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.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.