Friend of Prisoner X: Mossad Made 'Big Mistake' Recruiting Zygier

Lior Brand, who knew Ben Zygier when he lived next door to him on Kibbutz Gazit as a lone IDF solider in the mid-1990s, tells Haaretz he believes had he been permitted to see him in jail, he wouldn't have killed himself.

Dan Goldberg
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Dan Goldberg

Ben Zygier’s friends in Israel are “angry and upset” they could not visit their Australian-born mate now known as Prisoner X before he apparently committed suicide in Ayalon prison in 2010.

Lior Brand has known Zygier since he lived next door to him on Kibbutz Gazit in the mid-1990s when the Melbournian was a lone soldier in the IDF.

“We really believe had we been permitted to go and see him he wouldn’t have killed himself,” Brand told Haaretz this week.

Zygier is understood to have been placed in solitary confinement in February 2010 and hung himself in the shower on December 15, 2010, according to a report by Judge Daphna Blatman-Kedrai.

Twenty of the 28 pages in her report were suppressed.

“There’s very painful mistakes around it,” said Brand, 37, who now lives in Tel Aviv.

Mossad made a “big mistake” recruiting Zygier, said Brand.

“They took the wrong guy,” he said. “He couldn’t deal with it.”

Brand, who served in the Israeli Air Force, described Zygier as “brilliant” but added: “Ben was not cut out for pressure like that, most people are not cut out for this kind of stuff. I wasn’t cut out for it.

“Mossad needs to learn a lesson,” he added. “Not to cut corners.”

Zygier had a “crisis” during his army service in the 1990s, Brand revealed.

“We thought he was doing regular army service, nothing special. Then something happened. He stayed on kibbutz, he went through a really bad time, something really bad happened.”

Although Zygier never confided that he’d been recruited, Brand said it was “pretty obvious.”

“He was in over his head, they put the wrong guy in the wrong situation." 

"Either he was going to give information or already gave it.”

Almost all of Zygier’s family and friends in Australia have erected a wall of silence around details of the death of the 34-year-old father of two. Brand said his friends in Israel were also “totally in the dark” until two weeks ago.

“We were totally shocked,” he said. “No one told us anything, not his family, his wife, nobody."

“Suddenly we heard news he killed himself in jail. I tried to ask questions, Israel is a small place but I didn’t get any answers.”

If anything, he said Zygier was likely to have been involved in intelligence.

“He was a clever, sophisticated guy with a lot of will for Israel,” Brand said, so it made “more sense” that Zygier could have been involved with the alleged straw company Mossad reportedly established in Italy to supply equipment to Iran.

“We’re happy to know he wanted to contribute – it was very important to him and he managed to convince them to take him on."

“But we may never know what really happened,” he said.

Meanwhile, the controversial issue of “dual loyalty” is still being debated in Australia, despite the hopes of Jewish community leaders who have stayed largely mum on the Zygier affair.

Philip Mendes, writing in the Eureka Street website on Wednesday, dispelled accusations against Australian Jews.

“Sometimes home can be in two places, both where you live and where your heart is,” the co-editor of “Jews And Australian Politics” wrote.

“Some Australians, Jewish and otherwise, may bring from their childhoods in tranquil Australia a special degree of idealism and innocence to their involvement in alternative homelands and conflicts. And it is perhaps this, rather than spy-catcher conspiracy theories, which best explains what happened not only to Zygier, but also to other young Australians who have recently died in conflicts in the Middle East.”

But Tony Walker argued in last Saturday’s Australian Financial Review that Zygier’s multiple aliases – Ben Alon, Ben Allen and Benjamin Burrows – “suggests, at best, conflicted loyalty to the country of one’s birth and adoption."

“At worst it could suggest the willful misuse of an Australian identity to further the interests of a foreign power – however closely aligned Australia’s interests might be with those of such an entity. Whatever aims Australia and Israel might share in a global war on Islamic terrorism, they will not always be identical.”

In response to questions by Walker, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus concurred with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, saying there was “complete transparency’’ between Israel and Australia “in dealing with current issues.”

But Walker, a biographer of Yasser Arafat, concluded: “The Zygier affair will not be the last occasion when Australia’s interests and those of Israel are not necessarily aligned.

“On the Israeli side, ‘complete transparency’’ is not the first phrase that comes to mind in the Zygier matter.”

Michael Danby, a lawmaker in the governing Labor Party, raised the prospect that Australia’s security agencies may have been complicit.

“Who was behind fingering his identity,” Danby asked on Sky News, referring to a leak received by an Australian journalist in late 2009, leading to a front-page article in February 2010 – around the time Zygier was jailed – claiming three dual Australian-Israelis were using Australian passports to spy for Israel.

“I wonder why no one has focussed on that as much as they should?”

The Zygier affair has remained in the headlines in Australia since an ABC investigation linked him to the elusive Prisoner X two weeks ago, forcing a gag order to be to be partially lifted by Israeli authorities.

Lior Brand (left) with Ben Zygier at his wedding in Israel.