What is a former Israeli spy doing in the British Labour Party’s head office ?

Asa Winstanley

Middle East Monitor   /   January 30, 2021

Last week when I broke the story of Assaf Kaplan, a recent Labour Party hire, the main feedback – often objection – I received on social media went along this sort of line: “There’s no such thing as a ‘former’ spy.”

A failing elections campaign operative for the Israeli Labour Party, Kaplan had nonetheless been hired by Keir Starmer’s UK Labour Party.

But the most stunning part of the story was not simply that Starmer had hired someone from outside of the UK, or even that he was an Israeli (given Israel and the Israeli Labour Party’s open hostility towards UK Labour’s last leader Jeremy Corbyn).

My story’s big reveal was the fact that Kaplan had once been an Israeli intelligence officer. For almost five years, he had worked for Military Intelligence’s cyberwarfare outfit, Unit 8200.

Unit 8200 is a large and sprawling asset in Israel’s armoury of aggressively offensive spy agencies. Most of its thousands of recruits are young, often radicalised, and straight out of high school. It spends millions on churning out high-tech intelligence agents to convey into Israel’s increasingly privatised mercenary spy firms.

A loose global network of “intelligence” firms with names like Black Cube and NSO Group have their profits effectively subsidised by the Israeli taxpayer in the form of what amounts to free government training for their recruits. Unit 8200 veterans flood the world of high-tech start-ups in Israel.

Unit 8200 itself is notorious as a particularly brutal and insidious spying outfit.

In 2014, a group of anonymous whistleblowers revealed the details of just how all-pervading the Israeli spying apparatus that dominates Palestinian life in the West Bank really is.

“When I enlisted into the intelligence unit,” wrote one, “I thought I would deal with prevention of terrorism and do whatever was necessary to protect national security.” But on the contrary: “I discovered that many Israeli initiatives within the Palestinian arena are directed at things that are not related to intelligence. I worked a lot on gathering information on political issues… I had a really hard time with some of the things we did.”

Another whistleblower in the group wrote that they had systematically gathered information: “That seemed irrelevant from a security standpoint, and I did not have a clear conscience participating in such activities. Contrary to my expectations, our database included not only security-related intelligence but also personal and political information.”

A third summed it up: “The fact that they were innocent was not at all relevant as far as we were concerned, with regards to how we treated them.”

All sorts of the most private personal details were deliberately gathered for the purposes of control, blackmail, harassment, and even targeted murder.

Sexuality, ill health, intimate relationships, infidelities – all were merely foddered for increasing the control of Israel’s regime of Jewish supremacy in the West Bank.

Israel makes a habit of using such information in an attempt to coerce Palestinians into collaborating with its occupation regime.

These are not the qualities of a person that a supposedly socialist party should be recruiting – and least of all from a hostile foreign power like Israel.

Here I return to the main criticism I received online for my story (or at least for its headline) – that there is no such thing as a “former” spy.

It’s a fair criticism. Once someone is inducted into the opaque and highly-secretive world of espionage, it’s doubtful that they will ever truly leave it. They will carry that experience with them for the rest of their lives. They will never lose those contacts, and there’s always the potential that they could be drawn in again and tapped by higher-up officers.

Especially when that someone finds themselves in a position of political influence – like the leader’s office of the main opposition party of an important foreign power like Britain.

Of course, nothing is set in stone. People can change, as the Unit, 8200 whistleblowers themselves show. But there’s no reason to believe that Kaplan even remotely regrets anything he did.

Quite the contrary. In recent years, he took to boasting about his experience as a “Unit 8200 veteran”, one online profile showed.

The irony for Labour goes further. Part of Kaplan’s new job description is to help Labour win elections. Yet, when he was deputy head of the Israeli Labour Party’s April 2019 general election campaign, that party – which long ago had a near-monopoly on Israeli government – collapsed to a pathetic six seats (and polling suggests a total wipe-out is coming in the forthcoming March election).

So Starmer’s devotion to what he terms “Zionism without qualification” may yet cost him the next general election.

But Labour members are more than entitled to ask the questions that so far both Kaplan and Labour spokespeople have refused to answer. What is the supposedly socialist Labour Party doing hiring a former Israeli spy in the first place? And is that former Israeli intelligence officer really “former”? That is to say: does Kaplan still have an ongoing relationship with Unit 8200, or with any other apparatus of the Israeli secret state?

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist living in London who writes about Palestine and the Middle East