Prisoner why
Hebrew media review

Prisoner why

The Ben Zygier spy case continues to fascinate the press, with questions abounding of why he went to jail and whether it needed to be kept a secret

A man reading a news report about the reported Mabhouh assassination in 2010. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
A man reading a news report about the reported Mabhouh assassination in 2010. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Was Ben Zygier a blabber-mouthed loose cannon that had to be jailed for almost exposing the secrets of Israel’s most secretive organization, the secret Mossad? Or was he a tight-lipped, no-nonsense Zionist warrior who made himself anonymous in prison to protect himself and his family?

Depending on which front page you choose to glance at Friday morning, you could have either idea about the man recently outed as the Prisoner X who killed himself in jail in 2010.

All four papers report the same basic conflicting info, based on media reports in Kuwait, Australia and even here, of Zygier’s exploits, possibly linked to the 2010 assassination of Hamas man Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, and what landed him in the clink. But, oh, do they play the story differently.

Whereas Israel Hayom displays the story straight, with a headline detailing the Australian claim that he was about to divulge secret information, Yedioth Ahronoth goes balls to the wall in the graphics department, displaying the same info, but in massive letters and with a red-tinted Zygier superimposed with an “X” over his face. Whatever sells the papers.

Meanwhile, Maariv leads off with the decidedly less-explosive revelation that Zygier wanted to cover up his name for his and his family’s well-being, essentially laying blame for the whole three years of crazy secrecy on the dead man. Haaretz takes the road less traveled, leading off the front page with coalition talk coverage (those are still going on?), relegating poor old Prisoner X to a series of referrals to the inside pages and an analysis opinion by military reporter Amos Harel — on the fact that other Western countries seem to operate just fine without a military censor looking over every word they publish. Even so, the paper does break new ground by reporting that Zygier’s family is set to receive millions of shekels from Israel following the ruling that the death was indeed a suicide.

But what seems to interest Israeli journalists the most is the secrecy surrounding the case, and how it all blew up in the censor’s face. After spending Thursday defending the military censor’s regime with four pro-censorship op-eds on its front page, Israel Hayom gets somewhat more in line with the rest of the Israeli media Friday, complementing its hodgepodge of news stories with think pieces wondering what damage, if any, was actually caused by the revelations.

Intrepid pro-censorship journalist and walking paradox Dan Margalit sticks to his guns, though, and says Israel did nothing wrong and that keeping the story under a tight lid was the right thing to do, though he does have some pointers for Mossad chief Tamir Pardo: “Israel acted properly. It has reasons to maintain ambiguity. It’s assumed that the fog allows the Mossad to continue in its business, the necessary, secretive and problematic. [The secrecy] gave the Mossad three years of activities. There’s no reason to be sorry or ashamed. It’s just a shame that the man at its head, Tamir Pardo, didn’t understand this week that this comfortable period had ended, that it was impossible to prevent the publication in Australia… and it would have been better to keep calm, not do anything and let things be published. At the end of the day, good and bad things about the Mossad will be published, and nobody among the public can separate the wheat from the chaff.”

In the same pages, Amit Levinthal wonders if censorship is even viable anymore, and quotes Prof. Uri Bar Yosef, an expert on national security issues, as saying that censors need to round up the wagon and start being more choosy with their black redacting pens. “There’s no doubt that the ability to keep secrets is much harder today. And so you need to take a more selective approach and be careful,” he says. “For a while now we’ve been out of the era of a few stations, channels and paper. Today the media is nonstop.”

In Yedioth, Ronen Bergman tries to tackle some of the big questions surrounding the case — Why was Zygier recruited? Was the story’s publication a form of treason? Will all this secrecy come to bite Israel in the ass. In homage to Mr. Margalit, I won’t spoil all of Bergman’s secrets, but the story is most fascinating when given a glimpse into Bergman’s mind of how he deals with such stories, as he does on a regular basis, and how he was trying to get the word out on X while Australia was still a prisoner colony:

“In the middle of 2010, somebody told me about a ‘prisoner X’ that’s in prison in Ramle. ‘I know the story, it’s a big story, it deserves a book, John le Carré style,’ I said. ‘This is a new X,’ the somebody said, ‘a very serious case.’ The man went off on the story’s details, which truly sounded like a serious case and painted the man in prison as a big villain, who could cause other men’s deaths. It was clear to me at that point that there was nothing to do with the story. Too secret, too blacked out, dealing with it would just raise anger and be stopped by the censor. There were things in the case of Zygier that were best left quiet — there were people’s live that needed to be protected… A few months later I heard the same prisoner killed himself before the end of his trial. That changed the rules of the game and demanded the publication of the story, both because it’s impossible to keep a story like that secret and it’s not ethical…. We went to the court to decrease the gag on the case. The president of the central District Court threw us out on the steps.”

Ethics and natural partners

Like any other Friday, Maariv and Haaretz both play up internal politics, in this case coalition talks. Maariv reports that Netanyahu is still trying to pry Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett from the grips of Yair Lapid, to no avail. Despite the fact that conventional wisdom has shown Netanyahu to prefer new kid Lapid to old rival Bennett, Maariv says that, in fact, Netanyahu wants Bennett in first, before he deals with the less-natural partner of Yesh Atid.

“He wants to see Bennett as the first partner that signs on a coalition deal, and he wants to create a government that will be assembled first of all from ‘natural partners’ — Jewish Home and the ultra-Orthodox,” the paper quotes a Likud source (or the whole party in unison) as saying. “On that basis, only after there is already a coalition will Netanyahu be ready to bring in Livni, Mofaz and Lapid.”

Haaretz tackles the issue of the Foreign Ministry portfolio being reserved for former top diplomat Avigdor Liberman, even though he cannot serve as a minister unless he is cleared of the charges he is facing. After surveying a number of jurists and experts, the paper concludes that doing so is barely legal, and pretty shaky on the ethical spectrum. Take one expert for example:

“Prof. Emanuel Gross, an expert in criminal law at the University of Haifa, accused Netanyahu of having a ‘minimalist, formal, narrow’ view of the law — one of ‘what I’m legally allowed to do, but nothing beyond that,’ ” Ofra Edelman writes. “This is problematic, he said, because ‘the law is really the minimal defense. Beyond the law are standards that we all ought to think about and adopt: the issue of our public norms, of moral and ethical norms. The law isn’t the be-all and end-all.’ In this case, he said, Lieberman is facing trial ‘on a charge that is definitely serious — fraud. So what are you proposing to the Israeli people? To appoint a man accused of fraud? Don’t you have any other candidates? I think this is truly inappropriate. The message to the nation, to the public, is extremely negative.’ ”

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