JERUSALEM — The head of Israel's secret service resigned Wednesday as part of an 11th-hour negotiated deal intended to limit the damage of a security scandal rooted in the 1984 killings of two Palestinian prisoners by their Israeli interrogators.
In return, former Shin Bet chief Avraham Shalom and three other officers of the organization--which is comparable to the FBI--received presidential pardons guaranteeing them immunity from prosecution for the killings and for an elaborate cover-up that followed.
And Prime Minister Shimon Peres said he will establish a committee to review Shin Bet procedures "based on the lessons of the past."
Cabinet Secretary Yossi Beilin announced the arrangement at a hastily called noon press conference outside Peres' Jerusalem office and said he hopes that it will end the affair.
Described as Necessary
Defenders of the deal, including most of Israel's political right, described it as necessary to protect the functioning of an organization considered vital in the country's fight against terrorism.
However, angry critics--including senior figures in Peres' own Labor Alignment--pledged to fight what one termed "a whitewash intended to allow the political echelon to escape investigation." Four left-wing parties introduced motions of no confidence in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament. And members of the Citizens Rights Movement demonstrated in protest outside Peres' home Wednesday night.
Several Cabinet members expressed public reservations about the deal, and both Energy Minister Moshe Shahal and Parliament member Chaim Ramon said they will seek a full inquiry into whether Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who was prime minister at the time of the incident, knew of the cover-up. Ramon added that while he considers Peres innocent of any wrongdoing, he is ready for Peres' role to be investigated as well.
According to some Israeli press reports, Shalom has proof that Shamir approved of the cover-up, in which evidence was falsified to shift blame for the deaths of the two Palestinians onto a senior army officer.
Questions have also been raised about Peres' knowledge of the affair, since the cover-up continued long after he took over as prime minister in September, 1984.
Shamir's rightist Likud Bloc and Peres' centrist Labor Alignment are joined in Israel's so-called national-unity government, and under a unique provision of the coalition agreement, Shamir is to exchange jobs with Peres next October.
"If he knew about the cover-up, he cannot be prime minister," lawmaker Ramon said of Shamir.
Energy Minister Moshe Shahal of Peres' party denounced the immunity for Shalom, saying, "This arrangement is not the proper move we were obliged to take as a government." And Communications Minister Amnon Rubenstein, a former law professor, called it "a very undesirable precedent."
Even if Peres and other government leaders are able to control the immediate political fallout from the affair, independent analysts warned that it may linger, like an unexploded bomb, beneath the surface of Israeli politics.
Impossible to Stop
"You can't stop something like this from being investigated," commented Arye Naor, a political analyst and onetime Cabinet secretary in the government of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
"It reminds me of the Lavon affair," added Naor, referring to an ill-fated Israeli sabotage effort in the 1950s intended to destabilize the late Gamal Abdel Nasser's government in Cairo and discredit him in the eyes of the West. The plot was uncovered by the Egyptians and Israel's role exposed, triggering a dispute here over who authorized the plan and disrupting Israeli politics for a generation.
The deal announced Wednesday came as a surprise. Late Tuesday night, even as senior ministers and others involved in the affair met in the prime minister's office, top aides were saying it was almost certain that Atty. Gen. Yosef Harish would announce a full-scale judicial inquiry into the Shin Bet scandal, despite opposition from Shamir and others.
Underlining the crisis atmosphere, Shamir had cut short a trip to Paris by one day to hurry home for the meeting.
At one point during the session, Justice Minister Yitzhak Modai and Shalom's lawyer left the room, reportedly to meet with President Chaim Herzog. They returned later with the offer of a pardon, and Shalom, who was also at the meeting, told the ministers that he intended to accept it and resign.
The arrangement was made final at another meeting of senior ministers Wednesday morning.
According to the government statement, "Shalom announced that he wanted to be relieved because the publicity and the revelation of his identity would not allow him to continue fulfilling his job."
Some critics charged that President Herzog's decision to grant amnesty to the four Shin Bet officers was illegal under a 1985 ruling by former Atty. Gen. Yitzhak Zamir that no presidential pardon is possible until formal charges are filed.