Israeli lawyer famous for his controversial clientele dies at 82

The cigar-chomping attorney’s clients included Dimona nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu, convicted Iran collaborator Nahum Manbar, KGB spy Shabtai Kalmanovich and Interior Minister Arye Deri.

Amnon Zichroni (photo credit: ARIK SULTAN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Amnon Zichroni
Amnon Zichroni, the controversial lawyer, lecturer, author, television host and negotiator for the return of prisoners of war, was laid to rest in Neveh Hadar Cemetery in Hod Hasharon on Sunday, three day after his death at age 82.
The cigar-chomping attorney’s clients included Dimona nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu, convicted Iran collaborator Nahum Manbar, KGB spy Shabtai Kalmanovich and Interior Minister Arye Deri, who was jailed for corruption in the 1990s.
One of Israel’s early conscientious objectors, Zichroni had a multifaceted and colorful legal and political career.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1935, he was known for most of his adult life to be politically inclined toward the Left. But in his youth, he was more inclined toward the Right and actually distributed leaflets on behalf of the Irgun during the final period of the British Mandate era.
Some years after the establishment of the state, Zichroni had an epiphany and realized that Arab citizens did not enjoy equal rights. This realization later became paramount in his legal career, when he defended the civil and human rights, not only of Israeli Arabs, but also of Palestinians.
He differed from most other conscientious objectors who came before and after him in that he did not object to joining the army; what he objected to was carrying arms.
When Zichroni responded to the draft call in July 1953, he was sent to the Golani Brigade.
But after refusing to carry weapons, he was transferred to a Nahal unit and placed on guard duty at night, carrying a stick instead of a rifle.
After a short period, Zichroni went AWOL for three days.
When he returned and refused to obey orders, he was sent to military prison where he went on a four-day hunger strike. His parents hired a lawyer, Mordechai Stein, to get him out of his predicament. They chose Stein because the lawyer’s own son and daughter had been conscientious objectors who from the start refused the draft.
The Israeli branch of War Resisters International also became involved, as did leading Israeli intellectuals such as Martin Buber, Hugo Berman and Ernst Simon, who appealed to then-prime minister Moshe Sharett to intervene to ensure that Zichroni did not die of starvation after he went on a second, much longer hunger strike.
Zichroni himself wrote to President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, protesting denial of his right to a moral conscience. The mood in Israel at the time was so patriotic that Zichroni was sent for psychiatric evaluation. When he was pronounced perfectly sane, he was tried in a military court and sentenced to seven months in prison. Appeals on his behalf continued and, in the end, then-defense minister Pinchas Lavon reduced the sentence to one month. As Zichroni had already served that amount of time, he was promptly released.
To prove that he was nonetheless a loyal Israeli, Zichroni served for five months in the Civil Defense Force, where he was not required to wear a uniform or carry arms.
After the Six Day War, Zichroni apparently had a change of heart about being associated with the army and agreed to do reserve duty in the IDF’s legal department.
He also became much more politically active and joined Uri Avnery, who, like Zichroni, had moved politically leftward from the Irgun – in which he had been a member as a teenager – to become one of the most vocal and enduring voices in Israel’s peace movements.
Even today, at 94 years of age, Avnery continues to write and talk about peace initiatives with the Palestinians. Together with Avnery and other well-known leftists, Zichroni became a founding member of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.
When Yitzhak Rabin was defense minister and later as prime minister, he sought Zichroni’s help in negotiating prisoner exchanges, not only with regard to POWs, but also for civilians who were being held in captivity.
Zichroni often acted in a pro bono capacity for Israelis and Palestinians who were victims of the system but lacked the wherewithal to pay legal fees.
He was also a staunch advocate for freedom of the press, freedom of association and freedom of religion.
He is survived by his wife Miri, their two children and their grandchildren.