In a surprise action, the Israeli government decided Wednesday to appoint a prestigious two-member committee to look more closely into the Jonathan Jay Pollard spy affair and recommend corrective action.
The decision came after what was described as a sometimes-heated eight-hour meeting of 10 senior government ministers, and it represented a stronger response to growing domestic and U.S. pressure over the affair than had been expected.
Pollard is the former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who was sentenced to life imprisonment last week for passing hundreds of top-secret military documents to Israel.
The Israeli government apologized to the United States for what it termed an unauthorized "rogue" espionage operation after Pollard was arrested in November, 1985. And it said it had disbanded the intelligence unit that recruited him.
But the promotion just five days before Pollard's sentencing of the Israeli air force officer who was said to have been Pollard's first "handler" raised a new storm of protest in the United States and doubts about the sincerity of Israel's apology.
In Washington on Wednesday, Secretary of State George P. Shultz renewed U.S. criticism of that promotion and told a House subcommittee that he was "deeply distressed" about Pollard's spying for Israel.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who only 24 hours earlier had opposed any further inquiry into the affair, reportedly agreed only on Tuesday night to cooperate with an investigation by the standing intelligence subcommittee of the Knesset (Parliament).
The government announced that it will still cooperate with the Knesset panel, which opens its inquiry today, but added that it has also decided to appoint a special investigating committee composed of respected non-government figures.
'Loss of Credibility'
Shamir changed his mind because of "the realization that somehow there was a loss of credibility in what the government was saying" about the Pollard affair, said the prime minister's spokesman, Avi Pazner.
"We had to find a way to get back the public trust," Pazner said, "(and Shamir) wanted to act swiftly and not to wait for a further erosion of public faith."
The chief political adviser to another senior government minister commented: "It's a very surprising decision. It went much further than I expected."
However, other officials cautioned that an investigating team has significantly less power under Israeli law than a full-fledged state commission of inquiry, which some ministers had demanded in the wake of the Pollard affair.
No Subpoena Power
The two-man team will have no power to subpoena witnesses or require them to testify under oath. And it will have no power to impose its decisions on the government. It will be up to the Cabinet to decide how much of the results of its work to make public.
The late Israeli Chief Justice Yitzhak Kahan was asked to look into Israel's involvement in the 1982 massacre by Lebanese Christians of hundreds of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Beirut within the framework of an investigating committee. But he refused, holding out until then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin reluctantly agreed to an independent state commission of inquiry. The commission's final report cost one minister and several army officers their jobs.
"I'm only two-thirds satisfied," said Communications Minister Amnon Rubenstein, who is one of those who called last Sunday for a full-fledged commission of inquiry.
The government nominated for the investigating team former Chief Justice Moshe Landau, 74, and industrialist Zvi Tzur, 61.
Presided at Eichmann Trial
Landau is best known as the presiding judge at the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, and Tzur is a former army chief of staff who beat out Israel's current defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, for the top army job in 1960.
Tzur has already accepted the assignment, and Landau is expected to respond today.
While it may lack formal power, the two-man team has "moral power," Pazner said. "I would like to see the politician or the government that would not abide by the decision of such a committee," he added.
Among other things, the team is expected to decide the fate of two Israeli officials who have in recent days become the focus of U.S. anger over the Pollard affair: Col. Aviem Sella, who allegedly recruited Pollard to work for an obscure Israeli espionage unit known by its Hebrew acronym LEKEM, and Rafi Eitan, former head of the agency.
Betrayal of Promise Seen
Eitan was named last year as head of the giant firm Israel Chemicals, and Sella was reassigned at the end of February to command of the country's second-largest air base. Both appointments were seen in the United States as a betrayal of Israel's promise to punish those responsible for what it insisted was an unauthorized espionage operation.
Israel allowed U.S. investigators to question Eitan and two other officials involved in the operation under a promise of immunity a year ago. But the Justice Department now says that the three misled the investigators and covered up Sella's involvement.
Israel says it also agreed to make Sella available for questioning but only under the same promise of immunity from prosecution. The Reagan Administration refused, and last week, a day before Pollard was sentenced, a federal grand jury indicted the air force officer for conspiring in the spy affair.
It was the first time that a high-ranking official of an American ally has been formally accused of espionage against the United States.
Washington has also banned any contact by American officials with Sella or with the Telnof air base, which he now commands.
Communications Minister Rubenstein argued that if Sella and Eitan were not willing to step down voluntarily, "they should have been suspended by the government until the end of the proceedings."
Burton Levinson, national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, said he agreed with Rubenstein.
"My first reaction (to the government announcement) was: 'Thank goodness they're dealing with (the problem) and not just ignoring it,' " said Levinson, who arrived here from his Los Angeles home Wednesday specifically to warn Israeli leaders about what he termed a rapidly deteriorating Israeli image in the United States.
But on further reflection, he said: "I don't think they've gone far enough. I think (the investigating team) will just stretch this thing out, and we'll have to revisit the same thing later."
American Jewish leaders and many Israeli officials have called for the dismissal of Eitan and Sella as the minimum that the government must do to restore its credibility.
Simcha Dinitz, a member of the Knesset and a former ambassador to the United States, said in an interview Wednesday that he thinks both men should be relieved of their new assignments even before the new investigations are complete.
"Even if you say they acted under instructions," Dinitz commented, "when a spy is caught, he's burned. And he's incapacitated to return to his job."
A government decision to demote either man would be certain to cause a political storm here. Eitan is under the protection of Ariel Sharon, Israel's powerful minister of industry and a hero of the political right. And Sella's fellow military officers have made it clear that they would see any punishment of him as comparable to abandoning a wounded comrade in enemy territory.
U.S. Role Scored
The military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Levy, was quoted on Israel television Wednesday night as saying that efforts to hold up Sella's promotion constitute improper American intervention in the army's affairs.
Pazner, the prime minister's spokesman, said the two-man investigating team is also empowered to determine political responsibility for the Pollard affair.
While the government announcement made no mention of a specific time limit on the work of the team, Pazner said, "We hope . . . it will be weeks and not months that will elapse before we get an answer."
Meanwhile, the seven-man Knesset intelligence subcommittee, chaired by Abba Eban, a former foreign minister and ambassador to both Washington and the United Nations, will open its investigation into the Pollard affair today with a scheduled appearance by Defense Minister Rabin.
It is not clear how the subcommittee's inquiry will relate to the government's investigating team, although Eban's insistence on some kind of inquiry was clearly a factor influencing the Cabinet's decision Wednesday.
A member of the subcommittee, Eliyahu Ben-Elissar, said the panel expects to question the head of Mossad, the intelligence agency, as well as Sella, Eitan, Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
Ehud Olmert, another subcommittee member, said that although the group also has no power to subpoena witnesses, "we will hear everyone, and we will demand to see every document."