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Israel Speaks Up

Abandoning a low profile, government and media voices call for Iran to drop its spy case

by Eric Silver

May 4, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Israel this week came out of its shell and launched a public campaign against the trial of 13 Iranian Jews charged in Isfahan with spying for Israel and the United States.

After one of the defendants, Danny Tefilin, was paraded on Iranian television to confess his "guilt," the Foreign Ministry spokesman stated in Jerusalem on Monday: "The attempt to present the Jewish detainees as spies is outrageous and cruel. Israel reiterates that the detainees are innocent and should be released immediately."

The minister for Diaspora affairs, Rabbi Michael Melchior, announced a day later that he and the Sephardi chief rabbi, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, would lead a prayer meeting on the Iranians' behalf at the Western Wall on Thursday. He called on synagogues across Israel and the world to join them in prayer.

This represents a calculated raising of Israel's profile. Although it had already denied that the 13 were spies, Ehud Barak's government preferred to mobilize international diplomatic support. It feared that too strident an Israeli campaign would rebound on the prisoners, but this reticence seems to have failed, while the Jews are trapped in a power struggle between liberal and conservative forces in Teheran.

Oded Granot, Ma'ariv's Middle East analyst, commented: "The 'confession' forced on Tefilin, just like the tendentious leaks published in Arab newspapers that several of the arrested Jews tried to gather information on Iran's atomic reactor, means that Iran does not intend to retract under the pressure which the Americans and Jewish sources throughout the world are applying for the release of the 13 Jews."

In addition, Granot detected signs that Islamic conservatives, who controlled the courts, wanted to use the Jews' trial as a weapon against the moderate President Hatami, who was accused of being soft on civil rights and looking for an opening toward the West. The radicals had earlier flexed their muscles by closing 15 pro-Hatami newspapers and jailing dozens of civil rights activists.

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