By YOSSI MELMAN in Tel Aviv
On a sunny, humid afternoon in June 2010, I sat on the plaintiff’s bench in Judge Hila Gerstel’s court in Petach Tikva, a town about eight miles east of this bustling city.
Opposite my lawyer and me were representatives and legal advisors of Israel’s security establishment. My goal, on behalf of the newspaper I then worked for, Haaretz, was to persuade Judge Gerstel to lift a gag order.
We lost the case. Judge Gerstel refused to consider even a compromise – to allow us to reprint news items published abroad about a mysterious Prisoner X. Because of the judicial gag, the episode was not included in the book which I later co-authored.
Twenty months later, I wonder what would have happened had the judge given her consent? Would that have prevented Ben Zygier from committing suicide? He was the Australian who moved to Israel and, as Ben Alon, reportedly worked for the Mossad until he did something that enraged the Israeli foreign espionage agency. Perhaps a glimmer of media attention would have offered some hope to a man in solitary confinement whose very existence was a state secret.
He was arrested in February 2010, almost certainly by officers of Shin Bet – the domestic security agency spotlighted now in the Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Gatekeepers.” Zygier/Alon was interrogated, was represented by four lawyers, appeared before judges, was visited by his wife and other family members, and was eventually indicted. In December 2010 he was found dead in his high-security cell, originally constructed to house Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin. Authorities decreed that the prisoner somehow hanged himself. Every move and stage of this case was conducted in secrecy.
We still don’t know the nature of his alleged crime. Did he betray fellow Mossad operatives – known as “combatants” — and compromise ongoing operations? Was he recruited by a foreign agency, perhaps an Arab entity or other enemy of Israel? Or, as Australian media now suggest, did he spill the beans to a basically friendly security service such as ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization?
Senior Israeli government officials, including current and former heads of the intelligence community, are saying: “Trust us. We don’t make any of our citizens simply disappear. The civil rights of suspects and prisoners are respected. But telling you anything about them would do severe harm to the security of the Jewish State.”
Yet the secrecy culture is clearly exaggerated and habitual, tarnishing my country’s image as a society based on freedom – boasting proudly that it is the only true democracy in the Middle East.
The deafening silence of the authorities about Zygier and his death for nearly two years, until they were forced by an Australian TV documentary to open the information portal slightly, made Israel look like a dark nation whose citizens can simply vanish from the face of the earth, as happens under tyrannical regimes. And we are not one of those.
In 2006, Amos Manor, who headed Shin Bet for 11 years beginning in 1953, told me that since the War of Independence in 1948, no Israeli prisoner suspected of security offenses had been executed in Israel. None, he said, had even been detained for long without trial.
Yet since the 1950’s Israel did operate an X Files system. When members of the Mossad or other security agencies and institutions were suspected of betraying Israel, they were typically held in solitary confinement under assumed names and isolated from the outside world. The media were banned from reporting about the arrests, word of which generally leaked to journalists in this small and intimately talkative land.
The prisoners’ interrogators threatened them that if they failed to follow these guidelines, they would be deprived of various rights, such as family visits.
The last known case of this disturbing practice was that of Professor Marcus Klingberg, the deputy scientific director of the top-secret Israel Institute for Biological Research. He was arrested in 1983 and convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. He had to play along with using a false name in prison and was known to his jailers as Greenberg.
Gossip about some of these cases naturally reached foreign correspondents, and the result was that readers around the world knew about some occurrences in Israel – often drawn in harshly negative tones – even while gag orders prevented Israelis from reading or hearing reports that were freely available abroad.
The age of the internet has made a mockery of the practice, as Israelis can click and read foreign websites. Yet judges and security agencies here cling to the old days when they thought they could control everything.
The ties that bind the intelligence community, the defense establishment, and law-enforcement authorities including the courts are too tight and too cozy. Espionage agencies that are rated among the world’s finest show only a Neanderthal knowledge of how information reaches the public in a high-tech era.
The Mossad and its sophisticated combatants display daring and courage behind enemy lines, and they know how to gather information. In the pre- and post-internet age, they have been very good at waging psychological warfare involving the dissemination of disinformation and rumors.
Yet the Mossad is less capable of handling crises involving the mass media. Attempting to conceal facts only serves to stimulate interest and draw even more attention. By treating every bit of information as a national secret, the Mossad and the other state security institutions have caused the number of secrets to multiply. And trying to protect all of these secrets has made it difficult for any secret to remain intact, including ones that really deserve to be.
Here is one example to prove the point. Victor Ostrovsky, a Mossad cadet who was ousted, wrote a book aggrandizing his own role and supposedly revealing Mossad secrets. He should never have been recruited by the secretive agency in the first place, since he had been a known swindler who was caught in a fraud scam. The Israeli government foolishly tried to block publication of Ostrovsky’s book in the United States, which naturally resulted in its becoming a global best seller in 1990.
The Mossad’s handling of the Zygier/Alon affair is reminiscent of what was said about French royalists more than two centuries ago: They forget nothing, yet they learn nothing.
As effective as Israel’s covert combatants have been, their chiefs repeatedly display a we-know-best attitude that crosses the border into harmful arrogance. The Mossad’s shiny image has been tarnished by this episode – with the agency seen to be desperately scurrying to close the barn door after the horse has bolted, perhaps because there are other embarrassing steeds and stories still tightly held.
Damage may also have been to ongoing operations. Iran and other enemies of Israel surely now are double- and triple-checking any contacts they had with Australian-accented men who resemble the published photographs of Zygier/Alon.