Over the past few years, I followed a strange, convoluted, but fascinating battle between two Israeli intelligence titans. Usually, these sorts of battles are fought behind closed doors and are veiled from the public by military censorship. But in this case, one of the titans decided to go public and demand that his opposite be prosecuted for causing the murder of a prominent Egyptian who was one of the most important spies Israel ever recruited.
One party is former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir, fighting on behalf of one of his agency’s most highly prized agents, Ashraf Marwan, the Egyptian son-in-law of Gamal Abdul Nasser. The other, Eli Zeira, former chief of IDF military intelligence (Aman), is fighting to divert blame from his failure to warn Israel of Egypt’s impending attack in 1973. In truth, it was due to Aman’s negligence that Israel was surprised and 3,000 Israeli boys ended up dying before a ceasefire was declared.
In order to protect his reputation, Zeira gave interviews to numerous Israeli and foreign journalists in which he not only named Marwan, but accused him of being an Egyptian double agent. This, despite the fact that Marwan had actually warned Israel one day before the outbreak of war about the impending attack.
After giving the interviews (the first one in 1999), Marwan was essentially a dead man. Egyptian intelligence then knew he had betrayed the nation in 1973 and possibly caused the needless deaths of its soldiers through alerting Israel. There was little Zamir could do except demand an official commission of inquiry to explore Zeira’s culpability in the matter (it’s considered a grave offense to publicly name Israeli intelligence assets). That commission, headed by eminent Israeli jurist, Theodor Orr, determined that Marwan was indeed an Israeli intelligence asset (Hebrew) and not a double agent, and that therefore Zeira had put him needlessly in harm’s way.
Two weeks after the Orr Report was published in 2007, the Egyptian was pushed from a London balcony to his death. An Israeli source well-versed in these matters confirms that he was murdered by Egyptian intelligence agents avenging his betrayal. It’s strange that such killers would still seek revenge forty years after the alleged betrayal had occurred. But I suppose treason has no statute of limitations as far as spooks are concerned.
After the murder, Zamir demanded that Zeira be prosecuted by the attorney general. Over the course of four years, two different attorneys general have sat on this powder keg and refused to act. Now, Yehudah Weinstein, the same AG who refused to prosecute Israeli Border Police for executing Ziad Jilani, is about to close the case against Zeira.
Weinstein argues here the case should be dropped:
…Because of Zeira’s advanced age, his tremendous contribution to the security of the State, the long period of time since the events in question occurred, and the issues of bringing such sensitive subjects into the focus of public justice.
Let’s parse this reasoning: a former general whose negligence caused Israel to suffer grievously is described as someone who’s made a valuable contribution to the nation’s security. The events in question are ancient history, while Marwan was murdered only five years ago. Finally, despite the fact that the Mossad’s credibility as a spy agency might be marred irreparably, it’s far more important to save Zeira’s bacon.
This is a nation that circles the wagons to protect its own. Not a nation that wants to get to the truth about matters of vital national importance. This is a nation that shuns justice in favor of cronyism and self-interest.
If you are a Mossad agent it means you can never guarantee to any spy you recruit that you can protect his/her identity. It means that in the midst of a turf battle or struggle over professional reputations, some Israeli intelligence official will be only too willing to throw the spies of another agency under a bus. And he will likely get away with it.
Further, why should Israeli generals be able to shoot off their mouths in ways that lead to the murder of Israeli agents? Why should they enjoy impunity for causing the death of someone who aided Israel?
Yes, Zeira’s reputation will be in tatters. Any reasonably well-informed Israeli will know that Zeira gave up Marwan to conceal his incompetence. Israelis will also judge that it was Zeira’s fault that Israel was surprised and Israel suffered an ignominious defeat (at least in the initial stages of the war).
If the former Aman chief has any self-respect he won’t even try to look his comrades in the eye afterward. But the way Israel often works, Zeira will probably run for Knesset and win a seat; or become a defense consultant and sell weapons to some God-forsaken country that will be used to kill thousands of unknowing civilians.
In most democracies, we like to believe in the rule of law–that justice takes precedence over all other considerations. But Israel teaches us that law doesn’t rule, it is a handmaiden to political expediency. As Talmudic-era Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuya said in different circumstances: “there is no justice and there is no Judge.”
Think about another dark irony of this case: while Eli Zeira causes the murder of one of Israel’s most important spies and is not held accountable, Anat Kamm exposes possible Israeli war crimes and gets thrown in prison for her trouble. No less a personage than Zvi Zamir himself noted this irony (Hebrew). What does this tell you? That the powerful get away with murder–literally. While the vulnerable and whistleblowers get the shaft.
As an aside to this case, a few days ago the Israeli media reported about the decisive October, 1973 meeting Marwan had in Europe with Zamir and with his Mossad handler, Dubi Asherov, at which he warned them that war was imminent. I’d never read Asherov’s name before. But since I’m not Israeli and not as well versed in decades-old intelligence history as some, it took my Israeli source to inform me that a serious breach of censorship had occurred. In Israel, the media isn’t allowed to name intelligence officials (unless they’re chiefs–similar to the UK model). But Haaretz had named Asherov (see uncensored article). Shortly thereafter, his name disappeared and the cold, clammy hand of censorship resumed its control of the media. By the way, you can still read the uncensored version at the Forward, luckily beyond the jurisdiction of the Israeli censor.
But for those few moments, Israel’s media had revealed a fact they weren’t supposed to and all Israel knew something it shouldn’t. It’s a little bit like those great Russian dissident poets who declaimed their opposition to Stalinist tyranny amid allegories and fables so that readers needed to work hard to decipher the hidden codes. If you worked hard enough, you were rewarded with a glimmer of truth immediately swallowed by the maw of tyrants and censors. Israel isn’t quite as bad–yet.
Great article Richard. Thank you for writing about this story, quite depressing and almost unbelievable that a country could act this way, even though Israel has a long history of throwing collaborators to the dogs.
Such staggering lack of any kind of responsibility makes you wonder how long can it last?
Just one comment – those killed in the war on the Israeli side are not boys, but sodiers, like their Egyptian counterparts. Soldiers go to war to kill and get killed. These are not schoolchildren.
Daniel F says
“…those killed in the war on the Israeli side are not boys, but soldiers, like their Egyptian counterparts. Soldiers go to war to kill and get killed.”
1) Soldiers should go to war to protect,to which end killing others or being killed may be a regrettable part.
No soldier who has killed can be unaffected by it.
2) A soldiers in Israel, like his counterpart in Egypt or elsewhere, is somebody’s precious boy.
No Anyn, soldiers don’t “go to war” in Israel, they are sent there by conscription. They are boys like the Egyptian boys, many only 18 or 19 years old. They are sent to war to kill by their misguided leaders, and often kill or are killed .But they are still boys.
You might make a minor distinction if the conscription were voluntary like the US or UK today, but not the case in israel or Egypt.
And Richard, Zeira is about 90 years old and probably not working at all. He should have drowned in the pool instead of Dado, the C of Staff in the 73 war.
Let’s put it like this – if they are old enough to have criminal responsibility and old enough to drive, and old enough to hold weapons, they are men, not boys.
What bothered me most was that Richard called the Israeli soldiers “boys”, while Egyptian soldiers were called soldiers. It’s probably unintended, but too close for comfort to the Israeli attitude towards soldiers who are supposed to protect the people as children that the people should protect from harm.
Richard Silverstein says
Oh, puh-leeze. Your pro Israel paranoia is running away with your reason. Boys are precious to their mothers and their country, or should be. Back in 1973, it was a national tragedy that so many were killed. “Boys” was meant to be an empathetic term & you tried to turn it into something different.
“..unbelievable that a country could act this way, even though Israel has a long history of throwing collaborators to the dogs.”
The Egyptian’s identity was protected by the governments of Israel for 40 years until he was allegedly ‘outed’ by a rogue. Israel’s success at penetrating Arab society suggests that Israel is very good at protecting their human intelligence assets.
Richard Silverstein says
Zeira, chief of IDF military intelligence is a “rogue?” Who are you kiddin’? If he was a rogue why is he going to get away with murder? He’s a member of the same scuzzy elite that runs things in Israel right now. They all watch each other’s back & kiss ea. other’s tush.
Israel didn’t protect Eli Cohen too well either. Look where he ended up.
Orm Girvan says
The grand Teutonic-Zionist dream becoming their nightmare instead.
The timeline of the killing — two weeks after the Orr report finding that Mr. Marwan was indeed an Israeli spy — suggests that the Egyptians acted after the confirmation. The bitter irony: the Israeli investigation, intended to clarify matters, ended up killing him; and the Egyptians relying on the Israeli system to render judgment. Which would suggest opaqueness or even misdirection ought to have been the Orr strategy. But all of this does not absolve the first spymaster who publicly identified him — that is so wrong to do.
In sum: Yentas.
Richard Silverstein says
It did cross my mind that Zamir played some role in bringing about Ashraf’s death, though it was minor compared to Zeira’s. I think Zamir was more concerned with tearing down Zeira than with protecting Ashraf, since the latter was no longer spying for Mossad. So in a sense Ashraf was a pawn in a game played by two Israeli intelligence titans.
Curiously there happens to be no Talmudic-era rabbi by the name of elazar ben abuya.
I wonder what else you make up .
Richard Silverstein says
Elisha ben Abuyah, numbskull. I wrote from memory (clearly faulty in this instance). Thanks for spurring my memory to the correct name. Now stop being an idiot would you?
A reader says
So, calling you on a mistake is being an idiot, is it?
All bran did was point out to a mistake you made. A mistake that could easily been prevented all together if you Googled the name before hitting the submit button on the post. But, on a deeper level what bran did was show how you post your uninformative opinion and then rely on your readers ignorance (in this case of telmudic-era rabbis, at other cases of many other issues) to come away clean, and worse, be looked upon as someone knowledgable.
Indeed, calling your bluff merits bran being called an idiot.
But hey, here’s an idea you might want to give some thought to: admitting you’re wrong when you are. No shame in it. Just saying: “I made a mistake”. The hallmark of a bigger man.
Richard Silverstein says
Don’t be ridiculous. He didn’t accuse me of making a “mistake.” He accused me of making up the Talmudic rabbi entirely. I didn’t & that’s why he’s an idiot. He was playing Gotcha, but instead of “getting” me he only “got” himself.
As for being “knowledgeable” about any subject of any importance, we’ll know where not to turn–that’s to you.
Further, I thanked him for the correction which means I noted the mistake, or did you miss that? As for being a bigger man, when I need advice on that subject from you, I’ll ask.
I saw an interview he gave in 1993 (i think) in which Zeira tore into the Agranat commission and Golda Meir. he said that King Hussein came to Tel Aviv to warn Golda that Egypt and Syria were cooking something up and Golda never asked Hussen “when are they thinking of attacking”. Zeira claimed that his job was to report on what was happening on the ground, not to predict the future.
Zeira was a victim of his own arrogance (and so was the State of Israel). Perhaps it is best to leave this alone already. To take another case (not exactly the same) Gerry Ford pardoned Nixon so the USA could put the whole mess of Watergate in the closet and move on. Perhaps it’s time to let Zeira fade away into the obscurity he so richly deserves.