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The Lonesome Death of Mossad Agent, Ben Zygier

Ben Zygier idf

Ben Zygier in IDF uniform

Today, three brave Israeli MKs dared ask the Israeli attorney general, Yaakov Neeman, what he knew about the fate of Ben Zygier, the Australian-Jewish Mossad agent disappeared by Israel’s intelligence apparatus in 2010. Neiman answered that if the story was true, that he knew nothing about it since the prisoner would not have fallen under his jurisdiction. Translation: it’s not my job. But it would be the job of the Internal Security minister Aharanovich. He’s not talking. At least not right now. But in 12 hours he will address the Knesset and make some sort of mealy-mouthed statement that will raise a thousand questions and answer few.

What’s extraordinary about this is that the MK who questioned Neiman used Zygier’s name in the Knesset and so broke an ironclad taboo not to publicly expose the identity of Israeli agents, even after they die.

My guess is that Zygier was not just disappeared, but that once he entered the Israeli prison he didn’t exist. Neiman admitted that Zygier had never been tried for his alleged crime. That means that unlike Marcus Klingberg, the KGB spy who was also disappeared for many years, Zygier wasn’t even given the semblance of due process.

Let’s ask ourselves why a state would do such a thing.  My impression is that if the Australian Jew had sold his country down the river–say, selling state secrets to the highest bidder, that Israel wouldn’t hesitate to put such a person on trial.  A public trial would, at the least, deter anyone else from taking that road.  But what if Zygier did this out of an act of conscience?  What if he was so troubled by something he did or saw that he sought to expose it?

I’m just using this as a hypothetical and haven’t checked whether the dates correspond chronologically, but say he was one of the Australian-Israelis heard speaking English with an Aussie accent on the Mavi Marmara during the attack.  Let’s say he saw point-blank executions.  Let’s say he could attest that cold-blooded murder was planned beforehand, and not just done in an act of spontaneous rage.  Such exposure would cause irreparable harm to Israel’s relations with Turkey and Australia.  That might be worth disappearing someone.  Further, the notion that a Mossad agent would betray his agency and country for the sake of conscience is something quite unprecedented in Israel.  Such instances are rare to the point of obscurity.  For Zygier to have done something like would strike a blow to a patriotic national consensus supporting the intelligence services no matter what they do.  It would mark a fundamental break with patriotic tradition.  Something an Israeli government might decide it could not afford.

Another astonishing aspect of this case is that Bibi Netanyahu summoned the editor’s committee of managers of all the Israeli news outlets and asked them to respect a gag not for the sake of national security, but in order to protect a national agency “from embarrassment.” Can anyone imagine the media of any other democracy in the world accepting such a burden?  Yet Israel’s have.  They have reported the Knesset debate, but nothing further.  I know this annoys the hell out of Haaretz because they mockingly published a story about this along with a map that blacked out all of Israel.  (By the way, this marks my “undisappearance” from the pages of Haaretz, in whose pages I have not been mentioned for years).  This is similar to the mocking story Yediot published during the Anat Kamm affair in which 2/3 of the words were blacked out.  Within a few days the gag was lifted more out of shame than anything else.

UPDATE: Another aspect of Bibi’s pitch to the editors for omerta was that this affair would embarrass “a foreign government.”  This presumably would be Australia.  But how would it embarrass Australia beyond the matter of Zygier abusing his Australian passport for espionage?  Unless of course, Zygier was doing such things with the knowledge of Australian officials who either turned a blind eye or accepted it.

Australian FM Bob Carr just released a statement amending a previous one in which he said the Australian government knew nothing of Zygier’s case until the family asked for his body to be repatriated to Australia.  In fact, an Australian diplomat in the Tel Aviv embassy knew the Mossad agent had been arrested.  That raises the question what the foreign ministry did or tried to do on his behalf.  The foreign minister at the time of his arrest was Kevin Rudd, which might implicate him in some way if his ministry did not do everything it could have on Zygier’s behalf (see more on Rudd below).

Another Australian report goes a bit farther and implies that an Australian intelligence agency was informed of Zygier’s detention (presumably by the Mossad), which in turn notified the foreign ministry.  The question is what happened after that and why more wasn’t done to help Zygier.  At the least, it seems the government has a lot of accounting to do.  It seems they essentially abandoned one of their own citizens to his fate.

One facet of this story is deeply troubling: the response of the family.  If your son had the same fate Zygier did, even if you were a patriotic Zionist, wouldn’t you exert all the pressure in your power to find out what happened?  The Australian foreign minister said his government was hampered by the family’s unwillingness to lodge any formal request for assistance.  Since the victim was incommunicado, a family request was necessary but not forthcoming.  I would understand (at least in principle if not in practice) if you remained silent out of loyalty to Israel and a wish not to embarrass it.  But it’s my understanding the family’s motives were not these.  This will hopefully be explained further in the by and by.

As to who might’ve leaked this story to the ABC network which aired the documentary yesterday.  There is one Australian who might benefit from exposing this story: Kevin Rudd.  The Labor Party is deep in the pits in terms of the next election and revealing this story would further harm the chances that Julia Gillard can lead the party.  It would naturally turn to him for leadership and offer him another opportunity to be prime minister.  The danger, however, is that this scandal might so damage not just Gillard, but the entire party, that it sends the Liberal Party to victory in the election.

UPDATE I: Sol Salbe tells me that the deputy leader of the Opposition Liberal Party, one of the most kosher of pro-Israel politicians on the national scene had a meeting today with the Israeli ambassador.  She said she would tell him that while she could accept secrecy in guaranteeing national security she could not accept a gag order simply to save embarrassment.  As Sol said, when one of its most prominent right-wing supporters tells Israel to end the gag, you know it’s in a losing battle.

A few hours ago (around 7PM on February 13th) Israel partially removed the press gag.  What does that mean?  Not very much.  Now Israeli journalists can tell you Zygier was wearing white socks when he hung himself.  But seriously, they can now report on the ABC documentary.  Before they couldn’t even mention it.  But they can only tell what was reported in the TV program.  They can’t do any original reporting on the story.  Imagine you’re a beat reporter for the local newspaper in Oshkosh or Paducah and the police chief tells you you can only report on a city council corruption scandal according to what’s published in a newspaper in Toronto or Melbourne.  Make sense?

Jodi Rudoren’s front page NY Times article has been published.  She mentions Tikun Olam accurately, as far as it goes, noting the error in my reporting Prisoner X.  She does neglect that I was the first foreign journalist who reported Zygier’s existence as Prisoner X, which I would think is a fact worth noting.

Thanks again to Sol Salbe for offering me the benefit of his thoughts, wisdom and conjecture on this story.

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{ 67 comments… add one }
  • Ron Leads February 13, 2013, 7:42 AM

    Richard, I don’t think your Marmara hypothesis holds water, partly because of the dates. Here’s another hypothesis: 2009/2010 was a pretty weird year for the Israel intelligence: no less than three “Aman” officers committed suicide (http://reshet.tv/חדשות/News/Politics/Security/Article,43871.aspx). This was after Lebanon managed to expose a network of Israeli spies in its telecom company – some were caught and at least one managed to escape to Israel (http://www.news-israel.net/article.asp?code=21872). The dates seem to work better here, and this was THE major failure of the Israeli intelligence over the past few years. What’s more, YNET published that Zygier worked in “Iran, Syria, and Lebanon”, which means that he was involved in some way or another as an Israeli agent in Lebanon.

    • Orange February 13, 2013, 9:46 PM

      Ron that is a 5 star post, very thoughtful and very informative.

    • Oui February 25, 2013, 1:26 PM

      More likely this suicide was linked to Afghanistan …

      FOB Chapman: Jordanian double-agent killed 7 CIA officers in suicide blast

      KHOST, Afghanistan (CNN) Jan. 5, 2010 – The bomber was identified as Human Khalil Abu-Mulal al Balawi, from the Jordanian town of Zarqa, also home to the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the one-time leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Both the Jordanian and U.S. intelligence agencies apparently believed al Balawi had been rehabilitated from extremist views and were using him to hunt Ayman al Zawahiri (Muslim Brotherhood). Also killed in the attack was Jordanian Army Captain Sharif Ali bin Zeid, a cousin of King Abdullah of Jordan.

      In my comment in other thread Oui @ February 18, 2013 at 1:25 PM
      “The accusation against Ben Zygier must have been as grave as the Vanunu affair. I’m thinking more along the line of the Hariri assassination. The Mehlis Report got the wrong suspects and the STL trial of Hezbollah agents is very weak and based on circumstantial evidence provided by Western powers and Israel. One of Australia’s top cops and former chief investigator for the tribunal, Nick Kaldas, reiterated accusations that Hezbollah was behind the killing.”

      I have tried to explain the link between Ben Zygier – Mossad – Hariri assassination here. I certainly welcome any comments to this theory.

  • Ron Leads February 13, 2013, 7:58 AM

    Here’s my best guess. Look at several things that we already know:

    (1) Part of Zygier’s job was in Lebanon.

    (2) In 2010/2011 the Lebanese government and Hezbollah managed to expose an espionage network in several telecom companies. Some agents were caught, one apparently managed to escape to Israel (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/11/201111295498547664.html)

    (3) Three Israeli “Aman” officers committed suicide in 2010, when the networks started being exposed.

    (4) Today, Netanyahu said that the affair would embarrass a “foreign government”. Everybody thinks this is Australia, but it could actually be the U.S.

    (5) Zygier could have been a double agent, who exposed those networks. This is VERY embarrassing for the Mossad (since he was their agent, and he basically turned in both Israeli and American agents). And in addition, this is very embarrassing for the CIA and the U.S.

    • mary February 14, 2013, 12:20 PM

      It also explains what he was doing in an Israeli jail, in deep lockdown. That was the puzzler – why he was in an Israeli prison in solitary confinement. You’ve just given a very plausible explanation.

    • lally February 14, 2013, 3:06 PM

      Ron Leads.

      I too think that Lebanese telecoms could be key to this story if Zygier was involved in selling Israeli trojan horses to the compromised companies. The UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s (STL) case made for Hezbollah guilt in the murder of Rafik Hariri is largely dependent on dicey cellphone data from the companies thoroughly compromised by Israel’s Lebanese intel assets.

      I knew about one 8200 suicide linked to the busted spies but not the others. The reaction seemed extreme. But, if the spymasters feared exposure of an Israeli role in Hariri’s killing, eating one’s gun seems more reasonable.

      As does the extreme behavior of Israeli authorities toward Ben Allen/Benjamin Burrows if he somehow threatened to blow the whistle.

      America is deeply invested in all aspects of Hariri’s assassination from the crime scene “evidence” to the design and promotion of the STL. Oh yes, we would be “embarrassed” if our dear ally were to be outted as responsible for the evidence making the case and/or as some speculate, the killing itself.

      Odd that the name of the suspected European shell (or not) company remains a secret as it’s at the core of the ASIO investigation. I’ve seen some Israeli hints that it may be in Italy.

  • Lenox Avenue February 13, 2013, 10:30 PM

    The hypothesis that Zygier was involved in a covert operation and then leaked information about this to others, though possible, admittedly seems unlikely due to what several posts have correctly pointed out is a degree of unprofessionalism (uncharacteristic of a top level agent) evident in his MOD.

    One possibility which strikes me as plausible, is that Zygier somehow had access to large amounts of classified information which he was planning to, or had already, leaked to a third party (such as an internet organization making public classified information) as an act of conscience. An argument against this would be why the Israeli state was so concerned with secrecy here, rather than publicizing something like this and using it as a deterrent to others. On the other hand, such publicity would uncover ineptness within Mossad in information storage and/or recruitment practices, which they may want to avoid to maintain their feared reputation. Remember that one of the few US prisoners subject to similar levels of isolation and security, was Bradley Manning, another seemingly low level officer suspected of similar crimes.

    Another possibility canvassed by Marc Goldberg blogging at Times of Israel also strikes me as plausible, namely that Zygier was turned by ASIO during interrogations and was caught (by Israel) in the act of passing large amounts of classified information to the Australians. This would explain the Australians seeming reticence in extending consular assistance to Zygier during his arrest and subsequent incarceration, (and thus risk exposing their own complicity in the whole affair).

    • Fred Plester February 14, 2013, 2:46 AM

      If he was an ASIO asset in Israeli custody, sooner or later Mossad assets would have been lifted by the Australians against his safe return.

  • Renfro February 14, 2013, 9:01 AM

    None of the possibilities given so far for Zygier being a threat that could “threaten Israel as a *nation state”..which was how the reason for his disappearence was put by intell experts familiar with the degrees of treatment various Israeli traitors/whistleblowers receive in Israel…..and as compared for instance to the treatment of Rabin’s assassin and Vanuan nuke whistleblower.

    The only things I see that could have warranted disappearing Zygier are that he was in fact getting ready to betray Israel on something….or…. he knew something that he didn’t even intend to reveal, but was so explosive it was too dangerous to let him roam the earth with that knowledge, so in llieu of killiing a fellow Jew who hadn’t actually betrayed Israel , they imprisoned him.

    Further I doubt that it had anything to do with murder on the Free Gaza ship or assassinations or spying or covert activities in Iran or even ‘posing’ as US CIA agents as they once did ….those Israeli activities are already well known and assumed and acknowledged by everyone….and are no ‘threat’ to Israel as a nation state…. Israel has been doing these types of things for decades and never held to account for it, so there’s no reason for them to think they would be now.

    No, it has to be something much bigger than these things. Who could threaten the’ end of Israel’ as a nation state?…only the US. There is no other country Israel is afraid of dropping the last straw on. What would make the US ‘end Israel’ or threaten to end it? That is the question. Whatever it is, it’s big and it’s bad and it’s something we know nothing about yet and probably never will know.

    The only possible thing I can imagine that would ‘end Israel as a nation state’ is some action by the US..and the only thing there I can imagine that would make the US take action against Israel is iron clad proof that Israel was planning to or tried to launch a false flag attack against some US interest or installation in the ME, setting up Iran for it to get the US to attack Iran.

    I would have to double check but if memory serves it was 2009 or 2010 that our then head of Joint Cheifs of Staff made a visit to Israel and in conference with their military heads spoke about avoiding any “USS Liberty” like accidents. This was reported in the JP and Haarazt so those inclined can probably google it up.

  • Spook February 14, 2013, 11:17 PM

    You may be barking up the wrong tree a bit. Any tinpot Jewish court appears capable of doing anything without scrutiny. You get that in fascist countries.

    Instead of looking at who held him and under what circumstances, maybe you should concentrate on his movements prior to arrest and how he was arrested.

    If he was intending blowing the whistle on some aspect or other of Israel’s “security” he would not, surely, have done so in Israel itself. No-one in their right mind would be so stupid.

    In countries where the rule of law prevails (which is not Israel by the way), illegal arrest taints and voids the validity of all subsequent proceedings (speaking in general terms). Israel has in the past commit international crimes of kidnapping people in other countries and bringing them back to Israel.

    There would have to be some inkling here, that if he was intending to blow any whistle, he may not have been in Israel itself when “arrested” and another Israel international crime may be on the cards. That is what you should be concentrating on

    • Yanshuf February 15, 2013, 7:56 PM

      Jewish court? I didn’t know that israel had Jewish courts for anything other than religious divorce.
      Don’t bother answering it is a rhetorical question

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