On a sunny, humid afternoon in June 2010, I sat on the plaintiff’s bench in Judge Hila Gerstel’s court in Petach Tikva, a town about eight miles east of the bustling city of Tel Aviv. Opposite my lawyer and me were representatives and legal advisors of Israel’s security establishment. My goal, on behalf of the newspaper I then worked for, Haaretz, was to persuade Judge Gerstel to lift a gag order.
We lost the case. Judge Gerstel refused to consider even a compromise — to allow us to reprint news items published abroad about a mysterious Prisoner X. Because of the judicial gag order, the episode was omitted from a book that I later co-authored.
Nearly three years later, I wonder what would have happened had the judge given her consent? Would that have prevented Ben Zygier from committing suicide? Zygier was the Australian who had moved to Israel and, as Ben Alon, reportedly worked for the Mossad until he did something that enraged the Israeli foreign espionage agency. Perhaps a glimmer of media attention would have offered some hope to a man in solitary confinement whose very existence was a state secret.
Zygier had been arrested in February 2010, by officers of Shin Bet, the domestic security agency featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers. He was interrogated, represented by four lawyers, brought before judges, and eventually indicted. He received visits from his wife and other family members. In December 2010, Zygier was found dead in his high-security cell, which had originally been constructed to house Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin. Authorities decreed that the prisoner had somehow hanged himself. Every motion and stage of this case was conducted in secrecy.
We still do not know the nature of Zygier's alleged crime. Did he betray fellow Mossad operatives, known as combatants, and compromise ongoing operations? Was he recruited by a foreign agency, perhaps Iran or an Arab entity or some other enemy of Israel?
Senior Israeli government officials, including current and former heads of the intelligence community, are saying, “Trust us. We don’t make any of our citizens simply disappear. The civil rights of suspects and prisoners are respected. But telling you anything about them would do severe harm to the security of the Jewish state.” Yet the culture of secrecy is clearly excessive and habitual, tarnishing my country’s image as a society based on freedom, boasting proudly that it is the only true democracy in the Middle East.
The authorities' deafening silence about Zygier and his death for nearly two years — until they were forced to open slightly the information portal by an Australian TV documentary — makes Israel look like a dark nation whose citizens can simply vanish from the face of the earth, as happens under tyrannical regimes. And we are not one of those.
In 2006, Amos Manor, who headed Shin Bet for 11 years beginning in 1953, told me that since the War of Independence in 1948, no Israeli prisoner suspected of security offenses had been executed in Israel. None, he said, had even been detained for long without trial. Yet, since the 1950s Israel has operated an X-files system. When members of the Mossad or other security agencies and institutions were suspected of betraying Israel, they were typically held in solitary confinement under assumed names and isolated from the outside world. The media were banned from reporting about their arrests, word of which generally leaked to journalists in this small and intimately talkative land.
The prisoners’ interrogators threatened that if they failed to follow guidelines, they would be deprived of various rights, such as family visits. The last known case of this disturbing practice was that of Professor Marcus Klingberg, the deputy scientific director of the top-secret Israel Institute for Biological Research. He was arrested in 1983 and convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. He had to play along with using a false name in prison and was known to his jailers as Greenberg.
Gossip about some of these cases naturally reached foreign correspondents, and as a result readers around the world knew about occurrences in Israel — often presented in harshly negative tones — even while gag orders prevented Israelis from reading or hearing reports freely available abroad. The internet age has made a mockery of this practice, as Israelis can read foreign websites. Yet judges and security agencies here cling to the old days, when they thought they could control everything. The ties that bind the intelligence community, the defense establishment, and law enforcement authorities, including the courts, are too tight and too cozy. Espionage agencies that are rated among the world’s finest demonstrate a Neanderthal's knowledge of how information reaches the public in this high-tech era.
The Mossad and its sophisticated combatants display daring and courage behind enemy lines, and they know how to gather information. In the pre- and post-internet eras, they have been very good at waging psychological warfare involving the dissemination of disinformation and rumors. Yet the Mossad is less capable of handling crises involving the mass media. Attempting to conceal facts only serves to stimulate interest and attract even more attention. By treating every bit of information as a national secret, the Mossad and the other state security institutions have caused the number of secrets to multiply. Trying to protect all of these secrets has made it difficult for any secret to remain so, including ones that really deserve to be.
Here is one example to prove the point. Victor Ostrovsky, a Mossad cadet who was ousted from the service, wrote a book aggrandizing his own role in it and supposedly revealing Mossad secrets. Given the publication of his book and what came to be known about him —including being caught committing fraud — he should probably never have been recruited by the agency in the first place. The Israeli government foolishly tried to block publication of Ostrovsky’s book in the United States, which naturally resulted in its becoming an international best-seller in 1990.
The Mossad’s handling of the Zygier affair is reminiscent of what was said about French royalists more than two centuries ago: They forget nothing, yet they learn nothing. As effective as Israel’s covert combatants have been, their chiefs repeatedly display a we-know-best attitude that crosses the border into destructive arrogance. The Mossad’s shiny image has been tarnished by this episode, with the agency seen to be desperately scurrying to close the barn door after the horse has bolted, perhaps because there are other embarrassing steeds and stories still tightly held.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli commentator on intelligence and security affairs for the Israeli news website Walla and co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars.