Israel allegedly bartered spy's release with Soviets

May 26, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- In the murky business of spies, nothing is clear.

Only this can be said: Shabtai Kalmanovich may or may not have been spying on Israel for the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

A deal to release him from prison may or may not have been made between the Israelis and Soviets who now head the Russian government.

He may or may not want to go back.

The case of the 45-year-old Jewish, Lithuanian businessman embarrassed the Israeli government when reports surfaced this week that they bartered his release in negotiations to gain

diplomatic recognition from the Soviet Union.

Israel first denied the story and then became tongue-tied in its explanations of exactly what promises were made in order to gain diplomatic ties with its former Cold War adversary.

Meanwhile, Kalmanovich, who has served 4 1/2 years of a 9-year sentence, sent word through his attorney that he might like to stay in Israel.

"He's an Israeli citizen, so they can't deport him or expel him," said his attorney, Amnon Zichroni.

The Kalmanovich affair illustrates a worrisome fact for the Israeli government: Some of the Soviet Jews welcomed with open arms over the years may have been -- or still are -- spies.

Kalmanovich immigrated to Israel in the early 1970s with his parents. He became a businessman, a middleman and arranger for international trade.

Most of his business was with Africa, and it was very successful -- at one time, he held a special diplomatic passport from Sierra Leone.

"He was a talented guy. He did very well," said his lawyer.

But in December 1987, he was arrested in Israel -- and tried in secrecy. He was convicted of espionage and contact with a foreign agent.

No details of the trial have been made public, but Mr. Zichroni implies the true facts were not such a big deal: "In Israel, there are two kinds of espionage charges, severe espionage and not-so-severe. He was convicted of the lesser charge."

Whatever the facts, Kalmanovich sat in prison in relative obscurity until last week, when the newspaper Yediot published a private message to Israeli authorities from Russian Deputy President Alexander V. Rutskoi.

The letter asserted that Israel's ambassador to the Soviet Union, Arieh Levin, "promised me that Kalmanovich would be released one day after the restoration of diplomatic relations between our two countries. Since then, time has passed, and the problem has not been solved."

When the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations with Israel Oct. 18, 1991, it was trumpeted here as a sign of Israel's emergence from international isolation.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December, Israel has established diplomatic ties with most of the independent states that were part of the Soviet empire.

Mr. Levin responded to the newspaper report by asserting that "no one made any promises, as Rutskoi's letter claimed."

But he added what seemed to be a clear contradiction: "When the restoration of relations was being discussed, it was stated that if relations were restored Kalmanovich would be released."

The director of the prime minister's office, Yossi Ben-Ahron, then tried to clear up the matter. He once again denied the existence of a deal.

Then he added his own contradiction: "When our representative in Moscow was approached on the issue of the release of Mr. Kalmanovich from prison, he said the first thing that needs to be done is to re-establish diplomatic relations and subsequently the issue would be dealt with."

That certainly sounded like a deal. Mr. Kalmanovich's lawyer, Mr. Zichroni, said "the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. [His release] wasn't a condition for renewing the relations, but for sure [the Soviets] got a promise he would be released."

Mr. Zichroni fears the flap may make the Israelis back off from releasing his client, although Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's office this week asked for a review of the case by the "proper channels."

Kalmanovich has been in a medical ward for almost a year because of severe circulatory problems, and his ill health may give the government an excuse to release him on humanitarian grounds.

If that happens, Mr. Zichroni said, his client "probably would want to stay here. His daughter is here, his parents are here. He has no reason to leave."

The Russians would not object, the lawyer claimed, because "they don't need him. He was not convicted of severe espionage."

And the Soviet Union no longer exists.

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