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To Kill and Keep Secret : Terrorist Scandal Tests Israel's Morality, Security and Rule of Law

June 08, 1986|Lally Weymouth | Lally Weymouth is a contributing editor to Opinion

TEL AVIV — The security scandal now rocking Israel could be one of the most serious crises since the creation of the state. It has elements of a good Le Carre novel--murder, deceit and intrigue--plus some aspects of Watergate, including a cover-up that could reach to the top of the Israeli government.

It all began when one man, Atty. Gen. Yitzhak Zamir, took on the entire Cabinet and the prime minister in the name of law, order and democratic values. Zamir insisted on upholding the law and rooting out corruption even if it meant going after the highly respected head of the Shin Bet, Israel's secret and extremely effective anti-terrorist agency--equivalent to the FBI.

Zamir wanted to investigate whether Avraham Shalom, the Shin Bet chief, had given orders to have two arrested Arab hijackers killed in 1984 after their attempt to hijack an Israeli bus was thwarted. More, he wanted to find out if, as evidence indicated, Shalom had subsequently ordered a cover-up, including suborning witnesses and producing false testimony before an official commission of inquiry.

The case turned out to involve more than Shalom. The question in the Israeli press last week was whether Shalom acted on his own or did he follow orders given to him by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir?

Minister Ezer Weizman said: "No military action, whether an ordinary army type of operation or a covert action, is undertaken in Israel without the consent and approval of the civil authorities--the defense minister and the prime minister. Therefore, I assume if the allegations are true (that Shalom ordered both the killings and the subsequent cover-up), the actions must have been approved by the authorities responsible. The man responsible was Mr. Shamir. So I point my finger at the then-prime minister, and I want him to say if he was responsible or not."

Shamir's spokesman told me, "As Prime Minister Shamir gave his full backing to the head of the secret services . . . . He knew what a prime minister should know and acted accordingly."

The leading daily newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, reported that Shamir approved the cover-up and that Peres learned about it and didn't stop it. When Peres took office, according to reporter Ron Benyshai, Shamir told him about the approval he had given the Shin Bet in regard to the incident. But Peres claims that Shamir only hinted at it. Yet, according to Yediot, Shalom himself told Peres about the cover-up. Peres denied this, claiming that Shalom started to tell him but "I stopped him and said I didn't want to hear the rest."

Two years ago four terrorists hijacked a bus going from Tel Aviv to Ashkelon. A military unit, under the command of Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai, attacked the bus. Two terrorists were killed as well as one Israeli soldier, a 19-year-old woman. Two other terrorists were captured. A photographer was at the scene and took a picture of them being led away.

When the photograph was printed--the censor failed to prevent it from appearing--officials were asked about the fate of the two captured terrorists. The answer was: During an investigation that night they had died. The next questions were: How? Why?

Minister of Defense Moshe Arens set up a commission of inquiry under Gen. Meir Zorea, including a senior member of Shin Bet. Evidence was presented against Mordechai; he had been seen--indeed he admitted--hitting the terrorists to find out if they had left a bomb on the bus. Following the Zorea Commission hearings and those of a subsequent commission, Mordechai was court-martialed and charged with the death of the terrorists. After a grueling 18 months in court, with the press baiting him mercilessly, he was acquitted. Pathologists said the terrorists died from wounds received during the battle.

But six months ago, three Shin Bet agents went to the prime minister, claiming to have proof that their boss, Shalom, was responsible for the killing of the captured terrorists and the subsequent cover-up. They said he had told witnesses to lie to the commission and had also forged evidence. Peres dismissed the three, claiming then and now that they were out to get Shalom's job.

The three Shin Bet defectors lost their jobs. But they didn't give up. They took their claims to the attorney general. Zamir looked at the material and decided it was his duty to tell the prime minister that there was sufficient evidence against Shalom to bring a case. If the charges were correct, then the Shin Bet chief had broken the law.

Zamir had earlier decided, after seven years on the job, to resign his post. But confronted with the Shalom case, he felt he had to do something, not just leave the matter for his successor.

Peres told Zamir that he had checked the story and decided not to reopen an investigation. He advised Zamir to close the file. To reopen the case, he said, would damage Israel's security.

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