Israeli legislators, fired up over the Ben Zygier affair, called for an independent investigation of the Mossad agent’s incarceration and death on Sunday. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s security forces need to be allowed to work in peace.
“I rely completely on the security forces of the State of Israel. They operate with endless dedication and commitment to ensure that we will be able to live in this country,” said Netanyahu at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting, addressing the issue for the first time since reports of Zygier’s arrest and death emerged last week.
“We are not like other countries,” he said. “We are an exemplary democracy and maintain the rights of those under investigation and individual rights no less than any other country. However, we are more threatened and face more challenges; therefore, we must maintain proper activity of our security agencies.”
Netanyahu stressed that the defense establishment works under the constant supervision of independent legal authorities, and warned that “overexposure of security and intelligence operations could harm, sometimes severely, state security. Therefore, in any discussion, the security interest cannot be made light of, and in the reality in which the State of Israel lives, this must be a main interest.”
Jewish Home MK Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) sent a letter on Sunday to acting Speaker of the Knesset MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Zeev Elkin, the chairman of the Knesset Steering Committee, demanding they take steps to enable an investigatory committee to look into Zygier’s case. Ariel asked that the Steering Committee appoint a temporary chairman for the Knesset State Control Committee, which is currently not in session, that would then enable that body to meet and establish a probe.
“Of course, I see myself as an appropriate candidate,” said Ariel.
Ariel served as the committee’s chairman in the previous Knesset.
On Saturday, MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) called for an independent and nonpartisan investigation into the incident, saying he ceased looking into the matter two years ago at the request of intelligence officials.
“I have not the slightest shadow of a doubt that it needs to be investigated and checked by an external and independent body,” he said. “It is absolutely wrong for there to be a consensus supporting such grave actions by the defense establishment, to the extent of making people vanish.”
“The current episode should lead to a shake-up in all the branches of the security establishment,” he said. “When it comes to anything to do with media, [the attempt to suppress coverage] shows conservatism or ignorance or both. Perhaps our boys haven’t noticed but the world has changed.”
Cabel said that he first became aware of “Prisoner X” — the name by which Zygier was described before his name became public — after reading a report on a news website in 2010. He said the report was immediately taken down, but he became interested and made a formal inquiry into the circumstances of the prisoner’s incarceration. Cabel said he then encountered pressure from “the highest ranks of the intelligence community,” who convinced him to abandon his requests for information.
The chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense committee at the time, MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud), said that he too received no official information about Zygier during the period.
In an interview with Israel Radio on Sunday, Hanegbi said the matter required investigation but hastened to add that despite the mysterious circumstances of Zygier’s arrest, he was sure it was not “totalitarian state-style.”
Vice Premier and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Saturday that the incarceration of “Prisoner X,” as Zygier came to be known, was made necessary by Israel’s “unique” security situation.
Speaking to Channel 2, Ya’alon said that “extreme measures” such as the conditions under which Ben Zygier was incarcerated were not only necessary but even constituted pikuah nefesh — the Jewish imperative to save lives, even if religious laws are broken in the process.
Ya’alon insisted that Israel was not a “benighted” state and does not incarcerate prisoners under assumed names without notifying the legislature and the prisoner’s family.
Ya’alon refused to acknowledge that the Melbourne-born prisoner was a Mossad agent or to disclose the deed Zygier had allegedly committed to warrant incarceration in a solitary high-security cell, saying only that the measures were justified.
“We have to assume that if we reached such a state, it means there was a slip here that required that steps be taken by the organization under discussion… under full supervision, and after many considerations,” said Ya’alon.
The Justice Ministry was scheduled on Sunday to decide whether to partially lift the gag order on an investigation into Zygier’s death that concluded that his death was self-inflicted and that there was no negligence involved.
Meanwhile, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced on Sunday that his country would launch a formal investigation into the circumstances surrounding Zygier’s death.
“We have asked the Israeli government for a contribution to that report,” Carr said. “We want to give them an opportunity to submit to us an explanation of how this tragic death came about.”
It has been widely reported that Zygier was recruited by the Mossad after immigrating in 2000, was questioned by the Australian security authorities back in his country of birth nine years later, was arrested in Israel in early 2010, and committed suicide in his cell at Ramle’s Ayalon Prison on December 15, 2010, aged 34. There were no cameras in the bathroom, which explained the lack of video evidence for the suicide, despite the fact that Zygier was reportedly under suicide watch and held in a high-tech cell under 24-hour surveillance, according to a report on Channel 2.
The alleged crime that led to his incarceration has not been detailed. Nor has it been explained how he was able to kill himself in a high-security cell while under suicide watch.