25 Years On, Reexamining the Shin Bet Failures That Led to the Rabin Assassination

Ex-security service chief Ami Ayalon says the prime minister’s death was as much an intelligence failure as a security one

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Yossi Melman
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Yigal Amir in Nazareth District Court during a hearing in 2010.
Yigal Amir in Nazareth District Court during a hearing in 2010.Credit: Tomer Neuberg
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

At 2 A.M. on November 5, 1995, Hagai Tal came through the doors of the “Israeli and Foreigners Department” (also known as the non-Arab department) in the Shin Bet security service headquarters in north Tel Aviv. Tal, the head of operations in the VIP Personal Security Unit and essentially its intelligence officer, ran into department head Hezi Kalo. “Right, I reported and you knew?” said Kalo, like someone who was already preparing his alibi and what was to follow, and wanted this statement to be documented, at least in memory.

It was a few hours after the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and what Kalo was referring to was information he’d collected on assassin Yigal Amir in the years that preceded the shooting. Information that wasn’t properly utilized.

Amir’s name had been known to Kalo’s department and its Jewish Division for a while. His name appeared on the list of those on the extreme right – among them rabbis and settler leaders – who opposed the Oslo Accords and were hoping for Rabin’s demise. His attendance at demonstrations, his personal conversations and meetings on Friday nights and in the settlements were no secret to the Shin Bet. Yet he was still able to evade detection that night.

Every senior official in the security service understood that the murder was the greatest failure in the organization’s history. And that echoes to this day, 25 years on.

Then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Vienna, July 1994, with Shimon Peres next to him.Credit: Yaakov Saar/GPO

The process of trying to find out who was to blame was launched quickly. There was an internal investigation, alongside the crowning glory: a commission of inquiry headed by retired Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar. In addition to the efforts to understand what happened and why, it was natural for Shin Bet employees to think about trying to absolve themselves of responsibility. They tried to grab at any scrap of information that would remove, or at least limit, their accountability for the huge blunder.

From the start it was clear that two bodies were the primary targets for being burned at the stake. The first was the Security Department (which includes the VIP Personal Security Unit), whose director, Dror Yitzhaki, didn’t wait for the commission’s conclusions and in a rare Israeli move resigned shortly after the assassination. The second was the Israeli and Foreigners Department headed by Kalo, under which the Jewish Division, commanded by Eli Barak, operated.

One could say that the Shamgar Commission’s findings were surprising. On the one hand, it found that Shin Bet head Carmi Gillon and the Security Department had failed (and those who headed it, along with their junior subordinates, either resigned or were dismissed). But on the other, the Israeli and Foreigners Department that was responsible for collection intelligence emerged without a scratch. This was the branch whose Jewish Division recruited agents on the extreme right, ran them and analyzed the information they provided.

A quarter-century later, Haaretz is revisiting the commission’s conclusions to ask why the intelligence officers came out unscathed.

The Shamgar Commission

Two people were in charge of sorting out the material submitted to the Shamgar Commission: M.G., who operated agent Avishai Raviv, and E.S. Both were from the Shin Bet’s Jewish Division. That’s right, employees of the branch under scrutiny decided what was relevant to the hearings and what wasn’t.

This fact, even if it might be totally legal, make one wonder if there were any documents that never found their way to the committee that perhaps could shed some new light on the investigation.

Hagai Tal appeared before the committee and testified about a memorandum he had drawn up some three months before the murder. In it he wrote: “The possibility that a political murder could be carried out in Israel looks much more realistic than in the past. The potential candidate exists, somewhere in one of the communities in Judea and Samaria, in the Dan Region [central Israel, including Tel Aviv] or in New York.”

This memorandum, it turned out, was shelved by the head of the Personal Security Unit, Benny Lahav. Later, the senior commanders in the Shin Bet reprimanded Tal for “betraying” their colleagues, instead of complimenting him for his professional integrity.

In February 1996, the Shamgar Commission issued its interim findings, in which it warned several Shin Bet employees that they were liable to be harmed by its conclusions. The names included Gillon, Lahav, Kalo and several lower-level employees. Eli Barak was not named: he had already been cleared at that stage of any claim of negligence or improper performance. Gillon, who had already made clear that he intended to resign, got the hint and quit.

The following month, the Shamgar Commission produced a thick volume of its final conclusions. Along with a recommendation to dismiss Lahav (which happened), as well as a few security guards who were negligent, it cleared Kalo of all responsibility – essentially determining that the disaster was a security, not an intelligence, failure.

The only police officer who was punished, Cmdr. Yaakov Shoval, fit this mold. He was the Yarkon District commander who was responsible for the police contingent at the Tel Aviv rally at which Rabin was murdered. The commission said he didn’t maintain a “sterile” area around Rabin and didn’t properly supervise the police work that night.

Over the years, however, there were many former Shin Bet people who believed the commission erred and was too soft on the intelligence officers.

One of them is Ami Ayalon, who replaced Gillon as head of the security service. “The intelligence failure was no less serious than the security failure,” he told Haaretz. “I’m not looking at what happened from a criminal or legal perspective. I’m examining the matter from a professional perspective, and there were mistakes made that required change.”

Former Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, 2004.Credit: Alon Ron

Gillon has said similar things. During various interviews and in his autobiography “Citizen C,” he argued that while he accepts full managerial responsibility, the Shamgar Commission hadn’t examined the events properly. “The great miscue,” he called it. He believes the commission didn’t deal with the fundamental problems of the circumstances that led to the murder: incitement by rabbis and right-wing politicians (among them Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu); the refusal of extreme right-wing groups to obey the police, the army and various rabbinical rulings. He thinks the commission dealt solely with the “technology of security.”

The ‘lone wolf’ risk

What didn’t it focus on? The Jewish Division, for instance. Months before the murder it had recently been expanded from a unit to a division – one of the lessons gleaned from the February 1994 massacre committed by Baruch Goldstein at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where the Jewish doctor from New York City massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers. (Another change was closer cooperation between the Shin Bet and the Israeli army). The decision to expand was made by Eli Barak when he assumed his position in April 1995.

The Hebron attack also highlighted the issue of the “lone wolf attacker.”

“Our main problem then was to locate the lone attacker over the difficult backdrop of incitement, demonstrations and rabbinical rulings on din rodef [the Jewish theological concept that someone can pursue an individual who intends to kill or harm others] that were issued by rabbis. Many people were hoping for Rabin’s death,” said a senior former Shin Bet officer. Gillon had warned of the lone wolf risk back in 1990. The irony is that he earned against it and eventually it ended up finishing his career.

There had been five case officers in the Jewish Division, each of whom ran between eight to 10 agents, with some targeting organizations like Kach (founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane) and the Temple Mount Faithful. Barak recruited six more case officers, who took a special course and developed a doctrine for handling informants.

Israeli security agents pushing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin into a car after he was mortally wounded by Yigal Amir in Tel Aviv, November 4, 1995. Credit: AFP

Some of the informants recruited were rabbis – and even one yeshiva head – who agreed to cooperate and report on the far right’s goings-on. They were motivated by an ideological, theological commitment to “preventing bloodshed and civil war,” combined with financial recompense.

But when it came to Yigal Amir, it emerged that there had been no need for informants or secret information to find him and ascertain his intentions. He provided them voluntarily.

Enter Shlomo Halevi, a noncommissioned reserve intelligence officer. At the time, he became friends with various young right-wingers and hung out with them. These included Margalit Har-Shefi, then a 19-year-old law student at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, and a member of a prominent settler family.

Har-Shefi became friendly with Amir, who studied law with her, went with her to demonstrations and accompanied her to Shabbat events in the settlements. He was apparently also in love with her. Six months before the murder, Har-Shefi told Halevi she had heard Amir call Rabin a “traitor” and that “he should be killed.”

Halevi told his commanders in IDF Central Command what he’d heard from Har-Shefi (who was later imprisoned for “not preventing a crime”), but didn’t reveal her name. In fact, he gave a false cover story, saying that in June 1995 he’d gone into a stall in the bathroom at the Jerusalem Central Bus station, where by chance he heard two people talking about the “Little Yemenite, that cool guy, the one who wants to kill Rabin and has a gun.”

In any case, Halevi’s information was immediately passed to the command’s intelligence officer, then-Col. Amnon Sofrin, who delivered it to Eli Barak by phone. The latter thanked him and said there were other reports of a planned murder. Barak then told the Jerusalem Police to question Halevi, and when he appeared before them, he repeated his story. The policemen wrote up a report and sent it to Barak. It was later found to have been filed in a binder as just another scrap of information, one of thousands of reports that were streaming in at the time about extreme right-wing activists making threats against Rabin.

Former Shin Bet security service chief Carmi Gillon.Credit: Emil Salman

After the murder, Halevi was questioned by the Shin Bet and asked why he had given a false report. He replied that he didn’t want to be a moiser [informant] and added that he was sure the Shin Bet wouldn’t suffice with just the police inquiry and would look into it itself – in which case, he said, they would have “found the truth in two minutes.”

It wasn’t just Halevi who was shocked by the fact that he wasn’t questioned by the Shin Bet. There were others, like Ami Ayalon.

“That was a serious mistake,” he said. “The police don’t know how to exploit [extricate] intelligence. The [Shin Bet] should have done that. It should have summoned Halevi for questioning.”

But beyond the false report, there are those who believe the Shin Bet wasn’t paying attention to the message it had received. Kalo and Barak should have made the connection between the “Little Yemenite” and the pieces of information they’d already accumulated on Yigal Amir.

Members of the Rabin family at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral in November 1995.Credit: Zvika Israeli/GPO

Flaws and blunders

According to Ayalon, the blunders didn’t end there. There were also flaws in the way Avishai Raviv (whose Shin Bet code name was “Champagne”) was handled. Raviv was one of the most valuable assets the Shin Bet had among the right-wing extremists. “Raviv knew Amir and Har-Shefi,” Ayalon said. “And without going into the question of what we did with that information, the service didn’t sufficiently examine how else Raviv could have been managed.”

Raviv, now 50, had been a Kach activist since the age of 17. He was recruited by the Shin Bet in 1991 and M.G. was appointed as his handler. Around a month before Rabin’s murder, he was told to get closer to Amir. But his handlers hadn’t mapped the people in Raviv’s circle, who already included Amir. It wasn’t that his name hadn’t appeared in Raviv’s reports. There were at least 16 mentions of his name in the Shin Bet database. But Raviv had reported on him only in the context of his extreme anti-Arab statements.

There was no “exploitation of intelligence,” as Ayalon put it. This essentially means cross-checking the information. If this had been done, perhaps they would have been able to connect Amir to the information provided by Halevi and other reports, and understand that it was the same person.

The Shamgar Commission didn’t find evidence that Raviv knew in advance of the intent to murder Rabin. At first, Ayalon didn’t see any need to take any action against him either. “I agreed with the service’s position that Raviv should not be prosecuted because we have to protect our sources,” he stressed.

But when a stream of conspiracy theories emerged regarding the involvement of Raviv and the Shin Bet in the murder, Ayalon changed his mind. “I wanted to put a stop to the rumor mill so as to restore public confidence in the service,” he explained. Raviv was tried, and in 2003 was acquitted of all charges, including that of failing to prevent a crime, at Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court.

Margalit Har-Shefi after being released from prison. Credit: Pavel Wolberg

Carmi Gillon refused to be interviewed for this story, saying, “I’m done with discussing this topic.” Barak also refused to be interviewed. Kalo is soon to publish his memoir, with a particular focus on the assassination. After initially declining to be interviewed, he eventually told Haaretz: “The Shamgar Commission thoroughly and meticulously examined the intelligence operations in the period preceding the Rabin assassination. After a lengthy investigation, the commission definitively stated that my actions were not to be faulted in any way and it cleared me of any such claims. It’s unclear why 25 years later, claims are still being raised that were already examined inside and out by all of the authorized bodies.”

When Ayalon was asked if he believed Kalo and Barak should have resigned, he refused to answer.

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