Israeli Lawyer Amnon Zichroni, Who Defended Spies and Politicians Alike, Dies at 82

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Amnon Zichroni, right, during a court case in 2012.
Amnon Zichroni, right, during a court case in 2012.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

One of Israel’s most prominent lawyers, Amnon Zichroni, who defended spies, politicians and was involved in prisoner-swap negotiations in the 1970s and ’80s, died on Thursday at 82.

Zichroni was born and raised in Tel Aviv during the British Mandate era, in 1935. In his youth he veered toward the political right and handed out leaflets for the pre-state underground militia Irgun (aka Etzel). But then, he later recounted, he underwent a “reincarnation” when he became aware of the “Arab problem” and “the fact that we have Arab citizens in the State of Israel.”

Zichroni served in the Golani Brigade and was earmarked for officer training, but his ideological leanings kept him from continuing in the army. At first, he refused to swear allegiance to the Israel Defense Forces and later refused to serve at all. In 1954, he was sent to prison and became one of the IDF’s first conscientious objectors.

Zichroni was released after a 24-day hunger strike. “In the end, the army acted wisely when it decided not to break an 18-year-old kid,” he said last year, in an interview with Dan Margalit on the Educational Television channel.

However, Zichroni returned to the army during the Six-Day War in 1967 and served in the reserves in the Military Advocate General’s office. His role was to accompany the team that went to the houses of casualties to inform families of their loss.

He had completed his law studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1958, but was not immediately admitted to the bar: A military prosecutor who was a member of the licensing committee opposed the idea because Zichroni had been subject to a court martial while in the army. “I went to [then-]Justice Minister Pinhas Rosen, and said what I said. He gave the order to establish a committee, they spoke to me and then I received my license,” Zichroni recalled.

Over the years, the security establishment came to respect Zichroni, even granting him security clearance so he could represent suspects in sensitive cases. He represented members of the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad who were accused of disciplinary infractions. “My views didn’t bother them; they knew I had integrity,” Zichroni said of officials in the security agencies. Another famous client years later was Shas politician Arye Dery, who was convicted of taking bribes in the 1990s, eventually serving nearly two years in prison.

Among Zichroni’s clients in the 1980s and ’90s were “nuclear spy” Mordechai Vanunu (he was later replaced by attorney Avigdor Feldman); Nahum Manbar, who was convicted of collaborating with an enemy state (Iran); and Shabtai Kalmanovich, who was convicted of being a spy for the KGB and was later murdered in Moscow after being released from prison.

Lawyer Amnon Zichroni in 2003.Credit: Moti Kimche

Zichroni had gone into politics in 1965 and established a left-wing party, Haolam Hazeh – Koah Hadash, along with Uri Avnery (the founder and editor of investigative magazine Haolam Hazeh). Zichroni was the party’s secretary and its legal adviser. In 1977, he was a founder of the leftist party Sheli. Despite his deep political involvement, he never served in the Knesset as an MK.

Zichroni served as an adviser to then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on prisoners and missing soldiers in the 1970s, and helped gain the release of Avraham Amram, who was captured during Operation Litani in south Lebanon in 1978. He was also involved in failed attempts to secure the release of navigator Ron Arad, whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.

When asked what his greatest legal achievement was during his career, Zichroni responded: “People who write about me say the most important trial was the Elon Moreh trial.” In that case in 1979, Zichroni was able, for the first and last time, to have the establishment of a settlement overturned, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of 17 Arab landowners who said Israel had taken their land for security reasons that didn’t actually exist.

“After that, the attitude to the settlements changed completely. They no longer allowed settlements to be established on private land,” Zichroni said.

He is survived by his wife, Miri, two sons and grandchildren.

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