Netanyahu, Arad
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former national security adviser Uzi Arad. Photo by Moshe Milner
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will head to Washington today in the shadow of two diplomatic crises - one with the United States and the other with Russia.

Netanyahu will address both houses of Congress on Tuesday. This evening, U.S. President Barack Obama will give a major address on the Middle East in light of the revolutions underway there. As of last night, however, it was still not clear whether that speech would also offer an Obama plan for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The crisis with Russia came to light yesterday, when it emerged that the Israel Defense Forces attache in Moscow had been arrested and deported last week due to allegations of espionage. Col. Vadim Leiderman was arrested at a meeting in a restaurant on May 12. The IDF later released a statement saying the espionage allegations had been thoroughly investigated and turned out to be unfounded.

This is not the first time Israeli defense officials in Russia have been arrested under mysterious circumstances, in breach of their diplomatic immunity, and Israeli officials said they are still unsure about the reasons for the latest incident.

The crisis with Washington is of longer standing, and revolves around Netanyahu's former national security adviser, Uzi Arad.

Arad announced his resignation in February. But earlier this week, it turned out that he was actually fired, after the Shin Bet security service concluded he was behind a leak that caused a major crisis with the Obama administration.

The leak, published by several media organizations last July, asserted that the United States and Israel had reached substantive understandings in secret talks on the civilian nuclear issue. Washington was furious and demanded an investigation into the source of the leak. Netanyahu complied, and the culprit eventually proved to be Arad.

The secret talks took place in June 2010, shortly after Obama infuriated Israel by backing a resolution on a nuclear-free Middle East at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference. A month later, reports on the secret talks appeared simultaneously in Haaretz, on Channel 2 television and on Army Radio. According to these reports, the United States had given Israel unequivocal guarantees that its "strategic capabilities" in the nuclear field would be preserved and strengthened.

An outraged Washington demanded that the leaker be identified. Netanyahu assigned the Shin Bet the job, after securing permission from Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.

The attorney general customarily supervises such probes to ensure that prime ministers don't use the Shin Bet for political investigations. But in this case, Weinstein was convinced that the damage caused by the leak justified the probe - both because of Washington's anger and because it followed on the heels of another leak of sensitive security information from someone in the prime minister's circle.

Weinstein also offered a third justification: The leak clearly emanated from one of Netanyahu's closest aides, and a situation in which the prime minister can't trust his aides is intolerable.

Initially, the probe was kept secret, lest knowledge of it cause the media to pay even closer attention to the leaked information and intensify the damage. But then news of the investigation itself was leaked, along with the false claim that two of Netanyahu's other aides - not Arad - had given problematic responses in a lie-detector test.

As a result, Weinstein and then-Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin made the probe public in January. At that time, they said the leaker had not been discovered and the case had been closed.

A few weeks later, however, the Shin Bet asked Weinstein for permission to reopen the investigation, as new information had been discovered. Weinstein agreed, and the suspects were questioned again.

Senior Justice Ministry officials insisted to Haaretz yesterday that the case really was closed and then reopened due to new information. This was not merely a trick to lull the culprit, they said.

When the investigation resumed, Arad admitted to having been the leaker, but insisted he had done so unintentionally: The information just slipped out during a background briefing for journalists. Nevertheless, he also said he would resign immediately.

Weinstein then decided there were no grounds for criminal charges, just as previous attorneys general have in similar cases involving leaks of sensitive information. This decision stemmed from both Arad's resignation and the evidentiary difficulties of the case - for instance, proving that Arad had leaked the information deliberately rather than unthinkingly, as he claimed.

But the Shin Bet later decided to strip Arad of his high-level security clearance.

The Justice Ministry yesterday rejected accusations that in failing to publicize the resumption of the probe, it had perpetrated a cover-up meant to spare Netanyahu embarrassment. Rather, it said, the goal was to prevent massive media coverage that could result in publication of additional sensitive information.