Prisoner X is not actually a Prisoner X at all. He has a name, Ben Zygier, and
it is clearly marked on his grave in Melbourne’s Jewish cemetery, along with the
names of his grieving parents, wife, daughters and brother. And it is for them,
above all, that I feel sorry.
My heart goes out to this family who lost a
beloved member in the most harrowing circumstances possible, for Zygier went
from being a successful lawyer, a family man, living in Israel as the proud
product of his Jewish and Zionist upbringing, to becoming a suicide victim in a
high-security prison where he was awaiting trial on charges so serious that the
public is still not allowed to know them. And what the public doesn’t know, it
makes up in fantasies and conspiracy theories.
The day before he died in
December 2010, Zygier was visited by big-name lawyer Avigdor Feldman, one of
several attorneys with whom he’d been in touch since his detention; his case had
been presented to several judges who had extended his remand; and even the fact
that he was buried in Melbourne, in a ceremony attended by family and friends,
demonstrates that Zygier did not just disappear off the face of the
Exactly what Zygier did, reportedly as a Mossad agent, we might
never know. Neither is it likely we, the general public, will ever discover the
exact circumstances that led to his arrest.
All the dramatic reporting in
the world, starting with Australia’s ABC broadcast just over a week ago, does
not make me lose sleep. Unlike friends who grew up in Argentina and Chile during
the dark years of the juntas and still have nightmares about the Disappeared
Ones, I don’t worry that loved ones will suddenly be grabbed off the Israeli
street, imprisoned and then vanish.
In fact, I sleep better knowing that
there are nameless people in the Mossad and similar agencies doing their jobs,
despite the personal risk, to help keep the country safe.
The ABC report
can be credited for creating headlines. I found the tone to be one of overkill.
Phrases like the “notorious Ramle Prison” make me snort “Notorious for what?”
Many viewers would find it hard to pinpoint Israel on a map, let alone
differentiate between Ramle, close to Tel Aviv, and Ramallah, the town where the
Palestinian Authority is located.
The affair does raise many questions,
however, some of which require an answer in public. Others should be examined by
the relevant organizations. Zygier’s death – and the circumstances that brought
him to be held in solitary confinement under an assumed name – all suggest
If he was or had been working for the Mossad, how his
recruitment came about needs to be considered: Who approved his service – for
which he would have had to pass rigorous psychological and physical testing as
well as security classification? Where were those in charge of him when he, and
we, most needed them, before he did whatever it was that made him be suspected
as a major threat to state security? It has been repeatedly reported that Zygier
was held in the cell which used to house Yigal Amir, the assassin of prime
minister Yitzhak Rabin. Amir committed a despicable crime and should be locked
away for life, but it bothers me that the same left-wing MKs who used (or
abused) their parliamentary immunity to ask in the plenum about Zygier have
never queried why Amir was held on his own for so long.
confinement can be legitimately used for security purposes, but care needs to be
taken that prolonged use is not employed as a punitive measure.
amazed, however, that Zygier’s story remained secret for such a long
And anyone who fears that this case shows that Israel is on the
road to being a police state should watch the award-winning documentary The
Gatekeepers, comprising a series of interviews with six former heads of the Shin
Bet (Israel’s Security Agency) who share the extraordinary moral and operational
dilemmas of their job.
THE ZYGIER affair has all the elements of a good
drama: an alleged spy and possible traitor; incarceration and a mysterious
death; and, above all, the word Mossad.
It is extraordinary how friends
and enemies alike consider the Mossad in a class of its own, capable of almost
anything. Of course, most successes are kept secret so as not to compromise
those involved or reveal operating methods. But it is surprising that no matter
how many times there are mishaps and open failures, the mystique of the Mossad
I recently enjoyed the film Argo, about how a CIA operative
rescued six American diplomats hiding in the home of the Canadian ambassador in
Tehran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.
In a column titled “The Oscar
for best fabrication,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd notes that Argo,
like most stories adapted for the big screen, ends up being larger than life.
The dramatic climax towards the end, for instance, when the film shows the
Iranian Guard chasing the plane down the runway as it takes off, was added for
your viewing pleasure. The real story was probably nerve-racking enough for
those involved, but apparently it wasn’t considered exciting enough for
audiences who need to be kept sitting at the edge of their cinema
Nonetheless, it is interesting to see in Argo that the Americans
used fake Canadian passports to save their nationals in a period that marked the
start of the new Islamist age, which continues to threaten the free
On February 19, the Prime Minister’s Office released a short but
unusual statement that it “would like to note that between the Government of
Israel and all its agencies, and the Government of Australia and the Australian
security agencies, there is excellent cooperation, full coordination and
complete transparency in dealing with current issues.
“Pursuant to the
many reports, the Prime Minister’s Office would like stress that the late Mr.
Zygier had no contact with the Australian security agencies.”
and Canberra, and a good number of capital cities between the two, know that the
Israelis and Australians are not the enemy. Secret services around the world
well know how to cooperate to fight the common threats.
The local release
of Argo had an unexpected benefit, reviving the reports of how the last Israelis
left Tehran as the shah’s regime came tumbling down, taking with it the fruitful
cooperation in many spheres. (A few years ago in Turkey I met an Iranian
businessman who recalled how Israeli doctors had saved the life of his baby
sister who’d flown here for cardiac surgery.) The story of the Israeli escape
from Iran might not make a Hollywood movie without a lot of extra padding, but
it demonstrates both the strengths and limits of friendships – and Israel’s
In brief, in February 1979, the 33 remaining Israelis
(mainly embassy staff) moved into several safe houses that had been prepared and
equipped in advance.
After intense negotiations, it was agreed that they
would be evacuated together with the Americans, who unlike the Israelis left a
contingency of embassy staff.
They carefully made their way in groups to
the Hilton Hotel, where the other evacuees were gathered. But when the time came
for the journey to the airport, the Israelis discovered that instead of being
seated among the Americans in the fleet of some 20 comfortable buses, they had
been allocated one beaten-up bus on their own. This, the Israelis realized, made
them a very distinct target.
Working on the principle of intelligence
agencies everywhere that the overt can be the most covert, the Israelis quickly
set about turning this to their advantage.
They covered the bus with
posters of Ayatollah Khomeini, and in the guise of a regime-provided escort,
chanting pro-revolution slogans, the Israelis rode in style to the waiting Pan
American planes while the Americans were bombarded with insults and
Intelligence, in both senses of the word, and a touch of Israeli
chutzpah – an unbeatable combination.
The writer is the editor of The
International Jerusalem Post.