The Israeli government publicly apologized to the United States today for the Jonathan Jay Pollard spy case and said that Israeli espionage in the United States was wrong "to the extent that it did take place."
Israel promised to uncover all the facts in the case "no matter where the trail may lead," and said it will permanently dismantle the special intelligence-gathering unit purportedly involved in the espionage if allegations against it are confirmed.
It was the first public reference by the government to a little-known antiterrorism unit within the Ministry of Defense that, according to informed Israeli sources, directed espionage activities in Washington.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in a statement read first to the Cabinet and then to reporters, also pledged that at the completion of an internal inquiry, "those responsible will be brought to account" and "organizational steps will be taken to assure that such activities will not be repeated."
The apology also was delivered to U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering.
The qualified apology and partial admission that Israel conducted espionage activities in the United States came 11 days after Pollard, 31, a civilian U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, was arrested outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington after unsuccessfully seeking asylum in Israel. Pollard has been charged with selling top-secret U.S. intelligence documents to Israeli contacts in the embassy.
The statement was the first implicit government admission of the involvement of Israeli officials in Pollard's alleged espionage activities, but it stopped short of explicitly admitting official Israeli involvement and gave no indication of how high in the government knowledge of the covert operation went.
Peres' statement also failed to address two demands made by the U.S. government: the return of secret documents allegedly stolen by Pollard and sold to his Israeli contacts, and access for U.S. law enforcement officials to question two Israeli diplomats who abruptly returned to Israel last week after being named as his Israeli contacts in the United States.
Despite its qualifications and carefully phrased sidestepping of explicit admission of official Israeli involvement in the Pollard case, Peres' statement stood in sharp contrast to the defensive posture adopted yesterday by senior Israeli officials in reaction to State Department complaints that Israel has refused to cooperate fully in the investigation of the case.
Last night, one senior Israeli official suggested that the State Department reaction had gotten "out of hand," saying that Israel had provided U.S. officials with complete information on the case and that "the people on the receiving end know well that we are cooperating."
In a more conciliatory tone, Peres said today, "The government of Israel is determined to spare no effort in investigating this case thoroughly and completely and in uncovering all of the facts to the last detail, no matter where the trail may lead."
Noting that the internal inquiry is still incomplete, Peres said, "The government of Israel assures the government of the United States that in the wake of the inquiry, if the allegations are confirmed, those responsible will be brought to account, the unit involved in this activity will be completely and permanently dismantled, and necessary organizational steps will be taken to assure that such activities will not be repeated."
He did not estimate when the internal investigation would be completed, and Cabinet Secretary Yossi Beilin, who read the statement to reporters, refused to answer questions.
The statement concluded: "The relations with the United States are based on solid foundations of deep friendship, close affinity and mutual trust. Spying on the United States stands in total contradiction to our policy. Such activity, to the extent that it did take place, was wrong, and the government of Israel apologizes. For the time being, we have nothing further to say on this."
Peres' pledge to dismantle the "unit involved in this activity" was an oblique reference to an antiterrorism intelligence-gathering unit that Israeli sources have said operates within the Defense Ministry under the direction of Rafael Eitan, a former adviser on terrorism to Peres and former prime minister Menachem Begin. Eitan is also said to head an overt science and technology data-gathering office called Lekem -- an acronym for the Hebrew name of the Science Liaison Bureau -- which reportedly evolved into an independent annex to the established Israeli external intelligence network, the Mossad.
Both of the Israeli science attaches who were recalled after Pollard's arrest, Ilan Ravid and Yosef Yagur, were attached to Lekem, official Israeli sources said.
The government's apology came as 60 leaders of 38 American Jewish organizations began gathering here for a four-day conference that is expected to generate lively debate over the Pollard affair's impact on U.S.-Israeli relations. The conference opens Monday with a speech by Peres.
Earlier today, Kenneth Bialkin, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that the Pollard case was straining U.S.-Israeli relations.
"I would urge that the government of Israel act to put it behind it very quickly by getting out that which it has to say, making an appropriate and forthright apology immediately, if necessary, and move on to the next level of trying to advance common interests," Bialkin said at a press conference.
But he added, "I'm a bit perplexed by the conduct of my own State Department in utilizing the press and public opinion as a means of obtaining information from Israel . In sensitive areas of this kind, it seems to me that adequate time for consultations has got to be provided."
Reuter reported the following from Jerusalem:
Los Angeles Times correspondent Dan Fisher was summoned by the Israeli military censor's office today after his newspaper printed a report naming Lekem as the unit behind alleged payments to Pollard.
Fisher said the censor reprimanded him for not submitting his material in advance and did not accept his explanation that the report was not handed over because it was a compilation of information from Washington as well as Jerusalem.