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.