The World : What's in a Name? In Israel, a Possible Stint in Prison

Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist, is co-author of "Friends in Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israeli Alliance," (Hyperion)

According to Israeli law, if I revealed the names of the directors of the Shabak and Mossad, I could go to jail. The Shabak, a Hebrew acronym, is the General Security Service, which combines the tasks of a police force and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Mossad is Israel's foreign-espionage arm.

Israeli law, as well as tradition and precedent, forbid Israelis, regardless of where they reside, to publish or privately disclose the two names. Its origins go back to pre-statehood days and was inspired by British emergency regulations targeting the Jewish underground and censoring the Hebrew press.

Every few years, the government appoints two officials to the intelligence posts without making any formal announcement of who has been appointed. The problem is that virtually anyone who cares to know, including Israel's arch enemies, can uncover this "secret"--except the Israeli public. How can such a practice be justified and defended?

In Israel's early days, there may have been some security justification for the imposed anonymity. The two Israeli directors, for example, could enjoy more freedom to maneuver in a country constantly challenged by war and terrorism. More than two years ago, however, even Britain abandoned its hush-hush tradition and revealed the names of its top two intelligence directors.

The Israeli government, moreover, is less able to justify the practice on national-security grounds. First, many well-informed Israelis already know the names of the Mossad and Shabak directors. Indeed, it has become something of a game at parties to open conversations with "The Shabak chief told me the other day, " or "I met the head of the Mossad and he said." Those who can't fill in the names are simply not "in."

The practice, at times, comes close to farce. The personal lifestyle and managerial conduct of the Shabak chief were recently questioned in the Israeli press. An official government committee also investigated whether he misused public funds. All this was duly reported without naming the subject. The episodes' major victim was the government's claim that its heads of intelligence maintain a low-key posture in public life.

Foreigners, whether friendly American agents or hostile Arab officials, usually have no trouble in lifting the cloak of secrecy. The director of the Mossad, for example, accompanied Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens to a meeting in Washington two weeks before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. As an experienced case officer who ran networks of Iraqi informers, he was in a particularly good position to impress his CIA counterpart and other senior officials of the Bush Administration with his knowledge and understanding of the inner workings of Saddam Hussein's regime. And the Shabak chief recently met in Cairo with officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization to coordinate the transfer of authority in Palestinian-ruled Gaza and Jericho. In neither case did the intelligence head attempt to hide his identity.

There seems only two remaining reasons for the Israeli government to maintain the practice of refusing to name its chiefs of intelligence. It helps to preserve the mystique surrounding the art of espionage and the heroic glory of spymasters. At the same time, it serves as an impediment to genuine, independent scrutiny of the secret services by Parliament and the press.

This month, Israel's supreme court will hear a petition filed by a newspaper in Jerusalem seeking to overturn the law barring publication of the name of the Shabak chief. The Israeli government could do itself some good if it went ahead and freely disclosed the name. Especially after Foreign Report, a British newsletter, disclosed, in August, 1993, that Jacob Pery runs the Shabak and Shabtay Shavit the Mossad.

The new Israel, already shaking off many of its old practices in politics, economics and culture, should not be afraid to break one of its last taboos. By confirming the names and identities of its current heads of intelligence--or if they are soon replaced, naming their successors--the Israeli government would make a small but significant gesture toward preparing the country for the new and exciting era of peace and security.*

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