Before he was arrested as a suspected Israeli spy, Ziad Ahmad Itani was a successful artist, journalist and playwright.
His personal and professional trajectory did not suggest that he would end up working for the Mossad, Israel’s notorious external spy agency.
While Itani’s case may be different, it is not isolated. He was arrested on November 24 and charged with spying for Israel on Lebanese journalists, intellectuals, and government ministers.
The Lebanese State’s Security, the official agency in charge of handling cases of espionage, confirmed the charges against Itani of working for Israel, which Lebanon considers an enemy state.
The statement said that damning evidence was found in Itani’s Beirut apartment, including “drugs, four laptop computers, five cell phones that he stores the secret data in”.
The statement also said Itani has confessed to the charges.
There is no lawyer for Itani yet. He has not been referred to court yet and remains under arrest.
A classic honey trap
The Mossad has long recruited Arab spies working on behalf of Israel against their own countries.
Unlike others hired by the Mossad since the 1950s and onward, who infiltrated the circles of Arab society’s political and military elite, Itani does not fit the profile of the classic Israeli spy, even though the recruitment method was the same.
According to classified Lebanese counterintelligence investigations, which Al Jazeera has obtained, Itani was recruited by a Swedish woman in a classic “honey trap”.
In a videotaped confession, he claims Mossad used footage showing him having intercourse as a way of pressuring him into spying for the agency.
Pierre Abi Saab, deputy editor of the daily Al-Akhbar newspaper, says Itani’s case is part of new intelligence war being waged by Mossad and others to reinvent Arab political culture to accept Israel as a “normal” country in the region, as opposed to an enemy state.
Long before any peace agreement between Israel and other Arab states like Egypt and Jordan, signed in 1979 and 1994 respectively, the Mossad operated with impunity in Arab and European countries by killing Israel’s enemies and recruiting well-placed spies in the upper echelon of powers.
The Israeli Mossad, for example, assassinated famed Palestinian intellectual and author Ghassan Kanafani in Beirut in 1972. The Mossad also assassinated Egyptian nuclear scientist Yahya El Mashad in Paris, France in 1982.
But after signing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and having built informal but extensive ties with other Arab countries, the Mossad focused on assassinating Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Today, the Mossad has allies in many Arab capitals and operates hand-in-hand with governments such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE against their common enemies.
Arab intelligence services are known to work extensively with the Mossad to penetrate groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Arab states also work with the Mossad against Palestinian nationalist and “Islamist” groups.
Abi Saab argues that Mossad, having secured Arab governments as allies, has started paying more attention to changing public opinion to Israel’s favour, despite its continued illegal occupation of Arab territories.
“Israel is now working on penetrating our societies through public intellectuals, journalists, filmmakers, actors and journalists,” he said. “The Mossad wants to change the Arab hearts and minds to Israeli favour through our own public intellectuals.”
Because Lebanon has a liberal and diverse society, Israel would see an easy target in terms of trying to change the country’s political culture by recruiting agents and supporters by different means, says Abi Saab.
Who is Ziad Ahmad Itani?
Itani worked as journalist in Beirut for two Lebanese media outlets, before dedicating himself to developing and writing comedy sketches and plays.
He became successful in the arts and rose to fame within Lebanese society.
Some of Itani’s friends told Al Jazeera that they would describe his political views as progressive and nationalist regarding politics in Lebanon and the region.
One of his acquaintances, Al Akhbar reporter Radwan Murtada, said Itani’s political views were “shifty”.
He once supported the March 8 movement, which includes Hezbollah and its allies, then switched to Pan-Arab Nassrite nationalists, then switched again to support the March 14 Alliance movement that includes Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future party and his Christian allies.
His successes and apparently flimsy political views made him susceptible and an easy target of the Mossad, the argument goes.
He also was a leading voice defending other Lebanese artists and filmmakers who have been accused of visiting and collaborated with Israel, such as filmmaker Ziad Doueiri.
In The Attack, Doueiri hired Reymonde Amsallem, an Israeli actress, to play a Palestinian character. He also shot the film in Israel, with the help of the Israeli government. Lebanon, which is officially at war with Israel, bans its citizens from visiting the country.
In The Insult, Doueiri tried to polish the image of Bachir Gemayel, Lebanon’s former president who was assassinated in 1982. In the film, Doueiri advances an argument against Palestinian Christian militias, concluding that Palestinians are the enemy because of their activities in Lebanon and that and Lebanese have no problem with Israel.
Abi Saab also thinks Itani’s handlers in the Mossad ordered his vociferous public defence of Doueiri’s cultural ties with Israel.
Former CIA case officer Robert Baer, who worked in the Middle East for decades and recruited Arab spies for the CIA, said Itani does not fit the profile of someone the world of intelligence and counterintelligence would be interested in.
Baer argues, however, that the Mossad might have used Itani as a secondary source running him as an “access agent”.
“Maybe it’s so tough for the Mossad that for lack of horses, they’re are saddling dogs,” Baer said.