Prisoner Nachum Manbar has gone on prison leave 56 times since being jailed in 1997. During those leaves he was not required to report on his whereabouts to anyone and no restrictions were applied to him. The Shin Bet general security service approved the terms of his leave with the full support of Yehiel Horev, who was in charge of security for the defense establishment and known for his stringent approach.
About two weeks ago, after serving two thirds of a 16-year jail sentence for selling arms to Iran, the release committee was about to meet to consider Manbar's case. Surprisingly, the State Prosecutor's position was against the release, as were the Mossad and the Shin Bet.
The first argument raised by the State Prosecutor's Office was "the danger Manbar presented as a free man." There is concern, according to the State Prosecutor's Office, that upon his release, Manbar would resume his arms trading deals with Iran. But Manbar could have done so during his many leaves from prison, when, as mentioned, he was not subject to any supervision. It is doubtful that Iran would be willing to resume the contact with Manbar after the whole affair exploded.
The State Prosecutor's Office further argued that Manbar did not express remorse for his actions and that he should not be released for fear of the public's reaction. But if the State Prosecutor's office is concerned about the public's anger, then it would also be advisable to conceal from it the trade with Iran, which took place with the state's consent, conducted by many Israeli companies and manufacturers, who sold weapons systems and even chemical substances to this dangerous enemy.
The Shin Bet's objection to Manbar's early release is particularly surprising. Manbar was operated by the Shin Bet during his arms trading with Iran. His Shin Bet operator, Dan Milner, encouraged him to expand the trade in order to find out more details about the Iranians' intentions. Milner also promised Manbar, and he also testified to that effect in his trial, that no harm would befall him and he would not be put on trial. "We don't bite the hand that feeds us," Milner assured Manbar. It was actually Yehiel Horev, the security official, who was adamant that there was nothing preventing Manbar's release and stood by his opinion that Manbar did not pose a threat of any kind.
Today, the release committee will meet again to continue the discussion on Manbar's early release. The committee will be presented with revised opinions (after the State Prosecutor's Office realized that the original opinions presented to the committee are not sufficiently convincing) of a senior Mossad representative, a senior Shin Bet representative and of the former Mossad chief, Shabtai Shavit.
It seems that the discussion will focus on the question of Manbar's "dangerousness" as a free man. The Mossad officials claim that Manbar amassed vast knowledge in the field of weapons of mass destruction and therefore will resume trading with Iran immediately after his release.
Yet, experts on the affair argue that it is possible that the efforts of the State Prosecutor's Office and the Shin Bet to obtain Manbar's early release stem from pressure from the Mossad, which is motivated by a desire to get back at Manbar for a 1993 car accident in Austria, which killed two Mossad agents who were following Manbar's contact man with Iranians. Senior intelligence officials, involved and aware of what was going on during the period when news of the incident broke and Manbar's trial was underway, presented this thesis. Manbar did not even know about this road accident, was not connected to it and only found out about it after his trial ended.
On May 27, 1993, the Viennese sky was gray. Low and heavy clouds wafted over the Austrian capital, raindrops fell incessantly all morning and visibility was limited. A black official-looking car made its way along the city streets, followed at a distance by a motorcycle with two young riders wearing helmets. The two vehicles entered a dark tunnel. The details here are not sufficiently clear, but what is certain is that the two young men did not have time to see a third vehicle driving past them. An elderly, frightened woman tried to brake at the last minute, but did not manage. The last sound the two men heard was the squealing of brakes. The two men were A. and A. of the Mossad's Kidon unit, who were on a surveillance mission following Nachum Manbar's Iranian contact man.
A few hours earlier the black car had stopped outside the Marriott Vienna hotel. It was evident that the passenger was upset. He was dressed in a suit typical of Iranian men. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranians were ordered by the new regime to change their dress. Women were instructed to wear the traditional chador (robe) and cover their heads with a ra'ala (head covering) and men were told to wear a jacket with no lapels and underneath it a white shirt with a rounded collar and buttons closed all the way to the top. Dr. Majid Abasfur had arrived at the Marriott Hotel to meet with Nachum Manbar.
Everything was ready for the signing of the agreement to supply tanks and chemical substances. This was not the first time the two were meeting. They had signed quite a few documents and a fair amount of money had been transferred to Manbar's accounts to cover the planned arms deals. In the months preceding the planned meeting Manbar had already proven that he was a reliable supplier, when he transferred to Iran on time and according to the required technical specifications, tanks, artillery, bulletproof vests and protective masks against chemical weapons. Abasfur had even started taking a certain liking to Manbar. He was an Israeli and a Jew, but he was rather endearing.
The Iranian army was in deep trouble after eight years of war with Iraq. The long years of fighting had depleted the army's weapons reserves and in many cases soldiers were dispatched to the front lacking basic gear. The United States, the Shah's primary arms supplier, had immediately after the revolution imposed an embargo on the sale of arms to Iran and within a short time there was a shortage of replacement parts, primarily for Phantom jets.
The person who saved the Iranian army from total collapse was actually "the great Satan." A convoluted arms deal was arranged between the U.S. and Iran, laterto be known as "Irangate." The American government was concerned about the possibility that Saddam Hussein would become the dominant leader in the region and control most of the Persian Gulf's oil fields. In order not to send American arms directly from the U.S. to Iran, Reagan's people enlisted the aid of the U.S.'s faithful ally, Israel. The American arms were sent to Israel and it transferred them to Iran, on secret, direct flights from Ben-Gurion Airport to Iranian airfields. The money the Iranians paid for the weapons, except for the commission that it kept, Israel transferred to Washington.
These arms deals, in which Manbar was uninvolved, ended in 1986, Abasfur recalled, due to the arrogance of the Israelis and the extremism of the ayatollahs. The Israelis decided to get smart and instead of supplying Iran with improved Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, as requested, decided to remove old Hawk missiles from the IDF's anti-aircraft arsenal and send them to Iran.
When the shipment of outdated Hawk missiles arrived in Iran, and after it was discovered that the Israelis had tried to defraud them, Ayatollah Khomeini decided to end the arms deals. He ordered the Iranian news agency to leak the story of the arms shipments. The 1986 publication of the incident in the Lebanese paper, A Shara, led to the immediate ending of arms shipments and the establishment of a U.S. congressional commission of inquiry. But the move turned out to be an error on Iran's part. As a result, Iran had to search for other sources of arms and that is how it also got to Manbar.
Abasfur looked back. The motorcycle with the two riders kept a steady distance from his car. Very strange, he thought - after all, Manbar made it clear to me that the Israeli authorities are aware of his deals with Iran and even gave him their blessing. Why do they have to follow me? Maybe they aren't Israelis? Maybe they're Iraqis? Unlikely. There is no way the Iraqis could discover that I'm about to meet with an Israeli arms dealer. Clearly they're Israeli agents.
He tightened his grip on the briefcase lying on his knees. In addition to the documents of the impending arms deal, the briefcase also contained confidential documents that had details about the missing Israeli navigator, Ron Arad. Manbar asked Abasfur to find out information about the navigator who ejected from his plane in the skies over southern Lebanon in 1986 without leaving any trace since then. One theory speculated that his captors, members of the Shi'ite Amal organization, transferred him to Iran.
Abasfur received from Iranian intelligence information about the location of Ron Arad's captors and about Arad's condition. He planned to give this to Manbar at the meeting. If these are agents of the Zionist Mossad, he thought to himself, they are surely following me because of these documents and not in order to find out details about the arms deals with Manbar.
A furious Abasfur burst into Manbar's room at the Marriott. "What happened?" Manbar asked.
"I don't understand you Israelis. After all you promised me that they know about our meeting. Why then have I been followed by two of your agents all the way to the hotel?"
"What are you talking about?"
"The entire way from the airport, a motorcycle followed us and two men entered the lobby behind me. They didn't even try to conceal their presence."
"That's not possible. Something's not right here. Wait a minute and I'll check."
Manbar goes back to the desk in the corner of the room and dials. On the other end of the line, Dan Milner, his Shin Bet operator, answers. "What's going on here, Dan? Why are you following the Iranian? After all I reported to you about the meeting with him."
"We're not following him. Those are probably Mossad agents. Those guys don't give up. Let me check with them what's going on there."
"Wait here," Manbar tells Abasfur. "I'll be right back."
Manbar takes the elevator. When he gets to the ground floor he rushes into the lobby and looks for the two agents. He spots them immediately. One is sitting at the bar sipping from a tall glass of beer. The other, at the other end of the lobby, is holding a copy of The Herald Tribune. A cup of coffee is set in front of him. It is impossible to mistake them.
Just like in the movies, Manbar thought to himself, as he approached the young man holding the newspaper. "Who do you think you are, big heroes?" he said to him in Hebrew. No response. The young man continued reading and didn't even look up.
"You're nobodies. Get out of here."
Manbar moved closer to him, bent towards him, took the sugar dish and spilled its contents into the cup of coffee. Then he turned around and went to the elevator. Out of the corner of his eye he still managed to see the two get up and make their way to the hotel's exit.
The next time he heard about those two, it was already after he had been sentenced to 16 years in jail. Only then did he find out that the two Mossad agents left the hotel after his "performance" in the lobby that exposed their identities. They waited for Abasfur in the parking lot and when he emerged, after canceling his meeting with Manbar, they followed his car and met their death.
How ironic, Manbar thought, as he went over the sequence of events in his head long after his trial ended. The sugar bowl, whose contents I poured with my characteristic arrogance into the Mossad agent's cup, determined my fate.
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