My Word: The Prisoner X factor

Intelligence, in both senses of the word, and a touch of Israeli chutzpah – an unbeatable combination.

Zygier's gravestone (photo credit: REUTERS/Brandon Malone)
Zygier's gravestone
(photo credit: REUTERS/Brandon Malone)
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 earth.
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 certain failures.
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.
Solitary confinement can be legitimately used for security purposes, but care needs to be taken that prolonged use is not employed as a punitive measure.
I am amazed, however, that Zygier’s story remained secret for such a long time.
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 survives.
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 seats.
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 world.
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.”
Jerusalem 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 special style.
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 worse.
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.
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