The Deputy Chief of Mission of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., Dan Arbell, was recently relieved of his duties by Foreign Ministry Director General Rafael Barak, after Arbell admitted he had leaked sensitive information to the press.

It is not known whether Arbell, who has been at the ministry for more than 20 years and has held several senior postings, will return to Israel or whether he will be reassigned within the ministry.

Senior Foreign Ministry officials said Arbell's dismissal is the latest episode in a witch hunt that began two years ago and has escalated since Barak took over as director general, targeting anyone suspected of holding contacts with journalists. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Barak has endeavored to insulate the ministry from the media and to exclude many high-ranking figures in the ministry from official activities.

On Tuesday, Barak sent a memorandum to all ministry employees in Israel and abroad, titled "End of employment due to leak." He explained his wish to brief the recipients about "a serious matter regarding unauthorized contacts with journalists, as a result of which I was forced to take a professional measure against a respected, senior, high-ranking employee and to remove him from his position."

Barak added that the incident involved "giving sensitive confidential information obtained in the course of the employee's job to an Israeli journalist. The contact with the journalist was unauthorized and violated ministry directives." He further explained in the memo that the employee confessed to the leak during an investigation, adding: "In light of the diplomatic sensitivity and the seriousness of the matter, I concluded that I had no choice but to remove the employee from his post immediately."

Barak made no explicit mention in the memo that the Shin Bet security service conducted the investigation into the incident.

Haaretz has learned that the leak in question occurred about two and a half years ago.

On September 21 Barak issued a memo to Israeli diplomats hinting at the Arbell affair, albeit without naming him, and warning them not to speak to reporters.

This is the second time in Barak's two years as director general that a senior diplomat was removed from his post over alleged contacts with the press. In the first incident, Alon Bar was dismissed as head of strategic affairs in the ministry. Bar was later exonerated by the Shin Bet; his security clearance was restored and he was appointed ambassador to Spain.