Declassified: Shin Bet Knew Israel Kastner Was Targeted

Just-released 1956 cabinet minutes on assassination of journalist and public figure who was accused of collaborating with the Nazis only deepen the mystery surrounding one of stormiest affairs in country's history.

Paragraph 380 of the minutes of the cabinet meeting of March 11, 1957 remain classified to this day. Its heading: “Assassination of Dr. I. Kastner,” could explain why. “Dr. Kastner’s assassins have been found and confessed,” Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said at the start of the meeting. “The individual who did the shooting carried out the work of others. There is an organization that appointed him to shoot he did not do it of his own accord.”

Portions of the 20 pages of minutes are being published here for the first time, after the head of the State Archive, Dr. Ya’akov Lozowick, acceded to Haaretz’s request to open them to the public, except for a few sentences that are still censored.

A look at the minutes only deepens the mystery surrounding one of the stormiest affairs in Israel’s history, and could strengthen the conjecture of some that the Shin Bet security service was involved in the murder of Kastner, one of the most controversial figures in the history of the state.

The minutes raise difficult questions, such as why the head of the intelligence services, Isser Harel, requested that the murderers be pardoned before they had finished out their prison terms. Why was the murder not stopped even though the Shin Bet knew the plan was afoot. Why was the murderer not put on trial earlier, for distributing defamatory leaflets?

Assassin's new book

In conversation with Kastner’s daughter, Suzi Kastner, and from reading the new book by the assassin, Ze’ev Eckstein, another question comes up: Who was the other man who shot Kastner to confirm the kill?

Dr. Israel Kastner, a journalist and public figure, was shot at the entrance to his Tel Aviv home on March 4, 1957 and died of his wounds 11 days later. Two years earlier, the Tel Aviv District Court ruled that Kastner had “sold his soul to the devil,” collaborated with the Nazis and indirectly contributed to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry in return for the saving of some 1,700 “distinguished” Jews. Ten months after the murder, the Supreme Court cleared his name, but determined that he had assisted Nazis to escape their punishment after the war.

Harel told the cabinet that the intelligence services knew of the plan to kill Kastner and had arrested eight people who were “among potential terrorists.” One of them, who was convicted of the murder and imprisoned, was Eckstein. Harel told the cabinet that Eckstein had taken part in a 1955 plan to assassinate Kastner that did not go forward.

Harel’s statements to the cabinet do not conform to the version he related in his book, “The Truth About the Kastner Murder,” published in Hebrew in 1985. There, the murder was presented as a surprise. “It was clear that the assassination was planned in a small, very closed group and kept a deep secret among the planners and those who carried out the plan,” he wrote.

Dr. Yitzhak Katzir, Kastner’s nephew, told Haaretz this week that he knew of no concrete warning that his uncle would be murdered. However, he said, “Friends warned him that he was a candidate for assassination, along the lines of, ‘The bullet with your name on it is in the gun barrel.’”

Kastner was given a bodyguard by the Shin Bet, who “for some reason was pulled off a few days before the murder,” Katzir said, adding that this fact encouraged those who believed in a conspiracy theory involving the Shin Bet.

And a related, even more explosive question is whether the organization itself was involved with various conspiracy theories promulgated over the years. To understand them, it must be recalled that Eckstein, the assassin, worked as an informant for the Shin Bet before the murder.

Harel told the cabinet, according to the minutes, that ties with Eckstein were cut off before the murder, once it was realized that he was a double agent. “Two years ago, he called the police of his own accord and proposed working against the underground,” Harel said at the time, adding, “But later it became clear that this man came to the police with bad intentions, that is, he was guided in this matter by the members of the underground.”

Killer: 'Woe is me'

Eckstein, now 81, confirms these statements in his recent book “Smichat Tla’im” (“Quilt Blanket”) (Carmel Publishing House, 2014). “Little by little, without feeling how the change was taking place in my thoughts, in my opinions – and finally in my desires as well – the understanding grew stronger in me that when I spy and inform for ‘ours’ against ‘them,’ I am lying in my soul,” Eckstein wrote. He described how he became entranced with the underground against whom he was sent to spy. “They knew they were surrounded by agents and provocateurs, and I understood that if I wanted to be part of them, I had to bring them a suitable ‘dowry’ and thus – woe is me – I became the servant of two masters.”

Harel told the cabinet about Eckstein’s arrest for handing out leaflets defaming Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Moshe Peretz, who was about to find Kastner innocent of perjury in his trial.

Harel told the ministers that the reason Eckstein was not tried was a lack of evidence, and because the justice minister feared people would say he was a provocateur.

But in his book, Harel tells it differently. “The unfortunate decision not to try the people who initiated and distributed the leaflet was what doubtless gave rise to the diabolical idea that Kastner’s murder would be carried out by Eckstein, the man who could claim if arrested that he had carried out the despicable act on orders of the security service.” In this way, Harel wrote, the planners of the murder hoped to kill two birds with one stone – kill Kastner, whom they hated and pin it on the political and government establishment.

Eckstein, in his book, alludes to another person’s involvement in the murder. “Another shot thundered at the very instant of my third shot, followed by agonizing cries. Apparently someone was there, in any event, carried out confirmation of the kill and, as a true professional, did not miss even in the dark.”

Kastner’s daughter told a similar story this week. She says she remembers clearly “a torn piece of paper, a small note,” on which the family took down Kastner’s words as he was taken to the hospital, which spoke of another person who was involved in the shooting. That person was never arrested.

“My father got out of the car. Eckstein tried to shoot him and it didn’t work. My father fled, ran into the building, but somebody prevented him from going in. He ran out again, and took a bullet in the back,” Suzi Kastner says, recalling her father’s words, adding, “Regretfully, I do not remember today where I laid that piece of paper.”

Suzi Kastner says she believes the mysterious other man, who confirmed the kill, was a Shin Bet agent, and that a senior Shin Bet official was behind the murder, to take revenge on Kastner for not saving his family in the Holocaust.

Still censored in the cabinet minutes are statements by Police Minister Shalom Sheetrit, to which Harel responded: “There is proof that they assassinated Kastner.” Did Sheetrit doubt that Eckstein and his accomplices, Dan Shemer and Yosef Menkes, were the actual murderers, and raise the possibility that the Shin Bet had assassinated Kastner?

Harel made a surprising suggestion to the cabinet: “If we can release the young men on bail by the time the trial ends and they behave all right, the judge will make his ruling, but they can be pardoned later.”

Indeed, in 1963, only six years after the murder, the three were pardoned and released. According to Prof. Yehiam Weitz, in a 1997 book about the Kastner trial, there was no conspiracy here. Rather, the pardon was pushed forward by a former Lehi underground member, Yehoshua Cohen, a member of Kibbutz Sde Boker who was very close to Ben-Gurion.

“Many questions, and eventually a great many questions, have been gathered in the reservoir on questions-not-asked, and if they were asked, they were not answered,” Eckstein wrote in his book.

‘Grand show’

In February of 1963, when Ben-Gurion met with the family to inform them he had decided to pardon the murderers, he said: “The daughter is completely at peace with the release.” But Suzi Kastner is still not at peace. “Everything was a farce. Even while in the midst of talking to him I had all kinds of doubts,” she said this week, referring to Ben-Gurion. About 17 at the time of her father’s murder, she says, “I went to the army, I got married, the years went by.” Today she is sure that the conversation with Ben-Gurion was part of a grand show to hide the truth of her father’s murder.