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Israel: Security forces embarrassed at housekeeper who tried to spy for Iran

Authorities charge Omri Goren, who worked at the home of defence minister Benny Gantz, with espionage
benny-gantz
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz: one of his staff was arrested this week and charged with espionage (AFP)

Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, is highly embarrassed - and so is Israel’s defence minister Benny Gantz.

On Thursday, it was revealed that Omri Goren, a 37-year-old Israeli Jew who worked as housekeeper at Gantz’s private home, offered his services to Iranian intelligence. He has now been charged with espionage by the ministry of justice.

It gets worse for Shin Bet. It transpires that Goren has a criminal record and served time in jail for robbery and burglary. Yet he was employed by Gantz and worked for him for two years.

The Shin Bet has a department in charge of security vetting personnel for the Israeli military, intelligence and security establishment. But it seems that it didn't bother to vet and scan Goren.

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What makes this so astonishing is that the security agency meticulously scans every junior employee who works for Israel’s security industries, along with employees of government ministries, let alone the intelligence community. Their background is checked repeatedly. Candidates are requested to answer a very detailed questionnaire.

The only explanation - and consolation - for Shin Bet is that eventually its cyber capabilities exposed Goren.

It is alleged that Goren used Telegram, an encrypted social media service, to initiate contact with a group of hackers calling themselves Black Shadow. He is then said to have offered to install a sort of Trojan horse virus on Gantz’s personal computer.

To prove he had access to the defence minister, and would be useful to the Iranians, he took photos in Gantz’s home and sent them to what he hoped would be his future operators.

But the Israeli cyber authorities identified Black Shadow as a branch of the Iranian intelligence, which it held responsible for recent cyber-attacks on Atraf, an Israeli LGTB dating website, and the computer network of an Israeli hospital. According to Shin Bet, Goren was arrested before he was able to cause any damage or divulge any secrets.

Shadow war with Iran

But Shin Bet's failure here is a psychological blow to its pride and can be described as an important victory for Iran (officially Tehran does not claim any responsibility or involvement in the affair).

Many Israelis, puzzled and ashamed by the revelations, have raised hypothetical questions as to what could have happened. Could, for example, the accused, with his access to Gantz, have easily planted a bomb in the defence minister’s home?

It is one of the most serious and disturbing security breaches in the clandestine covert war taking place between Israel and Iran.

And while Israeli intelligence - mainly Mossad and military intelligence - have recorded major successes in the shadow war to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and thwarting its attempts to assassinate Israeli diplomats abroad, it turns out that the Israeli rear is exposed.

What also worries the Israeli public is that this time it was an Israeli Jew who agreed to spy and betray his homeland in return for financial reward in the service of Iran, Israel’s most bitter enemy.

The nature of spies

For many years Iranian intelligence failed to recruit Israeli Jews and had to settle for small cogs, mostly Israeli Arabs, whose access to the security establishment was, and still is, very limited.

Israel has always prided itself that its Jewish population is homogenous and has a sense of mission that prevents treachery. Yet during the last few years, the number of Jews who have shown readiness to spy for Iran has been on the rise.

In a sting operation in 2019, Mossad and Shin Bet arrested Gonen Segev, a medical doctor and former member of parliament and minister of energy who also had a criminal record and spent some time in an Israeli jail for fraud.

After his release from prison in 2007, he settled in Nigeria and offered his services to the Iranian intelligence, who sent him for briefings in Tehran. Upon his return to the African continent, he was lured by Israeli intelligence, kidnapped and put before an Israeli court, which sent him to jail for 11 years.

The Israeli opposition, led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is using the incident to bash Gantz. Likud members and Israeli pundits point out that two years ago, when Gantz led Israel’s largest party and was a leading candidate to be the prime minister, his phone was hacked, most probably by Iranian hackers.

Shin Bet warned Gantz to be more vigilant. It seems that neither he, nor the security agency, listened.