Jerusalem — What Israeli newspapers have dubbed the ``Jonathan Pollard Affair'' took a decidedly partisan turn Tuesday and threatened to reach into the offices of the prime minister. On Tuesday, Israeli news media reported that American citizen Jonathan Jay Pollard -- arrested in Washington last Thursday and accused of selling military secrets to Israel -- may have been recruited as a spy by an Israeli intelligence officer who worked for three Israeli prime ministers.
The story may cause an irreparable rift between the two halves of the government, the left-leaning Labor Party and the rightist Likud bloc, Israeli political analysts say.
``The Likud already is saying that Labor leaked the story to smear [former Likud Prime Minister Menachem] Begin,'' says one former Likud official.
The Israeli media said that Pollard was apparently recruited by Mr. Begin's adviser on terrorism when Begin was prime minister. Israeli newspapers and the state-owned radio based their allegations on a report published in the Washington Post.
According to the report, the adviser worked not only for Mr. Begin, but also for former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and, briefly, for current Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Sources said the former adviser is still employed in military intelligence under the Defense Ministry.
But there is still widespread belief here that neither Mr. Shamir nor Mr. Peres nor Mr. Rabin was aware of Pollard's activities. Spokesmen for the government refused to comment on the stories Tuesday, saying only that the arrest of Pollard and the accusations against him are still under investigation here.
Should the story be true, it would seriously undermine the government's unofficial claims that if Pollard indeed spied for Israel, he was recruited by a low-level official without the knowledge of the upper reaches of the political echelon.
The government's response to the allegations against Pollard has been criticized by the press and in parliament. The first Israeli statement on the affair came only Sunday night, three days after Pollard was arrested.
The statement, issued by the Foreign Ministry, said only that spying on the United States was against Israel's policy, that the political leadership reacted with ``shock and consternation'' to Pollard's arrest, and that an investigation was underway. Should any ``deviation'' to Israel's policy be found, according to the statement, ``the appropriate conclusions will be drawn.''
Sources in both the Foreign Ministry and Mr. Peres's office confirmed that neither Foreign Minister Shamir nor Peres had initially understood the seriousness of the affair, or its implications for US-Israeli relations.
``They simply couldn't believe it had happened,'' said one official. The official, who spoke on condition he not be named, said it was only after the US Embassy in Tel Aviv called and complained about the lack of response Friday afternoon that Shamir and Peres took direct charge of the Israeli investigation.
``Now they [Shamir, Peres, and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin] are holding daily consultations and personally interviewing people,'' who might have knowledge of the case, the source said.
Officials expressed relief that the US did not cancel a planned meeting next month between Israeli and US military personnel in Washington to exchange information. They also expressed gratitude that US Ambassador Thomas Pickering said Monday that ties between the two nations could not be damaged by a single incident. But Israel remains deeply concerned about what Pollard may say during his trial.
``It could be a daily contribution of embarrassment,'' sighed one official.
For that reason, pressure has been mounting on the government to quickly conclude its investigation and make its findings public. Should it be determined that Pollard had worked for Israel, newspapers have editorialized, those responsible must be fired.
Sources inside the government and analysts outside insist that the political cost of Israel getting caught hiring Americans to spy for it are far more serious than any information Pollard could have provided.