The exposure in the Australian media this week of alleged former Mossad agent Ben Zygier, who reportedly committed suicide in Ramle’s Ayalon Prison two years ago, could have very dramatic repercussions for ongoing Mossad operations, Israeli media reported on Wednesday night.
Assuming the information is accurate, the impact of the exposure of the alleged agent and his movements on behalf of Israeli intelligence in Iran, Syria and Lebanon, will have “very significant” consequences for ongoing work, Channel 10 news said.
In countries such as Iran and Syria, the authorities would now be checking through their records, working out when Zygier entered, who accompanied him, and who he met with, the TV report said.
The ABC Australia reporter who broke the story, Trevor Bormann, said in interviews on Wednesday that he was first told about the case in Israel by an Israeli source who said he had “a terrific story” to tell but couldn’t publish it in Israel because of “a gag order” surrounding the case. Bormann said he worked on the story for 10 months, putting the pieces together.
Some Hebrew media reports Wednesday night indicated that Zygier was initially exposed in 2010 by the Australian security authorities.
He immigrated to Israel in around 2000, and was subsequently recruited by the Mossad, they said.
During his years in Israel, Zygier, a lawyer by profession, also worked at the Herzog, Fox, Neeman law firm of Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, Channel 2 reported.
In 2009, he went back to Australia and enrolled for a master’s degree at Melbourne’s Monash University, where he mingled with students from Arab countries, including from Saudi Arabia and Iran.
This attracted the suspicions of the Australian national security services, who called him in for questioning, the reports said, suspecting that he had used his Australian passport to spy for Israel. One Israeli media report on Wednesday night claimed Zygier admitted to the Australian interrogators that he was working for the Mossad, and then also told an Australian journalist. Another report said it was the Australian security services that “burned him” by leaking the story to a local Australian journalist. When this journalist called Zygier, he responded with an angry denial, insisting he had never been involved in espionage.
Three other suspected Mossad agents active at the Australian university campus were also questioned by the authorities, it was reported on Wednesday night. No further details were available.
Not long after he had been questioned, Zygier returned to Israel. He was subsequently arrested and held for eight months in Ayalon jail, in a cell originally designed for Yigal Amir, the assassin of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. His jailers did not know his identity, the reports said. There was no definitive explanation for why he was taken into custody.
It was also not clear why he had committed suicide, although the speculation on Wednesday night was that it might have been a consequence of his exposure. There were unanswered questions, too, about how he had been able to take his own life on December 15, 2010 — reportedly via “asphyxiation by hanging,” according to a post-mortem carried out by the Abu Kabir center for forensic medicine outside Tel Aviv — in a cell with constant camera surveillance and other supervision.
Israel on Wednesday night confirmed that a suicide of a security prisoner occurred at the prison in late 2010, and ordered an investigation into possible negligence by the prison authorities.
Zygier was 34 when he died. His remains were sent to Melbourne for burial shortly afterward.
The handling of the affair in the past two days has come in for withering criticism from several Knesset members — some of whom used parliamentary privilege to bypass the gag order on Tuesday — and by unnamed government sources quoted in the TV reports on Wednesday night. These unnamed sources were quoted as saying that Tamir Pardo, the head of the Mossad, is out of touch with modern media, and mistakenly believed it would be possible to prevent reporting of the story by utilizing court orders and military censorship.
A Channel 10 report quoted government sources as saying that the military censor’s office — utilized to prevent publication of material damaging to Israel national security — should be closed down. Those who broke the law by publishing illegal information should be prosecuted via normal judicial processes, these sources suggested.
Channel 10 also said the sources intimated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had panicked over the affair on Tuesday, when Israeli editors were summoned in an effort to suppress the story. Netanyahu was also said to have panicked when a Mossad attempt to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal went awry in Amman in 1996 during his first prime ministership, and when details of the alleged Mossad assassination of Hamas weapons procurer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010 began to leak out.
The Dubai incident, another episode that involved the alleged use of Australian and other foreign passports, has also been linked to Zygier, in a report in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East,” Australian reporter Bormann said Wednesday, but “when it comes to matters of security, it can be very heavy-handed.”
Attempting to assess the potential damage to Israeli-Australian relations, reports Wednesday night noted that the Australian authorities have not filed any formal complaint with Israel over the affair. It was noted that Israel reportedly did inform an official at the Australian Embassy of Zygier’s detention and suicide at the time, although this information apparently did not reach the Australian government.
Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr ordered an investigation on Wednesday — indeed, after it became clear that the Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv had been informed of Zygier’s jailing — but the information had not been transferred to the proper channels.
“The Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv was unaware of this Australian’s detention until his death was reported by his family, who requested repatriation of his remains,” Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement Wednesday. “The family has not asked for any further representations.”
The Australian authorities only formally complained about the Mabhouh affair after other countries whose passports were reportedly used did complain, it was noted Wednesday night. Zygier’s family has also not commented substantively on the matter.
According to the report on Australia’s ABC television, Zygier went by the alias Ben Alon in Israel, and was married to an Israeli woman with whom he had two children. He held an Australian passport under the name Ben Allen, according to the report.