From Russia With Jews

Until 15 years ago, the Soviet empire viewed Nativ as an enemy organization that sought to topple the regime in Moscow under the guise of Zionist activity. Zvi Magen, the outgoing head of Nativ, knows the Russians were right, and now recommends turning the dying organization into a worldwide culture network on the model of Al-Qaida.

Amiram Barkat
Yossi Melman
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Amiram Barkat
Yossi Melman

Zvi Magen did what few Israelis would dare to do: He rejected a tempting, well-paying job offer from Arcadi Gaydamak, the Israeli-Russian oligarch, whom the State Prosecutor's office is considering putting on trial for money laundering, and who is wanted in France on suspicion of illegal arms trading with Angola. Gaydamak wanted Magen to head the Congress of Jewish Religious Communities and Organizations in Russia (KEROOR). This is an off-the-shelf organization that came to life about 18 months ago under the aegis of Gaydamak, who contributes money to it and acts as its president.

Magen received the generous offer a few months ago, while he was still head of Nativ, but preferred to join the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya as head of a new Euro-Asia institute that will conduct "studies from the Balkans to Mongolia."

Magen, a lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces reserves and a former ambassador to Ukraine and Russia, has headed Nativ for almost seven years. He concluded his term of office at the beginning of last month, but his successor has only just been named. Last week, Naomi Ben Ami, Israel's ambassador to Ukraine, was chosen to head Nativ. This is the first time in the history of the Israeli intelligence community that a woman has been named to head one of its agencies - although Nativ in fact is no longer involved in intelligence.

Magen wanted to leave a year and a half ago, but the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, asked him to stay on for a few months. Then Sharon was hospitalized and replaced by Ehud Olmert, and Magen stayed on because of the elections and the formation of the new government. He became a kind of captive in his own organization, but despite his frustration, a sense of public responsibility prompted him to remain in office.

The government's delay in finding a successor attests to its uncaring attitude toward Nativ, an organization that until about 15 years ago was viewed by the vast Soviet empire as one of its sworn enemies. In fact, apart from Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who closely monitors the organization and takes a great interest in it - some say he also meddles in its activities - and a few MKs and public activists of Russian origin, it's doubtful that anyone in the Israeli establishment or in the public cares about what is happening in Nativ. Last week, Olmert decided that as part of Lieberman's cabinet functions he will be responsible for Nativ, thus legitimizing his behind-the-scenes activity. In response, Lieberman said he is not involved in the new appointment and that he trusts the judgment of the search committee.

Quite a few people believe that Nativ no longer has a raison d'etre and should be disbanded. One of them is Yaakov Kedmi, Magen's predecessor as head of the organization. In 1999, about 18 months after taking up his post as ambassador to Russia, Magen accepted the offer made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to replace Kedmi. Kedmi had run afoul of Netanyahu and exchanged verbal blows with him in public, and then left in order to help his buddy Ehud Barak get elected as prime minister. (In the Yom Kippur War, Kedmi and Barak were in the same tank.)

Kedmi and Magen are total opposites. Kedmi is brash, Magen cautious. Kedmi tried to provide assessments and intelligence estimates to the Mossad espionage agency and dragged Nativ into the risky gray area of semi-intelligence activity in Russia. He rubbed elbows with the chief of the KGB and the heads of its successors, the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) and the FSB (Federal Security Service). Magen kept well away from them and is unwilling to criticize his predecessor, but believes that the profile Kedmi adopted was too high.

Kedmi told us that in his view there is no reason for Nativ to exist, at least not in its present format: "That organization concluded its mission the moment the special situation in the former Soviet Union - a situation that justified its existence - ceased to exist. Since the mid-1990s, and particularly since 2000, we have not had immigration to Israel on the same scale, and there is no fear of governmental changes that will bring about the closing of the gates again. The situation of Russia's Jews today is the best it has been in the past thousand years and they are a community like all the other communities. If there is no special governmental body that deals with the Jews of France, why do the Jews of Ukraine, Russia and Azerbaijan need special treatment?" At the same time, Kedmi says that a governmental organization like Nativ is needed in order to replace the Jewish Agency and deal with Jews worldwide. "The Jewish Agency is a clumsy and corrupt organization whose officials decide their own policy," he maintains. "Most of its powers should be transferred to the State of Israel, because as in every normal state, ties with the diasporas need to be consistent with the government's policy and its interests." Magen agrees that Nativ should be Israel's connection with all the diasporas, and not only those in Russia and the republics, but offers his views less bluntly than Kedmi.

"I don't want to quarrel with Kedmi in the newspaper," he notes in his farewell interview. "But in my opinion Nativ never died. That is a tendentious presentation of the events. Nativ is not a superfluous organization. In my view it is an essential and important body." Lieberman added that far from shutting down Nativ, its activity should be expanded and intensified.

His pal Putin

Zvi Magen was born in the Soviet Union in 1945 to parents of Polish extraction. He immigrated to Israel in 1960, living in Kibbutz Gan Shmuel as an "external child." He did his army service in the Armored Corps and then joined a settlement group in Kibbutz Eyal. In 1970, he returned to the IDF, serving in the Intelligence Corps, initially in the central collection unit, 8200, then in the research section, where he was occupied with several sectors, including the eastern and the northern. He left the IDF in 1978 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Magen's knowledge of Russian and his experience as an intelligence officer caught the eye of David Bar-Tov, then head of Nativ. Magen joined the organization, holding posts in the research and intelligence section and then the staff branch, eventually reaching the position of deputy chief of Nativ.

He was part of the second Nativ team that was sent to the Soviet Union, in 1988. Until the opening of the Israeli embassy, the Nativ personnel and the Foreign Ministry operated from the Netherlands embassy, which represented Israel's interests. In 1993, Magen moved to the Foreign Ministry and was appointed ambassador to Ukraine and, in 1998, to Moscow. He held the latter post for about a year and a half until the prime minister asked him to return to Nativ, this time as its chief.

Magen's worldview is in some degree conspiratorial. He believes, for example, that the Islamic resurgence in the West and in Russia is the result of incitement, which has its source in a guiding hand. He also suspects that there are those who are inflating and disseminating reports of the kind that were published a few years back - and which the Israeli press played up - to the effect that tens of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union were leaving Israel and returning to their native lands after despairing of being integrated into Israeli society.

Magen believes that Nativ played a critical role in the fall of the Soviet Union, due to its influence on the Jews there. Nativ's specialization in "influence building," a codeword for subversion, made the organization dangerous for the Soviet Union, he believes, far more than classic intelligence-gathering bodies. He thinks that "when someone agitates a large population in a particular country, it is far more dangerous for that country's national security than someone who has come to collect intelligence."

Overall, he is a great believer in conspiracies and is convinced that many events in the world were the result of organized plots. In his view, every ethnic group is a potential fifth column, a tool in the hands of organized and trained bodies. Without reference to their terrorism and violence, the world's greatest experts in this regard are, according to Magen, organized Muslim groups such as Al-Qaida, Islamic cultural and religious organizations, and of course Muslim states, which are working systematically to stir up immigrant communities everywhere. The riots in the suburbs of Paris a year ago were only a small example of what they are capable of.

He would like to see Israel take a leaf out of the Muslims' book and strive to establish a worldwide Nativ. On this subject, he agreed with Kedmi. Magen believes that Nativ is capable of repeating its success in bringing the Jews of the former Soviet Union to Israel - in all parts of the world, even the United States. The Jewish Agency, he maintains, is incapable of fomenting mass immigration; only the subversive methods of Nativ can do that.

In 2000, Magen made a daring but failed attempt to put this policy into practice. He suggested that Nativ's activity be extended to Argentina and says he persuaded Prime Minister Sharon. The chairman of the Jewish Agency at the time, Sallai Meridor, said that he had discovered the plan by chance, after getting a report from his staff about the appearance of Nativ personnel in Argentina. Meridor issued an ultimatum to Sharon, threatening that he would remove the Jewish Agency from every country in which Nativ was operating. Sharon, fearing a rift with the Jewish Agency bigwigs abroad, dropped the idea, or, according to Magen, "turned tail." Since then, relations between Nativ and the Jewish Agency have only worsened, taking the form of mutual boycotts and incessant mutual badmouthing. Nativ's relations with the Foreign Ministry were also tense, particularly during Kedmi's tenure.

Magen's identity was shaped above all by his time in Military Intelligence. In his own eyes, he is primarily an intelligence officer, and the people he feels most comfortable with are other intelligence officers. As ambassador in Moscow, he preferred the company of foreign military attaches to events in the Jewish community or cocktail parties thrown by his diplomatic counterparts. Of his former colleagues in intelligence, Magen especially enjoys talking about one of them - Vladimir Putin.

Magen's attitude toward Putin borders on admiration: "In the KGB Putin was the director of a cultural center in Dresden, in East Germany. Effectively, he was Nativ. He is very professional and I have only positive things to say about him. We met a few times when I was ambassador and he was in the presidential apparatus, and afterward head of the FSB. In all the meetings with me he displayed extraordinary friendship for Israel. My impression was that he has esteem for Israel and for your faithful servant. In 1999, when I concluded my term as ambassador to Moscow, he came to my farewell reception, which took place the day before he was appointed prime minister. It was very unusual for a person like him to come to the farewell reception for an ambassador."

The relationship between Putin and Israel is currently being put to the test. About a month ago, Israel sent a delegation to Moscow headed by the director of the Euro-Asia Department, Mark Sofer. The delegation showed the Russians evidence of how Russian weapons found their way to Hezbollah - photographs of 39 antitank weapons and of packages that were seized by Israeli soldiers, original shipping documents and more. The arms sales will not stop, but the Russians are promising that they will take more care to ensure that they get only to the "end C user" for whom they are intended.

According to Magen, the Israeli revelations "quite embarrassed the Russians." However, he believes that Israel has very limited ability to change the Russians' arms sales policy in the Middle East.

In contrast, he is cautiously optimistic concerning Iran's nuclear plans. "There is no doubt that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons it will be partly thanks to Russia," he emphasizes. "Russia may not have intended Iran to acquire the ability to develop nuclear arms, but it has a part in the creation of Iran's nuclear ability and potential. At the same time, in the wake of the second Lebanon war the Russian leadership is having second thoughts about the essence of Iran's intentions."

In Magen's view, the Russians are beginning to understand that the Iranians' policy is a direct threat to Russia. "The threat is not of nonconventional weapons, but it involves the Iranians' strategic national interests, which are often furthered at Russia's expense. I am talking about the attempts to expand the Islamic empire northward under a nuclear umbrella. Russia faces a dilemma regarding the Islamic world. They are seeing that a large-scale Islamic network is being created adjacent to them and is developing not only in the neighboring states but in Russia itself as well. There are today areas of dense Muslim population in Russia, such as in the Urals and the Volga Basin, and all the major Islamic elements in the world operate within Russian territory."

The Torah scrolls underground

At its peak, Nativ was part of the Israeli intelligence community, alongside the Mossad, Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet internal security service. Until the early 1990s, military censorship prohibited the publication of the organization's name or of its head. Only a slip of the tongue by the finance minister, Yitzhak Modai, during a television interview, caused the ban to be lifted.

Today Nativ is a small unit attached to the Prime Minister's Office. In its heyday, it employed hundreds of people and spent hundreds of millions of shekels. Currently it has some 60 employees and a shrunken budget of about NIS 50 million, part of which comes from the rival Jewish Agency. In the past, Nativ had dozens of intelligence and research officers and diplomats on four continents, whereas today it has a small presence in Russia and in some of the republics.

Nativ was established during 1951-53 in order to replace the Mossad l'Aliya Bet, a secret underground organization that operated before Israel's creation, organizing the illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine, and after 1948 dealing with the immigration from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Officially, Nativ was created to channel (the Hebrew word nativ means channel or route) the immigration of Jews from countries where they found themselves in distress. However, its powers were soon curtailed.

Ties with Jews in the Arab countries and the mission of bringing them to Israel was entrusted to a department - later a branch and finally a small unit - called Bitzur in the Mossad. Nativ, which was also known as the Liaison Bureau, was assigned the task of making contact with the Jewish communities in the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe, encouraging them to engage in Jewish cultural activity and later to attract them to Zionism and Israel. This was done largely by means of clandestine activity. Nativ emissaries operated under the guise of diplomats from Israeli embassies. At the same time, sailors from the Israeli Merchant Marine, tourists and young Jews from around the world were sent to Eastern bloc countries. They were given Torah scrolls, prayer books, dictionaries and books in Hebrew and asked to take them into the target countries.

Concurrently, Nativ personnel, working from Israeli embassies in Western countries, organized Jewish organizations, trade union leaders, intellectuals and politicians in a propaganda campaign against the Soviet union under the slogan "Let my people go." In several instances, Nativ personnel bribed officials and leaders in Eastern European countries to allow the departure of Jews. For years the leading bribe-takers were the family of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

The KGB and the secret services in the Communist countries viewed the Nativ personnel as spies in every respect. They considered Nativ to be a subversive organization that was trying to destabilize the Soviet regime - and they were right. In most countries of the Soviet bloc, Zionist activity was prohibited and considered a violation of the law. Some Nativ personnel were declared persona non grata and expelled from the Soviet Union and from Eastern bloc countries. The fear of the KGB and of the Soviet leadership was that if the Jews were allowed to leave, other minority ethnic, religious and national groups would demand the same right, and the Soviet Union, a multinational empire, would fall apart because of the "national problem." Which is exactly what happened.

Cultural center to promote interests

Nativ now issues visas to people entitled to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return and also runs a number of cultural centers in Russia. Could these tasks not be transferred to the Foreign Ministry, the Jewish Agency, the Absorption Ministry? "A great many changes can be made in the Israeli administrative system, which is conducted exotically," Magen says. "I will not be giving away any secrets if I say that foreign policy is not always conducted by the Foreign Ministry. We could take the matter to absurd lengths and argue that even the Israel Police could be disbanded and their powers transferred to the Gadna [Youth Battalions]. But no one recommends doing that, and the same goes for Nativ. It is an organization that possesses knowledge, ability and experience in dealing with the Diaspora. There must be one state body to deal with the Diaspora communities in a country that was created out of such communities and maintains important interaction with them."

But Nativ is not responsible for the whole Diaspora. Sharon, under pressure of the Jewish Agency, would not let you operate to bring Jews from Argentina and France, or to operate amid Jews from the former Soviet Union who immigrated to Germany and the United States.

"I am talking about the principle, the concept. A country that considers it crucial to maintain ties with the Diaspora has to preserve its capabilities. The subject is most needed. And the fact is that none of the committees that examined the functioning of Nativ recommended shutting it down."

But a committee headed by former Mossad chief Yitzhak Hofi, which was appointed by Prime Minister Rabin in the 1990s, concluded that Nativ should be preserved only as a marginal organization "for a rainy day." Isn't that tantamount to saying that it's not needed?

"I prefer to avoid using that expression. I believe that the organization is vital for a country which has interests in preserving ties with the Diaspora."

Do you believe that a situation could arise in which Russia or some of the former republics of the Soviet Union would bar Jews from leaving and immigrating to Israel?

"I don't think that will happen, though it could happen. A regime can change. But it's more likely that a situation of persecution and attacks on Jews could develop. There is a rise in anti-Semitism in the world, as we see in France."

We still don't see why Nativ is needed.

"Because in principle Israel has one and only one body for Diaspora affairs, and that is Nativ. A state must have capabilities in this sphere. Many countries have bodies that deal with the ties with their diasporas. In the Israeli case the ties with the Diaspora are intended for a central goal of immigration. That is why Nativ was focused and aimed at immigration. And from this point of view Nativ proved itself. It generated the immigration waves of the 1940s, the 1950s and the 1980s and brought about the immigration of millions of people."

By the nature of its definition, Nativ is a very problematic organization, because it intervenes in the internal affairs of other countries and asks their citizens to move to a different country. Is Nativ effectively operating in a minefield?

"Yes. There is a range of methods of operation within the framework of what is called acceptable practice or within the framework of the tolerable. That is how most countries operate."

Does such activity also take place in Israel?

"It is no secret that Russia is currently working in Israel to promote those interests." Magen is referring to the fact that Russia has in recent years set up a number of organizations aimed at tightening the ties between the homeland and its Diaspora communities. In the near future, as Putin and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced at their meeting in Moscow last month, a Russian cultural center will be opened in Tel Aviv. It will operate in the same format as the German Goethe Institute, the British Council, the American Cultural Center and the Spanish Cervantes Institute. But in Magen's view, these are not only innocent centers to promote the culture of the mother countries, but also front organizations which advance broader national interests.

Did the Russians infiltrate spies into Israel through the Nativ filter?

"Nativ was not responsible for thwarting espionage or for security filtering. It's certain that all kinds of Klingbergs" [referring to Marcus Klingberg, the convicted Soviet spy] "have infiltrated from then until now. I hope they did not get far."

Nativ also operated clandestinely, did it not?

"Yes. Until the 1980s Israel operated secretly with regard to this subject and from a certain stage moved to an open pattern. That, in my opinion, was a mistake. It would have been better not to operate publicly or openly, because that method creates a problem and a challenge for both sides - for the host side, too."

How did the secret activity work?

"I don't know."

You don't know? You were deputy chief of Nativ from 1987 on Soviet soil under a diplomatic cover. So that for two years at least you were a witness and a partner to the secret activity.

"Throughout all the years of Nativ's existence there were all kinds of operations that were called flight operations, through special operations and particularly by means of political operations."

Are you referring to political arrangements that made Jewish emigration possible?

"Yes. Just so there will be no mistakes - I am not talking about intelligence operations. Nativ was not a body that collected intelligence. It did not have agents. It is not a body that carried out intelligence-gathering activity in the territory of foreign countries, as is often alleged against it. It dealt with the promotion of subjects that were of concern to the diasporas, ties with them and concern for immigration, and in most cases it was successful. I myself came to Israel thanks to this body."

Oligarchs, capital and government

Our conversation took place in Magen's new office on the third floor of the Faculty of Law at the Interdisciplinary Center. We note that he turned down Gaydamak's offer to work for him, but Nativ, more than any other body in Israel, is associated with overly close ties with oligarchs, some of whom are wanted by the world's police forces on suspicion of offenses and illegal acts.

"I know Gaydamak and he did in fact offer me a job with him. He is the president of KEROOR and as head of Nativ I had to maintain professional ties with him. These were formal ties, as with the president of any organization. Nativ as an organization had to maintain ties with all of them. The more so as these are people who established large and important organizations."

Are you referring to Vladimir Gusinsky, Leonid Nevzlin, Lev Leviev and Vyacheslav Kantor?

"Yes, to them too. There are many players on the Jewish-Russian field: Jewish organizations of the world, governments, and of course Israel has to be there also, otherwise we will be out of the game. We must also not forget that Nativ is a body that does not grant citizenship. It is appointed by the government to decide who is entitled to immigrate to Israel on the basis of the Law of Return and grant him an immigration visa."

But the moment that visa is granted the individual automatically becomes a citizen of Israel. Hasn't Israel become a haven for oligarchs and a place to launder their fortunes?

"There were a few cases like that; there is no need to get carried away. If a person wants to be a citizen, that is one thing and the state cannot prevent that. If people want to smuggle money through the banks, that can definitely be described as a laundry. But you have to understand: more than half of the immigrants from the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s immigrated to Israel with aliya visas and then moved to the West. So to say that this is a tendency that characterizes the rich would not be correct. Israel could not have discriminated against a particular group of people only because they had money, and prevented them from receiving immigration visas."

Do you think there is any way to isolate the criminal phenomena from the need - which no one disputes - to cultivate and preserve the ties with the Jewish communities?

"I understand that there are extradition requests, but the subject, to the best of my knowledge, is being handled well by the law agencies: the police and the State Prosecutor's Office. The Israel Police is doing holy work. The central problem is now the oligarchs' fortune; it is those in the Israeli establishment who might be negatively influenced by them. That is the connection between capital and government. The problem is not the capital but the government." W