Netanyahu, Steinitz at Odds Over Keeping Knesset Panel in Dark Over Prisoner X

Finance minister believes the failure to inform Knesset panel about the Ben Zygier case was a serious mistake; prime minister sides with ministers who defended the decision.

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Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz on Monday lambasted the decision to keep the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee completely ignorant of the Prisoner X affair. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ministers Benny Begin and Moshe Ya’alon strongly defended the decision.

Also Monday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which broke the Prisoner X story, published new details. Reporter Trevor Bormann said Prisoner X whom he has identified as Ben Zygier, though Israel has yet to confirm this identification was arrested upon his return from a trip to Australia in 2010 because the Mossad feared he either had shared or was planning to share confidential information with Australia’s domestic intelligence agency, ASIO.

Specifically, Bormann said, Zygier’s Mossad handlers suspected him of leaking details about the agency’s use of Australian passports and about a straw company it had set up in Italy to further an operation on which it had been working for years.

According to Bormann’s report, the straw company was set up by Zygier and two other Israeli-Australian dual citizens to sell communications equipment to Iran and various Arab countries. On one of his trips back to Australia, Zygier had applied for an Italian work visa for this purpose.

Bormann said it wasn’t clear whether Zygier volunteered to meet with ASIO or was summoned for questioning by it. But previous reports indicated that Zygier had been under ASIO surveillance for some time, as its suspicions had been aroused by his having asked to change his surname and his passport four times.

Steinitz a former chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee who used his tenure to increase parliamentary oversight of defense officials, including the intelligence community said at a meeting of Likud cabinet members on Monday that failing to inform the panel about the Zygier case was a serious mistake.

There are times, he said, when the intelligence agencies ought to inform the panel’s subcommittee on the secret services of their plans even before they are carried out, “in order to hear another opinion.” In this case, he said, the panel should have been notified as soon as the Mossad realized there was a problem with Zygier, and certainly once he was arrested.

At the very least, Steinitz continued, the Mossad should have briefed the committee chairman so that he could decide “whether to bring it immediately to the subcommittee, or even a more restricted forum.” But in this case, he said, the matter clearly warranted discussion by the full subcommittee.

“Had the Knesset been informed in advance, perhaps it would have been possible to prevent unnecessary talk in the plenum, and from an international standpoint, it would have shown the world that there was parliamentary oversight of the defense establishment,” he said.

Begin and Ya’alon disagreed, arguing that the Knesset doesn’t need to supervise cases like Zygier’s in real time, but only to investigate them after the fact.

Netanyahu, according to sources acquainted with what happened at the meeting, sided with Begin and Ya’alon. Nevertheless, he acknowledged, the fact that the subcommittee on the secret services was never informed at all, even after Zygier had committed suicide, was indeed a mistake.

Later, however, the Prime Minister’s Bureau denied that Netanyahu had termed the failure to inform the subcommittee a mistake. Beyond that, it declined to comment on the meeting.

Due to the media uproar, the government recently agreed to let the subcommittee probe the affair.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch also discussed the Zygier case in the Knesset plenum Monday. He said that throughout the time the prisoner spent in jail, he was seen regularly by mental health professionals from the Israel Prison Service and outside it.

Mainly, Aharonovitch repeated information the government had already released; for example, that the prisoner’s family and lawyers had visited him regularly, and that he was indicted in a regular criminal court. Aharonovitch said the prisoner was held under a false name with his own and his family’s consent, and that “the reason for the fictitious name was to protect state security, and also to protect the prisoner and his family.” The prisoner also agreed to the gag order on the case, Aharonovitch added.

The investigating judge who probed the prisoner’s suicide submitted her report to the State Prosecutor’s Office only on December 19, 2012, Aharonovitch said. The state is now considering whether to maintain the gag order on Judge Daphna Blatman Kedrai’s report, he continued, and “this order may be lifted shortly, at least in part.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz during a cabinet meeting, July 30, 2012.Credit: Flash 90

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