Benzeevi and his legal team refused to respond to questions about Psy-Group. At first, Kumar said that he wasn’t aware of the covert campaign and that he wanted to help with this story. Then he stopped returning calls.

According to a former company official, Zamel decided to shut down Psy-Group in February, 2018, just as Mueller’s team began questioning employees. But its demise hasn’t suppressed the appetite for many of the services it provided. Some of Psy-Group’s former employees have met with Black Cube to discuss job opportunities. Black Cube has been criticized for some of its recent work, including for the producer Harvey Weinstein, but there’s no sign that the notoriety has hurt business; one person familiar with the company’s operations bragged that there was booming interest from a variety of corporations. Recently, Efraim Halevy, who served as the director of Mossad from 1998 to 2002, joined Black Cube’s advisory board. Uzi Arad, a Mossad veteran and a former national-security adviser for Netanyahu, said that he was ashamed to see some of his former colleagues become “mercenaries for hire,” adding, “It’s highly immoral, and they should know it.”

Last year, Black Cube moved to one of Tel Aviv’s most expensive neighborhoods, where it now occupies a sleek, full-floor office in the Bank Discount Tower. The entrance is unmarked, and painted black; doors are controlled by fingerprint readers. One area of the office is decorated with spy memorabilia, including an old encryption machine.

Some Psy-Group veterans expressed regret that the firm had closed. “Had the company still been open, all this so-called negative press would have brought us lots of clients,” one said. Despite embarrassing missteps, which have exposed some Psy-Group and Black Cube operations to public scrutiny, a former senior Israeli intelligence official said that global demand for “private Mossads” is growing, and that the market for influence operations is expanding into new commercial areas. In particular, the former official cites the potentially huge market for using avatars to influence real-estate prices—by creating the illusion that bidders are offering more money for a property, for example, or by spreading rumors about the presence of toxic chemicals to scare off competition. “From a free-market point of view, it’s scary,” a former Psy-Group official said, adding that the list of possible applications for avatars was “endless.” Another veteran of Israeli private intelligence warned, “We are looking at the tip of the iceberg in terms of where this can go.”


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Forty years on, gays are still hanged and women repressed

February 03, 2019

Above, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini steps down from the Air France plane that brought him back to Iran after 15 years of exile, on Feb. 1, 1979



[Note by Tom Gross]

This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the events that ushered in the Islamic revolution in Iran, a revolution that is still with us today. It continues to bring death and mayhem across the Middle East and beyond, it represses woman and it murders homosexuals.

Only last week another gay man was publicly hanged in Teheran and yet the British, French and German governments, so eager to do business
with the Mullahs of Tehran, have refused to properly condemn the hanging of gays, and instead are busy trying to undermine the Trump administration’s aim of undermining the regime – a policy by Trump that almost everyone in the Middle East supports – Iranian, Arab, Kurd and Jew alike.

As Iranian-born (American exiled) journalist Sohrab Ahmari writes in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal:

“The Islamic Republic turns 40, having survived a grinding eight-year war with Iraq, prolonged international isolation, massive student protests in 1999 and the 2009 Green Movement, as well as the winter uprising of 2017. It is now fighting wars on several fronts, from the Arabian Peninsula to Mesopotamia and the Levant. Yet it persists.”

There are many Iranians on this list, including Sohrab Ahmari and the daughter of the second most important Ayatollah who fled the regime and denounced it as a living hell. In conversations I regularly have with them, their views are often more anti-regime than even the publicly expressed views of Benjamin Netanyahu or Donald Trump.



A key to the regime’s grip in Iran is the oppression of women.

Before 1979, women in Iran (and Afghanistan) enjoyed many of the same freedoms as women in America and Europe.

Above is a picture of some Iranian magazine covers from the 1970s.



I’ve posted this video before: Hundreds of Iranian women defystrict rules requiring them to cover their heads in public, by sending photos of themselves without headscarves to a special Facebook page. They face arrest if identified. They quickly put their hijabs back on after taking the photos.


Former Empress of Iran Farah Diba Pahlavi, and Tom Gross



I recently had a very engaging conversation with the widow of the late Shah, Farah Diba Pahlavi, about life in Iran in the 1960s and 1970s. We also discussed Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Iranian-Israel relations and other matters. (The conversation was private so I won’t disclose details here.)

Just to be clear, I don’t support a return to monarchy in Iran. (Or at any rate if the Shah’s son did return, a British style parliamentary democracy where the monarch is largely a figurehead.)

Here is a video marking Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi's 80th Birthday last October.


The Empress was also heartened to see photos of the pre-1979 Iranian flags still on display in Tel Aviv.

Above, me at an Iranian-Israeli restaurant in south Tel Aviv. While shouts of “Death to Israel” are often heard in regime-organized protests in Iranian cities, in Israel Iranian flags are placed alongside Israeli ones, and Persian is written alongside Hebrew.



In at least some Middle East countries, women are making advances. Above, a photo of female Egypt Air pilots in Cairo last week.

In Israel, Muslim women continue to make advances in many areas of life, including politics. This includes a female Muslim candidate standing for the Likud party Knesset list for this April’s general election.

-- Tom Gross


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