JERUSALEM (Jun. 30)
Premier Shimon Peres told a packed Knesset Monday evening that he is prepared to face “a judicial inquiry or any other (kind of) inquiry” into political responsibility with respect to the scandal surrounding Shin Bet and its former chief, Avraham Shalom.
The Premier made clear that he wanted a probe limited to the political levels, not the operational levels of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security and counter-espionage services.
Peres’s statement opened a full scale debate in the Knesset on whether an investigation should be launched into allegations that Shalom engineered an elaborate cover-up in the case of the unexplained deaths of two captured Arab bus hijackers in custody of security agents in April, 1984.
MOUNTING DEMANDS FOR PROBE
Peres is faced with mounting demands for an official investigation by many Labor Party ministers and their political allies in the unity coalition government, and a majority of Labor’s Knesset faction.
This is fiercely opposed by the Likud ministers who have accused Labor of trying to precipitate a coalition crisis to bring down the government before Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir assumes office as Prime Minister next October, under terms of the coalition’s rotation of power agreement.
There are five no-confidence motions pending against the government over the affair from opposition factions. They are expected to be easily defeated. But the issue of an investigation may hinge on a decision of the Supreme Court.
A panel of three justices is presently hearing a series of appeals to overturn the pardon granted by President Chaim Herzog last Wednesday to Shalom and three of his top aides in Shin Bet for any offenses they may have committed in connection with the deaths of the prisoners in custody.
Peres, Shalom, Justice Minister Yitzhak Modai, Police Minister Haim Barlev and Attorney General Yosef Harish are all named as respondents. Harish is arguing their case.
The three justices — Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, Miriam Ben-Porat and Aharon Barakruled Monday that Herzog’s name be removed from the list of respondents on grounds that he acted within his constitutional authority when he granted the pardons. But this does not mean the pardons cannot be challenged.
The appeals were filed by the Citizens Rights Movement (CRM), a political party in the Knesset, and by several groups of private attorneys. By late Monday evening the court was still in session hearing substantive arguments for and against the pardons.
SEEK TO ESTABLISH POLITICAL RESPONSIBILITY
The court was told that when Shin Bet chief Shalom applied for a Presidential pardon last week, he stated all his actions in the case at hand had been undertaken “with authority and permission.”
One of the main objectives of those seeking an investigation is to establish political responsibility for the illegal killing of prisoners. The head of Shin Bet is responsible solely to the Prime Minister and Shamir was Prime Minister at the time of the incident. Peres took office several months later. Both men were alleged to have known of the purported cover-up by Shalom.
Peres told the Knesset, “I do not accuse any person in the political echelon,” an apparent reference to Shamir. “But (the affair) must be investigated so as to leave no doubt,” he added. “I don’t want to go around trailing a tail of questionmarks. I have always been consistent to principles. I have never sought an inquiry of the operational level, but have defended that level and I have not opposed an inquiry of the political echelon.”
NO DECISION YET FROM CABINET
He said he could not report to the house any definitive position of the government because the Cabinet has not yet taken a position. He said the demand for a commission of inquiry was submitted by “a group of ministers” and there would be debate and a decision on it.
The Likud Knesset faction held caucus before the plenary debate began. Speaker after speaker flayed Peres and the Labor Party for “whipping up” the Shin Bet affair as a way to thwart the rotation of power.
Shamir himself levelled the same charge. He told reporters Monday that it was “as clear as daylight” that the attacks by Labor on the Presidential pardon were aimed at bringing down the government.
Political observers said Monday night that despite the bristling hostility between the two major coalition partners, behind-the-scenes efforts were being made to find an acceptable way out of the controversy over a probe of the Shin Bet affair.