One of the Grand Old Men of Israeli Espionage & Security has Died — Like Zelig, Involved in Almost Everything — Felled by Scandal

In reporting on the death at age 86 of Avraham Shalom (who as a Shin Bet operative used the last name Ben-Dor and other names), The New York Times cites some of our remarks about him – in our 1990 best seller, Every Spy a Prince.

This excerpt from Spies Against Armageddon (the updated edition published March 1 of this year) tells how the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir – himself a former undercover officer of the Mossad  — kept in touch with his Shin Bet (domestic security agency) chief Avraham Shalom, in what became a serious scandal.

Facing an election to win his own term in the summer of 1984, Shamir sought to portray himself as totally firm on security issues. His party hinted that Shimon Peres, the Labor leader, was soft on Palestinian terrorism.

Shamir was interrupted by a phone call from Avraham Shalom. He was the Shin Bet director who had been involved in the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in 1960 and the mysterious visit to a uranium facility in Pennsylvania [by Israeli intelligence men] and later would run damage control with the Americans after Jonathan Pollard was caught spying in 1985.

The prime minister thought he knew the most likely subject of Shalom’s call. Shin Bet was on the verge of cracking a case so sensitive that it could have led to a war with the entire Arab world. In this instance, the terrorists being pursued were Jewish settlers who started a murder campaign against Palestinian politicians in the West Bank and plotted to blow up the major mosques in Jerusalem. Muslims worldwide would be outraged if that plot were to  be carried out.

This phone call, however, was not about the Jewish terrorists. Because Shamir had authorized Shin Bet to plant informers among the settlers, the plotters would be arrested—but sometime later.

[from Shin Bet website]

[from Shin Bet website]

Shalom, on this night, was reporting that an Israeli bus on line number 300, from Tel Aviv heading south, had been hijacked. The fear was that the hijackers would take the Israeli passengers into occupied Gaza and then cross into Sinai, which in 1982 had returned to Egyptian control.

Shamir was also informed that orders were given to the military to stop the bus. [The army’s] Sayeret Matkal’s hostage-rescue commandos and a Shin Bet operations team were rushing to the scene. The prime minister felt a certain sense of relief, believing that the security forces could handle this.

Soldiers at a roadblock managed to shoot out the tires of the bus and brought it to a halt in the Gaza Strip, less than six miles from the Egyptian border.

Shalom himself arrived on the scene. He was a field and operations man, not a paper-pushing bureaucrat, but he had limited experience in Palestinian issues—unlike Avraham Ahituv, the Shin Bet director he replaced in 1981.

Watching the motionless Bus 300 on the road near Gaza, Shalom knew that the army and police had units specially trained to storm all types of hijacked vehicles and rescue hostages. Shin Bet’s job would be to interrogate the four Arab attackers and discover their accomplices, sources of arms, and paymasters.

The Sayeret Matkal soldiers, who had practiced the technique hundreds of times, smashed windows and were inside the bus in seconds. They opened fire immediately, killing two of the terrorists and wounding the other two. The three dozen hostages were free, except for one woman who was killed in her seat.

When Israelis woke up the next morning, they heard good news: that all four bus hijackers were killed.

“But that can’t be,” said Alex Libak, a newspaper photographer who had witnessed the shootout and vividly remembered the charred bodies of two hijackers—the bus had caught fire in the gunfight—but had also seen soldiers and men in civilian clothes pummeling two wounded terrorists with fists and rifle butts.

His newspaper violated military censorship by publishing his photo of two hijackers being led away. This challenged the official version and would create an avalanche of revelations that would expose decades of misbehavior by Shin Bet. Until that week, Shin Bet had been almost invisible: an organization that Israelis never discussed.

Puzzled by the photograph, Defense Minister Moshe Arens decided to take two steps: to use old, rarely used emergency laws to shut down that particular newspaper for four days; but also to set up an inquiry commission to look into what happened that night.

Punishing the newspaper added to the credibility of its story, and indeed the commission concluded that two of the terrorists had been alive when the battle was over. Now the question was: Who killed them?

Testimony by Shin Bet men pointed blame at the IDF’s General Yitzhak Mordechai, who had been beating the two detainees during a brief “field interrogation.”  Shin Bet provided multiple, corroborating witnesses who blamed Mordechai.

It eventually emerged that this was a deception campaign directed by the agency director, Shalom. He and his close associates approached the task as thoroughly as they might have planned an assassination, but here it was a character assassination of Mordechai.

This put the decorated general in a Kafkaesque position. He knew that he did not kill the hijackers, but he faced a court martial where no one seemed to believe him—and his entire career could be ruined.

Luckily for the general, a later inquiry commission found that the two terrorists had been very badly wounded during the firefight, and that was why they died. Mordechai was found not guilty.

Around the same time, the deputy director and two other senior Shin Bet men actually turned against their boss, Shalom. At first, they had thought that the agency would get away with yet another in a long string of cover-ups. But now, they were extremely disturbed by a web of lies they felt was damaging Shin Bet.

They knew that since the Six-Day War [of 1967], under two previous directors, Shin Bet had been torturing Palestinians and systematically lying to courts. The three men were part of the system. Yet now, after years of being accomplices to abuses, they were outraged by the thought of ruining an honorable general’s career.

And they concluded that lies and cover-ups were poisonous for Shin Bet.

Their goal was not public exposure, as they did not particularly want citizens to know the truth about the agency that was tasked with keeping them safe. The three rebels believed, however, that a professional organization should be telling the truth to itself.

One of them went to see Shalom, who strangely insisted that the meeting not be at Shin Bet headquarters—but at Tel Aviv’s main municipal garbage dump. In a scene torn out of an old-fashioned crime novel or movie, the agency director admitted that he had given the order to his operatives to “finish off” the bus hijackers. Shalom added, however, that he was obeying instructions from Prime Minister Shamir.

The three rebels, not satisfied by the private confession, all went to see Shalom and demanded his resignation. They argued that he was ruining Shin Bet with all his cover-ups. The director refused to step down, believing that one of the three was plotting to grab his job. Shalom suspended them, and they were ostracized within the organization.

Before long, staff meetings were convened and—in the style of the Soviet KGB—the order of the day was to denounce the three renegades. According to the officially sponsored smear, they were plotting a putsch against Shalom. Rumors then spread that they were involved in drug smuggling from Lebanon.

Undeterred, they decided to go to the new prime minister, Shimon Peres. Because of Israel’s Byzantine political system, after a near tie in the July 1984 election, Peres and Shamir had reached a unique agreement: a “rotation” coalition. Shamir was now the foreign minister, and the plan was for them to swap jobs in 1986.

Although Peres met with the three Shin Bet officials—who were practically breaking a blood pledge of absolute silence, not unlike the Costa Nostra’s omerta—the prime minister did nothing. He refused to be dragged into the Shin Bet’s squabble, however serious it was. He felt that the bus hijacking scandal began on Shamir’s watch, not his.

This entire dispute was played out in secret, with heavy censorship of the press preventing any morsel from reaching the public. In any event, only a small minority of Israelis would care about the deaths of two Palestinian terrorists.

Despite the realization that Israel, from top to bottom, preferred to bury this entire affair, the trio were practically obsessed with not giving up.

Later dubbed “the three musketeers,” these long-time Shin Bet men felt like victims of their own agency. They were wiretapped and under surveillance.

For their own protection, they recited everything they knew into tape recorders and hid the recordings for safekeeping, to be found if they met untimely ends.

They used their old tradecraft to avoid detection and went, in the middle of the night, to see Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir and his chief prosecutor, Dorit Beinish. Zamir and Beinish were shocked, hardly believing what they were hearing, and they decided to launch yet another investigation—a full two years after the bus hijacking.

Now, Prime Minister Peres had to pay attention, and he joined forces with Shamir.

When Zamir concluded that there was a basis for a criminal investigation and passed the case file to the police, Peres and Shamir responded by firing the attorney general. This was truly a coverup in the style of Nixon during Watergate.

The police kept doing their duty, however, and declared that Shalom and 11 others in Shin Bet should be indicted. It turned out that the head of the operations department, Ehud Yatom—the brother of a future Mossad director— had taken the two wounded hijackers away from the scene on that day in Gaza. Along with subordinates, Yatom headed in a vehicle toward a Shin Bet interrogation center, but on the way he took the two Palestinians out of the van and killed them with stones, sticks, and his own bare hands.

“I smashed their skulls, and I’m proud of everything I’ve done,” Yatom told a reporter years later. “On the way, I received an order from Avraham Shalom to kill the men, so I killed them.”

Yatom said his hands were “clean and moral,” adding, “I am one of the few who came away from the affair with a healthy soul.”

Peres and Shamir arranged one more extra-legal trick. They had installed an attorney general more to their liking, and they arranged for him to visit the president of Israel, Chaim Herzog. Herzog’s was primarily a ceremonial job, but, as in many countries, the president had the power of pardon. Herzog agreed to issue pardons to all 12 Shin Bet men who were under investigation— even before they were indicted, tried, or convicted. It was probably relevant that Herzog had been director of Aman: an old hand at black operations.

Most of the dirty dozen left Shin Bet, but not in disgrace. Shalom started a new career as an international security consultant, going back to his old last name, Bendor, for a small measure of anonymity. Yatom tried hard to become the principal of a high school, but the community raised a ruckus that a man who smashed skulls should be an educator. Yatom did go on to be elected a member of Knesset for the Likud Party.


June 20, 2014

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