A long list of question marks still hovers above every aspect of the Ben Zygier, AKA “Prisoner X” case, many of which will not have a satisfactory answer for years or perhaps ever. But one thing is very clear, even at this stage: Something has gone deeply wrong in the department within the Mossad that is in charge of creating identities for agents operating outside Israel.
Reports in the foreign press that the espionage agency has for decades used the passports and identities of citizens who have immigrated here from various countries, including major Western states that have friendly relations with Israel, have been, of course, well documented. However, it is very hard to find someone who will admit on the record to having being asked to “lend” his or her passport to the agency. If credit is to be given to these reports, it is not hard to understand why: These are patriotic Israelis who left behind comfortable lives and moved to Zion, many of whom have not served in the army and still feel like newcomers, and they want to believe they have done the right thing, contributing their identity to the defense of their new country. And if later they have doubts or qualms about breaking the laws of the land of their birth, they certainly don’t want to talk with the press about it. That sort of information is something that is probably only mentioned in hushed tones when immigrants get together.
Critics of Israel’s security policies have accused the Mossad of jeopardizing the security both of local citizens and of Jewish citizens of other countries with these practices. The criticisms are perhaps warranted, but no one knows the other side of the argument - how many lives have been saved, and to what extent Israel’s security has been ensured due to clandestine work in which these passports were employed. The Mossad’s charter includes a mandate not only to operate on behalf of Israel and its citizens, but also guaranteeing the security of Jewish communities around the world.
Diplomatic crises between Israel and friendly governments over the use of their passports in Mossad operations are nothing new. In 1987, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered an end to all Mossad activity in the United Kingdom after a number of cases in which use of British identities had come to light. Moreover, the botched assassination attempt of Hamas chief Khaled Meshal, in September 1997 - by Mossad agents carrying Canadian passports, who were arrested by Jordanian security forces - led to a furious protest by the government in Ottawa. In both cases, the incidents involved countries whose governments are generally positive toward Israel, but still no country can agree to have its symbols of sovereignty used in such a way.
The most widespread publication so far of the alleged Israeli use of foreign passports was in the wake of the assassination of senior Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January 2010. The killing was attributed by foreign sources to Mossad: Dubai’s security services later claimed they had identified a number of its agents entering and leaving the hotel where Mabhouh was staying and where he was killed. These men and women used passports from Australia, Britain, France and Germany. At least in seven cases, it turned out that the passports were issued in the names of Jews who had immigrated to Israel from Britain and Germany. These same people, back in Israel, expressed astonishment when told that someone using their identity had visited Dubai. Israel was forced to hurriedly mend its relations with these countries; for its part, the British government announced that it was deporting the head of the Mossad station in London, who had operated under diplomatic cover.
Subsequently, it also emerged that the identities of at least three Australians had been used. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service had started an investigation half a year before the killing of Mabhouh into the use of at least three Australian passports by Mossad agents. The investigation had been launched following requests by Jewish Australian citizens who had emigrated to Israel to change the names on their Australian passports to less Jewish-sounding names, and in response to reports that the passports had been used for travel to Iran, Syria and Lebanon - countries not usually frequented by Israelis.
We now know that one of those Australians being investigated was Prisoner X, Ben Zygier, who changed the name on his passport at least three times. However, it seems that these were not the Australian passports used in Dubai at the time of the Mabhouh assassination. In June 2010, the Polish police arrested in Warsaw a man travelling with a German passport under the name of Uri Brodsky, who was identified by German media as a Mossad agent. A year earlier, the same man, identifying himself as Alexander Verin, had allegedly obtained a German passport along with an associate named Michael Bodenheimer; both claimed their parents were Holocaust refugees born in Germany.
The Bodenheimer passport was one of those used by the alleged Mossad agents during the Mabhouh assassination in Dubai. Brodsky-Verin was deported from Poland to Germany and from there transferred to Israel. He was tried in Germany in absentia and fined 60,000 euros. In January 2011, the German police issued an international arrest warrant for Brodsky. The fact that an alleged Mossad agent was traveling with a passport that was apparently part of the same batch of German passports used in Dubai points to a major security failing on the part of those preparing identities and passports for agents
Exactly a year ago, the Times of London published accounts of two anonymous young men, one of whom had emigrated to Israel from Britain and the other from France. Both young men, during their service in the Israel Defense Forces, were approached by a woman who identified herself as a Mossad official, who asked them to “lend” their passports to her for about 18 months while they were still in the army. When the passports were returned, they contained stamps from a variety of countries, including Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. The two men were advised not to visit those countries over the next few years.
There is a long and glorious tradition of Diaspora Jews aiding Israeli intelligence, albeit occasionally without being aware they were doing so. In the 1970s and 1980s, the semi-secret Lishkat Hakesher (Liaison Unit, also called Nativ), which was under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office and promoted ties between Israel and the Jews of the Soviet Union, sent Jewish citizens from Western countries to meet Soviet Jews, and among other things to bring them Hebrew textbooks. Many new immigrants to Israel have said they were apparently approached by the Mossad to “lend” it their passports for a while; in some cases their identities were used without their knowledge.
The illegal use of the passports of citizens from friendly nations stands in clear contradiction to assurances Israel has repeatedly given these countries. For agents operating in enemy territory, passports of real live citizens have a major advantage over fake travel documents. Many countries have the capability of easily detecting the latter; most large airports are equipped with computer systems connected to databases that can ascertain within seconds whether a passport has indeed been legally issued. For a serious intelligence organization committed to the safety of its operatives, even the best forged documents are no longer an option.
When Meir Dagan became Mossad chief, in September 2002, he was charged by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with expanding the agency operational portfolio substantially, and targeting mainly Iran’s nuclear program and its arms-smuggling networks to Hamas and Hezbollah. This necessitated a rapid influx of agents into the field, with each operation necessitating creation of new identities. It would seem that in the rush to acquire new documents too many corners were cut in security procedures. Now someone at the highest levels of Israel’s political and security establishment will need to ask the question whether the damage caused to Jewish citizens in friendly countries and to Israel’s diplomatic relations was worth the trouble.