Ronen Bergman, Israel’s leading intelligence correspondent published a new report in Der Spiegel today (this is a teaser and here a summary–in German) that details the cause of Ben Zygier’s arrest. I have confirmed through my own Israeli source that Bergman’s account of Zygier’s fate is correct.
According to Bergman, Zygier was dispatched to Europe in 2005, two years after he began his Mossad training and shortly after completing it, to recruit agents within companies that did business with Iran. Another Der Spiegel reporter has already revealed that one of the companies was located in Milan. Bergman claims that Zygier penetrated the company by taking a job as head of Accounts Payable. Zygier had no previous experience in the field, but picked up the routine quickly. However, he quickly lost motivation and almost cost the company the loss of one of its biggest clients. As a result, he was fired.
Zygier never succeeded in penetrating Iran. After two and a half years in Europe, the agency brought him home to a Mossad desk job. His new job embittered and frustrated him. He then decided to take a study leave (an arrangement provided in the standard Mossad contract). Study leaves usually do not provide for entering programs outside Israel. But the agency permitted him to do so. Bergman claims Zygier enrolled in law school, but all previous testimony I’ve read says it was business school.
One of the Israeli bloggers who’s written most extensively about Zygier is Yehuda Bello. I read his account (Hebrew) and found it to be dramatic, detailed, and vivid. For that reason, I thought it read like fiction. But Bello did get some key details of the Australian portion of this story correct. Bergman adds much more.
After enrolling, the Mossad discovered that Hezbollah had identified a Mossad agent at the school. It appears that Zygier himself was the source of the leak. He either befriended or was befriended by a source to whom he revealed that he was a Mossad agent whose assignment dealt with Iran. He also revealed false information to the source, saying he’d been to Iran and had been sent to other Middle Eastern countries by the organization.
The Australian intelligence agency discovered this and was angered that the Mossad had sent an agent who was active on Australian soil. As a result, Zygier was summoned back to Israel. His explanations of his conduct were unsatisfactory and the case was handed to the Shin Bet. In the course of this investigation, it discovered that while he was on desk assignment in Israel, in an attempt to prove himself worthy of being returned to the field, he established contact with a Hezbollah agent in a Balkan country. He attempted to “turn” the agent to work for Israel. But instead of leveraging information from the Hezbollah operative, Zygier himself revealed information to him. This information was used by Lebanese security to identity two high level spies who were working for Israel and captured with telecommunication and encryption devices. One of them was a prominent politician in the Hariri camp.
In 2009, Haaretz reporter Amos Harel wrote (Hebrew) a heavily censored article about the spy catastrophe in Lebanon. He used the term Eysek Bish (“Bad Business”) which is the colloquial phrase used to describe one of the Mossad’s most disastrous failures (also known as the Lavon Affair). In other words, the Lebanese mess was a major setback for Israeli efforts to penetrate Hezbollah. Former Haaretz editor, Hanoch Marmari, revealed this (Hebrew) in his own piece published by Seventh Eye.
Given all of this, it’s much easier to understand the tragedy that befell Ben Zygier and why he may’ve killed himself in prison. It’s a huge burden to know that you not only let your country down, but that your actions led to the imprisonment of Israeli intelligence sources. In light of this, the severity of his actions become more understandable.
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.