Security Scandal May Hit Top Israel Aides
A snowballing security scandal, already being referred to as Israel’s Watergate, is likely to lead to a major upheaval in the intelligence community and could implicate a number of senior officials in what appears to have been an elaborate cover-up, according to senior Israeli sources.
The scandal involves allegations that Avraham Shalom, the head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s version of the FBI, misled investigators, falsified evidence and ordered his subordinates to lie about a 1984 incident in which two captured Arab terrorists were beaten to death by their Israeli interrogators.
The case is politically explosive because high-level personalities and sensitive questions of national security are involved.
“Many people in Israel are saying that this will become our Watergate,” said Nahoum Barnea, the editor of the Israeli political weekly Koteret Rashit. “We are dealing here with very high officials. We are dealing with the highest ranks of the (secret) service.”
Because the Shin Bet is directly responsible only to the foreign minister, authoritative sources add that Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who was prime minister at the time of the 1984 incident, could become involved, depending on what they knew and when they knew it.
Although many details of the case remain shrouded in official censorship, information leaked to the local press and provided to The Times by various sources over the past few days suggests the following:
--Investigators believe that an elaborate and extensive cover-up took place after the beating deaths of the two terrorists captured after they hijacked a passenger bus on April 12, 1984.
--A senior army officer initially implicated in the affair but later exonerated, Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai, may have been been made a scapegoat in order to protect the identities of the Shin Bet officers involved.
--Peres, although he had no role in the original incident, was informed about six months ago of the allegations against Shalom by three senior Shin Bet officers but apparently took no action. The three senior officers were subsequently either fired or pressured into resigning, according to both Israeli press reports and senior official sources, who spoke on the condition that they not be further identified.
According to these sources, these three officers, two of whom have been identified as Reuven Hazak and Peleg Radai, then took their allegations to the office of Atty. Gen. Yitzhak Zamir, who began his own secret probe into the affair.
Despite strict censorship laws prohibiting the disclosure of information deemed detrimental to the interests of national security, the affair became public after one of the three officers lodged a complaint with Israel’s High Court of Justice earlier this month, charging that he had been unfairly dismissed from his job.
Comparisons to Watergate notwithstanding, there seems to be little or no chance that the scandal will bring down the coalition government, whose ministers are nearly unanimous in their opposition to a probe of the Shalom affair.
But Israeli political analysts and government sources say it appears increasingly likely that a number of high-ranking security officials, including Shalom, will be forced to resign and may have to face criminal charges.
The scandal has also spawned emotional debates, both within the government and between Peres and the Israeli press, over the extent to which the need for secrecy in security matters should be allowed to shield Shin Bet officials from the law and over whether censorship is being used not to protect vital secrets but merely to spare politicians from embarrassing disclosures.
The driving force behind the probe is Atty. Gen. Zamir, who has come under intense criticism from members of Shamir’s Likud Bloc and other right-wing Israeli politicians for insisting that Shalom be investigated despite fears that security may be compromised.
Conceding that the affair could have “wide-ranging implications,” Zamir has said he intends to press on with the probe despite “severe pressures” to drop the case. He told Israel’s state radio that “measures of principle involving the rule of law and the principles of justice” are involved.
While Zamir has refused to drop the case, he has suggested a compromise, according to sources close to him: The probe could be conducted in private, provided those appointed to investigate Shalom are independent and empowered to subpoena witnesses. He is also said to be insisting that Shalom be suspended from his job during the investigation so as to ensure that he cannot influence the outcome.
However, Peres, with the solid support of Shamir’s Likud Bloc and most of his own Labor Alignment, has refused to suspend Shalom.
The current probe is at least the third major investigation into the two-year-old affair despite attempts by authorities to hush it up from the beginning.
It began with the hijacking of a Tel Aviv-to-Ashkelon bus by four Arab residents of the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces stormed the bus in a pre-dawn attack near the Egyptian border.
The military later announced that all four terrorists were killed in the attack. However, an Israeli newspaper, defying the censor’s ban, printed photographs showing that two of the terrorists had been captured alive. Subsequent investigations revealed that the two Arabs were taken to a nearby field and beaten to death.
Gen. Mordechai later admitted to having pistol-whipped the terrorists and was implicated in their deaths despite his insistence that they were alive when he turned them over to the Shin Bet. The general was subsequently acquitted by a military board of inquiry.