The murky circumstances surrounding the death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman early Monday morning in Buenos Aires were hardly cleared up by the swift official verdict that it was suicide. The fact that he died the night before he was due to testify before the parliament over an alleged cover-up by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirschner of the 1994 bombing of a local Jewish community center only makes his demise more suspicious.
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While there may not be a direct connection, the death of Nisman, just a few hours after an attack on a convoy in the southern part of Syria which has been attributed by the media to Israel and resulted in the deaths of at least 12 senior Hezbollah and Iranian commanders, makes it even more poignant.
The massive car bomb which tore apart the premises of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) on July 18, 1994, killing 85 people, most of them Jewish, was the worst mass murder of Jews in the Diaspora since the Holocaust. The perpetrators were never brought to justice but the consensus among the investigators and in the Western intelligence community was that the attack was masterminded by the Iranian government and carried out by members of Hezbollah; at one stage indictments were served and Interpol arrest warrants issued. But governments came and went, and not every president or administration was so eager to expose the foreign powers involved or their local collaborators.
Señora Kirschner, who has been leading her country on a path of increasing animosity toward the United States and its allies, in a populist attempt to cover her government’s financial mismanagement, is such a president. Two years ago she instructed her foreign minister Héctor Timerman to sign an agreement with the Iranian regime to establish a “truth commission” that would cooperate in finding the culprits of the AMIA bombing.
Israel objected strenuously and its ambassador, Dorit Shavit ,was called in for a fierce reprimand from Timerman, who lectured her that “Israel doesn’t speak in the name of the Jewish people and doesn’t represent it,” and added that “Israel’s desire to be involved in the issue only gives ammunition to anti-Semites who accuse Jews of dual loyalty.” As proof of Israel’s lack of standing in the case, he also said that “Jews who wanted or want to live in Israel moved there, and they are its citizens; those who live in Argentina are Argentine citizens.”
And Timerman knows of what he was speaking. Thirty-five years earlier, his own father, Jacobo, a left-wing journalist and prominent Zionist, had been arrested and tortured by Argentina's military junta. Israel’s diplomatic intervention was key to his release and departure from the country – without which he would have likely been one of the thousands of “disappeared” people. Timerman Sr. lived for five years in Israel, where, as a citizen and journalist, he was critical also of his new country’s policies. He returned to Buenos Aires when the generals were swept from power. Despite his disappointment with the Jewish state, he continued to refer to himself as an Israeli citizen.
The Timermans are not the only example in this whole story of a son following uneasily in his father’s footsteps. In February 1992 when Hezbollah secretary general Abbas al-Musawi was assassinated by Israel in a helicopter gunship attack in South Lebanon, the organization’s young field commander, Imad Mughniyeh was tasked with working with the Iranians on exacting revenge.
Mughniyeh is not known for certain to have traveled to Argentina himself, but he was initially fingered by the authorities there as having orchestrated the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires a month after Musawi’s death; 29 people were killed in that attack, among them four Israelis. This was the blueprint for the AMIA bombing two-and-a-half years later, also believed to have been Mughniyeh’s handiwork, and for the same reasons.
It would be another 13 years until Mughniyeh would be officially accused by the Argentine government for involvement in the bombing, with Nisman leading the investigation by this point. Mughniyeh was then Hezbollah’s military commander, shuttling between Beirut and Tehran, one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists. The Interpol “red notice” was just another meaningless formality for him. A few months later it wasn’t the police who caught up with him, but another assassin’s bomb, planted in his jeep outside the Iranian embassy in Damascus. His 18-year-old son, Jihad was catapulted into the Hezbollah leadership's fast-track.
In the intervening years, Nisman saw how his country’s eagerness to bring the AMIA perpetrators to justice ebbed and waned. The “truth commission” was never convened; Kirchner’s government more interested in oil and grain deals with Tehran. Some of the Iranians allegedly involved in 1994 were promoted to senior positions. Last January Israel’s former ambassador to Argentina, Yitzhak Aviran, claimed that Israel had exacted its own rough justice: “The large majority of those responsible are no longer of this world, and we did it ourselves.”
Jihad Mughniyeh was a baby when Musawi was assassinated (along with his wife and five-year-old son). Senior Israeli officials involved in that 1992 operation have since said that the sequence of events kicked off by his violent death, the level of retribution exacted by Hezbollah in the two bombings in Argentina, and the rise of a new and much more ambitious Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, along with his deadly efficient lieutenant Mughniyeh – all these were hardly worth the earlier successful strike.
On Sunday, it was the turn of 25-year-old Jihad Mughinyeh to be on the receiving end of what was an (apparently) Israeli missile. His official role at the time of his death – commander of Hezbollah’s covert operations on the Golan Heights in Syria – may be an exaggerated description of the authority vested in the young man, and there are more senior Lebanese and Iranian operatives, some of them killed as well in the strike, but he was at the least a figurehead, featuring in Hezbollah propaganda. And he certainly paid for that with his life. Brigadier General Mohammed Allahdadi of the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who was also killed in the missile attack on Sunday, certainly had authority as his country’s senior representative in Syria.
Hezbollah’s revenge is usually slow and unexpected – it came twice to Buenos Aires, and after Mughniyeh Sr.’s death, it took the Shi'ite organization four years until it blew up a bus carrying Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, killing six. If this selection of targets is anything to go by, the civilians who could pay with their lives could be Israelis or Diaspora Jews anywhere.
Conspiracy theorists will try and connect between the killing of the Mughniyeh Jr. and Nisman’s death 14 hours later. While it is quite likely that the official declaration of suicide is part of yet another cover-up and that foul play was involved, even for Hezbollah the ordering, planning and carrying out of an assassination of a target surrounded by a posse of security guards - while apparently leaving no trace afterward, in such a short time - seems like an extremely tall order.
But long before the death of the son of the man who took part in those murders over two decades ago, Nisman’s was already on more than one hit-list. His insistence, some would say obsession, in exposing both the culprits and those who over the years have tried to make the AMIA bombing simply go away, angered the most powerful people in Buenos Aires and Iran, and potentially jeopardized billions in trade deal between them.
One day someone will write a book or a play on the confrontation between the two proud Argentine Jews, Alberto Nisman and Hector Timerman. Their lives embodied so many tensions, dilemmas and tragedies related to a tenuous Jewish existence in a dangerous environment. Nisman, dedicated years of his life and perhaps died when trying to uncover the truth behind the death of so many Jews, taking on the establishment in his homeland. Timerman, the human rights defender whose father was saved from the clutches of a previous government of Argentina – thanks to the dirty dealings between it and Israel – who then joined another government, turning his back on the Jewish community and making common cause with one of the worst regimes in the world. Both men claimed above all to be Argentine patriots and will be remembered by history as two conflicted Jews.