JERUSALEM — In a surprise action, the Israeli government decided Wednesday to appoint a prestigious two-member committee to look more closely into the Jonathan Jay Pollard spy affair and recommend corrective action.
The decision came after what was described as a sometimes-heated eight-hour meeting of 10 senior government ministers, and it represented a stronger response to growing domestic and U.S. pressure over the affair than had been expected.
Pollard is the former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who was sentenced to life imprisonment last week for passing hundreds of top-secret military documents to Israel.
The Israeli government apologized to the United States for what it termed an unauthorized "rogue" espionage operation after Pollard was arrested in November, 1985. And it said it had disbanded the intelligence unit that recruited him.
But the promotion just five days before Pollard's sentencing of the Israeli air force officer who was said to have been Pollard's first "handler" raised a new storm of protest in the United States and doubts about the sincerity of Israel's apology.
In Washington on Wednesday, Secretary of State George P. Shultz renewed U.S. criticism of that promotion and told a House subcommittee that he was "deeply distressed" about Pollard's spying for Israel.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who only 24 hours earlier had opposed any further inquiry into the affair, reportedly agreed only on Tuesday night to cooperate with an investigation by the standing intelligence subcommittee of the Knesset (Parliament).
The government announced that it will still cooperate with the Knesset panel, which opens its inquiry today, but added that it has also decided to appoint a special investigating committee composed of respected non-government figures.
'Loss of Credibility'
Shamir changed his mind because of "the realization that somehow there was a loss of credibility in what the government was saying" about the Pollard affair, said the prime minister's spokesman, Avi Pazner.
"We had to find a way to get back the public trust," Pazner said, "(and Shamir) wanted to act swiftly and not to wait for a further erosion of public faith."
The chief political adviser to another senior government minister commented: "It's a very surprising decision. It went much further than I expected."
However, other officials cautioned that an investigating team has significantly less power under Israeli law than a full-fledged state commission of inquiry, which some ministers had demanded in the wake of the Pollard affair.
No Subpoena Power
The two-man team will have no power to subpoena witnesses or require them to testify under oath. And it will have no power to impose its decisions on the government. It will be up to the Cabinet to decide how much of the results of its work to make public.
The late Israeli Chief Justice Yitzhak Kahan was asked to look into Israel's involvement in the 1982 massacre by Lebanese Christians of hundreds of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps in Beirut within the framework of an investigating committee. But he refused, holding out until then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin reluctantly agreed to an independent state commission of inquiry. The commission's final report cost one minister and several army officers their jobs.
"I'm only two-thirds satisfied," said Communications Minister Amnon Rubenstein, who is one of those who called last Sunday for a full-fledged commission of inquiry.
The government nominated for the investigating team former Chief Justice Moshe Landau, 74, and industrialist Zvi Tzur, 61.
Presided at Eichmann Trial
Landau is best known as the presiding judge at the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, and Tzur is a former army chief of staff who beat out Israel's current defense minister, Yitzhak Rabin, for the top army job in 1960.
Tzur has already accepted the assignment, and Landau is expected to respond today.
While it may lack formal power, the two-man team has "moral power," Pazner said. "I would like to see the politician or the government that would not abide by the decision of such a committee," he added.
Among other things, the team is expected to decide the fate of two Israeli officials who have in recent days become the focus of U.S. anger over the Pollard affair: Col. Aviem Sella, who allegedly recruited Pollard to work for an obscure Israeli espionage unit known by its Hebrew acronym LEKEM, and Rafi Eitan, former head of the agency.
Betrayal of Promise Seen
Eitan was named last year as head of the giant firm Israel Chemicals, and Sella was reassigned at the end of February to command of the country's second-largest air base. Both appointments were seen in the United States as a betrayal of Israel's promise to punish those responsible for what it insisted was an unauthorized espionage operation.