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World & Nation

Suspected Israel spy’s death puts government on the defensive

JERUSALEM — The full story may never be known of why a baby-faced Australian Israeli attorney came under suspicion of working for the Mossad spy agency and then died alone in an Israeli jail cell charged with betraying the country he had adopted.

But as the political drama over Ben Zygier’s 2010 arrest and death swept through Israel on Thursday, it left virtually no institution unscathed.

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Mossad was scrambling to contain possible damage to its operations in Iran and other places where Zygier is believed to have traveled using his Australian passport.

The Prison Service faced embarrassing questions about how a high-risk detainee could be found hanged in solitary confinement.

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Courts were under fire for imposing an unusually broad gag order. Israeli news media were being criticized for missing the story. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was viewed as clumsily trying to suppress coverage in Israel even after the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Tuesday aired a report about the case, sparking international attention.

Even some members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, were accused of circumventing the court’s gag order by publicly commenting on the case.

“The real loser in all of this is the public interest,” said Hagai El-Ad, executive director of Assn. for Civil Rights in Israel.

With Israel’s confirmation that one of its citizens, initially identified in news reports as “Prisoner X,” died of an apparent suicide in 2010 while in custody, scrutiny is turning to the government’s handling of the affair and the unsuccessful effort to keep it a secret.

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Some are calling for the appointment of an independent inquiry commission, but given the sensitivity of the case, which Israeli officials say threatens their national security, a public debate is unlikely.

New details emerged Thursday as a former attorney for Zygier confirmed that the 24-year-old former Israeli soldier was indicted for “grave crimes” but appeared calm and rational during a meeting shortly before his death to discuss a possible plea agreement.

Attorney Avigdor Feldman told Israel’s Channel 10 that Zygier was under heavy pressure from interrogators, who told him he faced a long prison sentence and ostracism by his family, including his wife and two children in Israel and prominent Jewish parents in Melbourne, Australia, where he grew up.

“There was no heartstring they did not pull, and I suppose that ultimately brought about the tragic end,” Feldman said.

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The most immediate shock wave from the case is likely to hit Mossad, whose operations and operatives may have been put at risk when the story was exposed internationally, said former Mossad agent and security analyst Gad Shimron.

“Of course this will be damaging,” he said.

If Zygier’s passport was used for travel to Iran, Syria and Lebanon — as Australian security officials have alleged to Australian news media — security agencies in those countries probably are scouring their records, surveillance cameras and other databases for information about when he visited, what he did, whom he met and who traveled with him.

“In the 21st century, with Google Earth, when cellular calls are recorded and security cameras are everywhere, information about one person can lead to a real cascade of spy networks,” Shimron said.

Israel learned a similar lesson after the 2010 assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud Mabhouh in a hotel room in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, allegedly by the Mossad. Much of the operation was captured on surveillance cameras, enabling Dubai police to release more than two dozen pictures of suspected Israeli agents on the Internet, in effect blowing their cover.

A Kuwaiti newspaper Thursday alleged that Zygier, who also used the names Ben Allen, Ben Alon and Ben Burrows, took part in the January 2010 operation and had offered to provide information to Dubai police when he was arrested by Israelis. The account could not be verified.

“I don’t envy anyone who had to deal with this matter,” Shimron said. “It’s an extraordinary case that shows the inner conflict between democracy, which wants transparency, and the secret service, which wants everything in the dark.”

Critics say such secrecy is harder to achieve in today’s world of fast-spreading information. They say the Zygier case exposed the futility of Israel’s continuing use of military censorship and court-imposed gag orders to conceal information from the Israeli public even after it has been exposed in other countries or on the Internet.

The latest gag order, which Israel’s military censor said Thursday had been approved by the Supreme Court, included a rare ban that bars Israel news organizations from even citing or publishing foreign news reports, including those on websites that any Internet user could find.

“The government used very old-fashioned ways of withholding the information,” said Tehilla Altshuler, head of a media reform project at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Such bans might have worked a generation ago, critics say, but today they resemble efforts more common in dictatorships than in democracies.

“It’s not only out-of-date, it’s ineffective,” said civil rights activist El-Ad, whose group tried unsuccessfully to overturn the gag order. “It shouldn’t be that the last people who can read about something in Israel are Israelis themselves.”

Though Israeli officials insist that Zygier received due process and legal representation, El-Ad said there are too many unanswered questions about his treatment, including why he was kept in solitary confinement and how he managed to kill himself while in custody.

“It’s impossible to make an informed judgment because we don’t know,” he said. “If these issues were sufficiently debated, it would negate the possibility that we will ever have another Prisoner X in this country.”

A national debate about the handling of such cases might be one of the few upsides for Israel, said Michael Partem, head of the Movement for Quality Government, a watchdog group.

“Nothing that I’ve seen so far in this case sets off any alarm bells, but it’s legitimate to ask authorities about the procedures,” he said. “Even in the world of cloak and dagger, you need procedures.”

Yet Partem predicted that the Israeli public, which usually displays a high degree of trust in its security agencies, will give the government institutions the benefit of the doubt, particularly with the public’s recent focus on the economy and pocketbook issues.

“This seems to be such an exceptional case that I don’t think Joe Citizen will worry about it,” he said. “It’s not as if it’s about the price of cottage cheese.”

edmund.sanders@latimes.com


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