TEL AVIV (May. 27)
A veil of mystery — and public bewilderment — continued Tuesday to surround a burgeoning scandal involving a “senior official” whom Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir seems determined to prosecute for deliberate obstruction of justice — a move said to be fiercely opposed by powerful elements within the government.
Although the man in question has not been officially identified, authoritative sources confirmed overseas media reports that he is Avraham Shalom, head of Shabak, Israel’s internal security service, commonly known as Shin Bet. It is the Israeli equivalent of the FBI or the British M-5, responsible mainly for internal security and counter-espionage. The identity of its chief has always been a State secret.
SEVERAL RAMIFICATIONS TO THE CASE
There are several ramifications to the case. One is the running feud between Zamir and rightwingers in and out of the government who want the Attorney General ousted on grounds that he has shown too much independence of government needs and that he has been too lenient to Arab and leftist petitioners. They demand that if he is not fired, his powers be severely curtailed.
Zamir, who announced three months ago his intention to resign, has set no date. But he has maintained that the case at hand, if not prosecuted, threatens the very foundation of Israel’s democracy and the rule of law.
Premier Shimon Peres convened his 10-man Inner Cabinet (five Labor and five Likud Ministers) Monday night for a top-secret session on the affair. That inner body appears to be the only group in full possession of the facts of the case. Other Cabinet members and many members of the Knesset admit they are as much in the dark as the public.
CIRCUMSTANCES SURROUNDING THE CASE
Although not confirmed by any official source, it is generally acknowledged that the case stems from circumstances surrounding the Killing of two of four terrorists who two years ago hijacked an Egged bus near Ashkelon and sped with its passengers as hostages, toward the Gaza Strip.
Two of the terrorists were killed in a gun battle when the bus was intercepted by an elite Israel Defense Force unit commanded by Brig. Gen. (now Maj. Gen.) Yitzhak Mordechai. The two surviving terrorists were killed under mysterious circumstances before they could be transferred to jail. It is widely believed they were beaten to death by Israeli security agents.
Mordechai was cleared of responsibility for the deaths of the terrorists, who were last seen alive being led away from the bus for interrogation. Mordechai admitted striking the prisoners with his pistol to get immediate confirmation of reports that the bus was booby-trapped. The information was needed because the hostages, many of them wounded, were in the process of being evacuated from the vehicle.
But he told an army court of inquiry that the prisoners were alive when handed over by the IDF to the border police and by the latter to Shabak agents for questioning. Shabak claimed dead bodies were handed over to them.
In the aftermath, one Shin Bet man resigned and two others, subordinates of Shalom, were forced by him to resign. They complained later to the Supreme Court that their superior had given false testimony and they presumably were being made scapegoats in the affair.
SUSPICIONS ABOUT THE SECURITY CHIEF
According to Israel Radio, the security chief — Shalom — is suspected by the Attorney General of having suborned witnesses to perjury during the subsequent investigation of the terrorists deaths by a commission of inquiry. He is alleged to have forged documents and fabricated evidence, Israel Radio said.
The bus hijack and subsequent events occurred during the administration of the Likud-led government when Yitzhak Shamir was Premier and his Herut colleague, Moshe Arens, was Minister of Defense. But both the former leaders and the present incumbents, Premier Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Robin, are said to believe the Shabak head should be supported because of possible adverse effects on State security and national morale if he and Shin Bet in general are subjected to police investigation and possible criminal charges.
A DIRECT CONFRONTATION
Legal circles say the affair amounts to a direct confrontation between those who insist that the rule of law is paramount and others who believe the law must be bent or adjusted in the interests of security. By and large, the legal profession and professors of law at the universities have rallied in support of Zamir.
But the affair has only sharpened the attacks on Zamir by Likud politicians and other rightwingers who will not forgive the Attorney General for his zealous prosecution of a Jewish terrorist underground consisting mainly of Orthodox Jews from the West Bank who were convicted of violent crimes against Arab civilians. Their anger at Zamir was compounded when he refused to recommend pardons for the convicted men.