A Top Shin Bet Official Resigns, 2nd Is Suspended
A senior Shin Bet official resigned and another was suspended for failing to protect Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from an assassin Saturday night, government officials confirmed Wednesday.
The housecleaning, which also included the transfer of two lower-ranking officials, came after an internal inquiry concluded that there were serious flaws in the plan for protecting Rabin at a mass peace rally held in Tel Aviv’s Kings of Israel Square. The inquiry committee also said that the prime minister’s bodyguards may have discounted the possibility of an attack by a Jew because they were indoctrinated to focus on Arabs as a security threat.
Analysts said the committee’s report is the most damning indictment of Shin Bet’s practices in the history of the organization, which was created by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion in 1948.
“Each of Israel’s intelligence agencies have had their colossal failures,” said Yossi Melman, a specialist on Israel’s intelligence community who has published several books on the subject. “This failure is to the Shin Bet what the 1973 Yom Kippur War was for military intelligence.” In 1973, military intelligence failed to predict the surprise attack by the Syrian and Egyptian armies that nearly overwhelmed Israel’s defensive lines.
Rabin was shot twice at point-blank range Saturday by Yigal Amir, a Jewish extremist who said he wanted to stop Rabin’s peacemaking efforts with the Palestinians. Although Amir had participated in anti-government demonstrations and admitted to planning on two previous occasions to assassinate the prime minister, he had no arrest record and was not known to security forces.
Israel’s Cabinet heard Shin Bet’s account of what went wrong at a closed-door session Wednesday, then voted 17-2 to appoint a state commission of inquiry, headed by a former chief justice of the Supreme Court, to conduct an independent investigation. After a heated argument, Cabinet ministers voted to limit the committee’s mandate to investigating the agency’s protection procedures in general and the protection measures in place the night Rabin was shot.
The state committee will have the power to subpoena witnesses.
The senior Shin Bet official who resigned Tuesday night, referred to as “D” by Israeli media because military censors ban publication of his name, was singled out for responsibility by an internal Shin Bet investigating committee composed of three former senior Shin Bet officials.
Holding a rank equivalent to general in the Israeli army, the senior official who resigned was in charge of the protection division of Shin Bet. That division provides security to Israeli officials here and abroad, to Israeli embassies and to Israeli delegations traveling abroad.
“D’s” deputy in charge of guarding officials here, whose rank is equivalent to major general, was suspended. The head of Rabin’s bodyguard unit and another lower-ranking Shin Bet official were transferred to other jobs.
“I appreciate what the Shin Bet has done,” said Ori Orr, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “They came up with all the hard decisions by themselves, even before an outside investigation was launched.”
Some Cabinet members urged heatedly that the committee also be empowered to investigate incitement against the government by right-wing organizations here and abroad. But they were overruled.
“The problem is that if you include it [an investigation into incitement], it might become a political investigation committee,” said Cabinet Secretary Shmuel Hollander. “Therefore, it was decided to limit it only to the murder itself and how to protect VIPs, not to expand into this very, very delicate, dangerous territory.”
Some findings from the internal Shin Bet report were leaked to reporters Wednesday. Too few bodyguards accompanied Rabin as he left the podium at the square, and unauthorized people were allowed to get too close to him, the internal inquiry concluded. Amir himself said after his arrest that he had mingled with Israeli dignitaries’ drivers in a parking lot off the square.
The internal investigation also reportedly found that Rabin’s bodyguards were unprepared for an attack on the prime minister by a Jew.
Orr said Wednesday that such a finding did not surprise him.
“Even though the head of the Shin Bet came to us, to political leaders, and said that he was worried about right-wing extremists, and even though we shared his concerns, deep in our hearts, we didn’t believe it was possible for a Jew to kill the prime minister,” Orr said. “We lost our prime minister. The Shin Bet failed. We don’t need any more details than that.”
The internal committee praised the actions of the single bodyguard who threw himself atop Rabin after the prime minister was shot and fell to the ground that night. The bodyguard was himself shot in the hand before he hustled the prime minister into his armor-plated Cadillac and ordered the driver to head for nearby Ichilov Hospital.
The inquiry committee said that the bodyguard behaved “by the book” in getting the prime minister away from the scene as quickly as possible.
But former Shin Bet officials said Wednesday that the internal inquiry revealed a shocking collapse in security procedures the night of the mass rally, which drew more than 100,000 people. Yaacov Peri, a former head of Shin Bet, told Army Radio on Wednesday that he believes the current head of Shin Bet should resign.
Still, the government must be careful not to be too sweeping in its critique of Shin Bet, Melman argued. “They don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said. “They still need the Shin Bet, and its main task is still dealing with terrorism, and this threat will continue.”
The failure, Melman said, is with the division of Shin Bet that is composed of protection and intelligence branches. The agency’s intelligence branch is responsible for security inside Israel and the West Bank, and it occasionally carries out operations abroad. Its primary focus is on Palestinian terrorist groups.
Because Shin Bet traditionally is understaffed and underfinanced, Melman said, it is often unable to provide as thick a security ring as would be ideal. He agreed that the organization probably let its guard down somewhat when protecting Israeli officials in Israel as they spoke to Jewish groups.
“This is a small, intimate Jewish society,” Melman said. “We thought that everyone knows everyone.”
But no more, Melman said.
“From now on, no one will be trusted,” he said. “Before Rabin’s assassination, the bodyguards were cautious but they allowed the leader to mingle with the people. They did not treat the crowd as the enemy. They tried to select potential threats. From now on, the Israeli prime minister will have to treat the public as the American president treats the public.”
Melman predicted that there will be a thicker wall of bodyguards around acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres and future prime ministers, and that all Israeli prime ministers will now be required to wear bulletproof vests in public.
Shin Bet already has stepped up its surveillance of right-wing groups, but Melman said the agency will now give greater attention to infiltrating such organizations.
Ironically, the current head of Shin Bet, who is referred to as “K,” wrote a master’s thesis at the University of Haifa on right-wing Jewish extremism in Israel. In a synopsis of that dissertation, written in 1990, “K” wrote that his central point was “the argument that law-breaking based on ideological motives, what can be called ideological crimes of the extreme right in Israel, is threatening the democratic values of Israeli society.”
“What he wrote looks like a prophecy now,” said Melman. “He didn’t prevent his own prophecy being fulfilled.”