The Cabinet voted Sunday to establish a judicial inquiry into charges that the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security organization, uses physical and mental coercion, bordering at times on torture, to interrogate prisoners and obtain forced confessions.
Legal experts and law enforcement officials said the decision to conduct a full-scale investigation into the methods of the highly secretive Shin Bet is likely to have a profoundly negative543780208services, whose much-vaunted reputation for efficiency has been tarnished during the past year by repeated allegations of brutality and other human rights abuses, mostly directed against Palestinian prisoners.
The latest controversy involving the service erupted last week after the Supreme Court ruled that Lt. Izat Nafsu, a Muslim army officer of Circassian descent, had been wrongly convicted of espionage at a 1980 trial and sentenced to 18 years in prison on the basis of a forced confession and evidence subsequently found to have been largely fabricated by the Shin Bet.
Nafsu, who had already served more than seven years of his sentence, was immediately freed by the court, which directed Atty. Gen. Yosef Harish to investigate the case with the aim of filing charges against the Shin Bet agents who interrogated Nafsu.
The Cabinet, after a lengthy debate kept mostly secret by rules prohibiting disclosure of information discussed when it meets in its capacity as Ministerial Defense Committee, voted 16-0, with six abstentions, to order a judicial inquiry into the Nafsu affair and other cases involving interrogations of suspected terrorists.
"The government has decided that the issue of the interrogation methods of the General Security Services (Shin Bet) in the wake of the Nafsu case is a subject of crucial public importance at this time and demands an inquiry," Cabinet Secretary Eliyakim Rubenstein said in a prepared statement read to reporters.
The inquiry, he added, "will make recommendations as it sees fit, including as to the proper methods of interrogation in the future."
The Cabinet decision, however, was widely viewed here as a way of trying to delay another, potentially more damaging police investigation of the Shin Bet ordered on Friday by Harish in response to the Supreme Court ruling.
That investigation is still strongly opposed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and most of the coalition Cabinet because of concern that it could lead to the filing of criminal charges against several senior members and former members of the Shin Bet.
Unlike the police investigation, the judicial inquiry is not a criminal investigation and the evidence it gathers cannot be used in court. Its findings will also remain secret unless the government decides to publish them.
Shamir, who initially opposed the appointment of a judicial commission of inquiry when it was first proposed by Harish two weeks ago, yielded when it became clear that the Supreme Court decision would have to lead to a police investigation.
While Harish told the Cabinet that the police investigation could not be canceled, some Cabinet members indicated that they hope the judicial inquiry will at least delay the criminal inquiry. "At least until the judicial inquiry is finished with its work, the police should stop their inquiry into this matter," Welfare Minister Moshe Katsav said.
The government has come under what security sources have described as extremely heavy pressure by the Shin Bet to delay the police investigation. Their concern, which is shared by Shamir and most of the Cabinet, is that the Shin Bet's ability to uncover and foil terrorist plots will be adversely affected if its agents are obliged to respect legal norms when dealing with suspects.
While Police Minister Chaim Bar-Lev told reporters after the Cabinet meeting that the appointment of a judicial commission of inquiry would have "no effect" on the police investigation, he did indicate that the latter could be delayed. "The (police) team might decide to wait, to delay their interrogation of witnesses, until after the commission has interrogated them," he said.
However, Harish was quoted as telling the Cabinet that, because of the Supreme Court verdict in the Nafsu case, it is now too late to call off the police investigation altogether.
"I asked the government two weeks ago to appoint a commission of inquiry and the government didn't do it. Now the time is past. The police will investigate," he said.
Public Pressure Grows
While many Israelis, feeling themselves threatened by terrorism, seem ambivalent about the issue, public pressure to investigate the Shin Bet officials involved in the Nafsu case has grown because of the unseemly way in which another Shin Bet scandal was suppressed a year ago. In that affair, known as the "No. 300 Bus Incident," Shin Bet agents were found to have killed two captured Palestinian bus hijackers and then lied in court to protect themselves.
Then-Atty. Gen. Yitzhak Zamir was dismissed by the Cabinet when he tried to open a police investigation, and 11 senior Shin Bet officials were given presidential pardons when it appeared they would be indicted anyway.
Now, citing that scandal, most political commentators and newspaper editorials are arguing that respect for the law and democratic values must not be subordinated to security considerations a second time.
"A security service which bends the law as it pleases and undermines the trust the courts have placed in its personnel is actually subverting the security of the state and its citizens, instead of safeguarding it," the Davar newspaper wrote.
"A society which would defend itself while disregarding just legal procedure is liable to pay a price higher than blood," the independent daily Maariv said.