The Prisoner X Affair Is a Classic Story of Israeli Failure

This story is not about Ben Zygier's double identity, it's about how Israel's most sensitive government agencies are not functioning. If indeed the reports are correct, the State of Israel still doesn't control the basics.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Case 8493, which includes the story of a prisoner whom the State of Israel admitted this evening existed, until he stopped existing, is not an Australian story. Ben Zygier/Allen/Alon may have been born in Australia and continued to use the passport of his first homeland. And the report that broke the dam of silence is the work of an Australian reporter, Trevor Bormann. But Zygier's double identity isn't significant for the story any more than the foreign passport held by many Israelis.

Click here to read the full text Israel released after lifting the gag order on the case

The story is completely Israeli in its fundamentals: How the most sensitive agencies aren't functioning and how right is the feeling that there is no one to rely on. Among the partners in the failure, if indeed foreign media reports are correct, are the Israel Prison Service, the Justice Ministry and the courts. In its 65th year, the State of Israel still doesn't control the basics.

If the reports from Australia are accurate and the Mossad indeed was involved, the most serious failure doesn't belong to its head, Tamir Pardo. He only took over from Meir Dagan in January 2011, after Zygier had committed suicide. Pardo understands modern times. He is accessible to the media more than most of his predecessors and recognizes the importance of tradition and memorials - sometimes to the chagrin of the veterans, retirees and conservatives in the organization who still sanctify the silence.

But Pardo has yet to take the obvious step and appoint a spokesman for the Mossad to help him keep up regular contacts during normal times, without which he won't be able to build up credit for when he needs a day, or a few hours, to hide an agent or cover up an operation.

Pardo not to blame

Pardo isn't the main person responsible for the failure, if indeed foreign media reports are correct. He wasn't the warden of Ayalon Prison, and he wasn't the head of the Israel Prison Service. But he also wouldn't be the main person responsible as the head of the Mossad.

Based on the dates reported in Australia, Dagan was the head of the Mossad when Zygier was recruited, trained, run and arrested. If Zygier was tested and found to be suitable to work for the Mossad, then the system for finding and training Zygier failed under Dagan. Based on this information, when Zygier died, he was still working for the Mossad under Dagan - it all happened on Dagan's watch and under his watchful eyes.

If the Australians are right and Zygier was still not convicted when he died, then Zygier was still considered innocent, as was - in the words of then-Attorney General Aharon Barak - the minister Avraham Ofer, who committed suicide while under a criminal investigation; banker Yaakov Levinson, who killed himself when he was suspected of criminal acts; and others.

It's worrying if a person held under supervision in the most guarded cell in the most central prison can find a way to evade the eyes of the guards watching him and end his life.

The negligence is so outrageous that an investigation is needed to disprove it, along with the other alternative - that someone pushed Zygier to his death, psychologically if not physically.

Such an investigation was not only necessary, it actually occurred, in response to an article in Haaretz. And the fact that it took place was approved for publication Wednesday night, in response to a request from the paper.

Ben Zygier in IDF uniform.
Ben Zygier's grave in Melbourne.
Ben Zygier's grave in Melbourne.
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Ben Zygier in IDF uniform.Credit: SMH Website
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Ben Zygier's grave in Melbourne.Credit: Handout
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Ben Zygier's grave in Melbourne.Credit: Steve Yarrow
Ben Zygier

The head of the police’s investigations and intelligence department, Maj. Gen. Yoav Segalovich, did not make do with the standard mechanism for conducting such investigations – the department for investigating prison wardens, which is part of the police’s serious crimes division. Instead, he launched the investigation into the cause of death via the rather rare mechanism of an investigating judge. The job went to an old acquaintance of Segalovich’s from back when they were both serving in Eilat, he as a regional police commander and she as a magistrate’s court judge: Daphna Blatman Kedrai, today president of the Central District magistrate’s courts.

Until now, the very existence of Blatman Kedrai’s investigation has been classified. This was another typical Israeli error: Instead of fending off the calls from both at home and abroad for the establishment of a state commission of inquiry by revealing that a judicial investigation has already taken place, the system continued to conceal its own activities.

Judge Blatman Kedrai is the daughter of Yona Blatman, who served as state prosecutor during the Bus 300 affair of 1984, which involved the killing of two captured terrorists. Blatman headed a team of investigators who failed to solve the crime, because the Shin Bet security service deceived it. Thus Daphna Blatman Kedrai surely knows that when dealing with security officials who are under investigation and worried about saving their own skins, it’s wise to be skeptical.

She might also have learned this lesson from Judge Hila Gerstl, president of the Central District Court. Gerstl, who was the most senior judge to be informed of File 8493, once said in an interview that at the very beginning of her legal career, she learned from the wiles of a veteran lawyer – who quoted a nonexistent article of the law and won his gamble that neither the judge nor the other side would dare to doubt his word – that testimony must not be taken at face value.

But it’s not clear whether Gerstl herself – who comes from a family and social circle that tends to deal kindly with defense agencies like the air force (“the judge,” she once said, “is like a pilot, all alone”) and the Mossad – always remembered to apply this lesson. Few judges are considered as sharp, competent and efficient as she, but the judicial system would be wise to investigate its own handling of this affair and look into why the scope and applicability of the gag orders it issued were never reconsidered.

This is also yet another difficult moment for the military censor. Last week, it failed to stop an Israeli defense minister from talking; this time it tried for a day to silence an Australian foreign minister. It even tried to censor Knesset members (though not the only MK who has actually been a military censor, Miri Regev), although this was nothing more than a case of Ahmed Tibi and others following in the footsteps of Benjamin Netanyahu, who revealed the Stauber Document, a classified Israel Defense Forces report, from the podium of the Knesset.

Not that the Knesset can take pride in its other activities. On Wednesday, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee met to choose its chairman. Aside from MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz), all of them – including the new MKs from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party – voted for Avigdor Lieberman, who is trying to continue exerting influence over the Foreign Ministry even though his trial for crimes allegedly committed in his previous role as foreign minister is still pending.

The committee also chose the members of its subcommittee on the secret services: Lieberman himself, who is suspected of obtaining confidential information from an ambassador; Aryeh Deri (Shas), whose conviction on corruption charges would deny him a security classification, but is absolved of this requirement as an elected parliamentarian; Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi); Zeev Elkin (Likud Yisrael Beiteinu); and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor). These are the people who, if they are not upgraded to cabinet posts and therefore remain on the committee, will be let in on the secrets of Israel’s most sensitive affairs. They are the ones who are supposed to oversee the Mossad and all the other foreign and defense agencies – either before the next File 8493, or after it.

Ben Zygier in his IDF uniform.Credit: SMH Website
Life of Prisoner X

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