Hebrew Media Review


Spies, not superpowers, dominate the Israeli press as it tries to make sense of the Prisoner X affair

Interim Knesset Speaker Binyamin Ben-Eliezer looks on as Miri Regev of the Likud party gives a speech on February 13. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Interim Knesset Speaker Binyamin Ben-Eliezer looks on as Miri Regev of the Likud party gives a speech on February 13. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

There are more questions than answers in Thursday’s papers, but there is only one topic: Prisoner X. The intriguing saga of the super-secret prisoner who was apparently Ben Zygier, a dual Australian-Israeli citizen (and a possible Mossad agent), has captured the attention of the Israeli media.

The questions

Yedioth Ahronoth’s front page asks the question on everyone’s mind: “Was the Mossad agent a traitor?” The ensuing coverage includes more doubts about the mysterious case, including a list of five questions that have yet to be answered, such as what brought about Zygier’s arrest, and how did he commit suicide while under observation in a cell rigged to the rafters with video cameras?

The government lifted part of the gag order on the affair, and Haaretz prints the name of the court case against prisoner X: “Case 8493: The State of Israel vs. John Doe.” The sub-headline references the censorship in the case: “From the Australian investigation to his mysterious death in prison: All the information about Ben Zygier that has been approved for print.”

Aside from sticking its tongue out at the censor, Haaretz also takes a look at the infamous Cell 15 and echoes Yedioth in asking, “How did he succeed in committing suicide while under complete supervision?” The article, which features a picture of the 16-square-meter cell, describes a supposedly suicide-proof space built specifically for Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir. Apparently, even the showerheads in the cell are made of rubber to keep prisoners from hanging themselves, which makes the question even more vexing: How did prisoner X pull it off?

Maariv’s front page also features an image of the recently released court document, but the paper’s lead story is compiled from foreign reports that Zygier worked at an electronics company that was a Mossad front for selling products to Iran. “The case of prisoner X points to Iran,” reads the article headline. Alongside that revelation and others, the article quotes an Israeli source telling the American media that Zygier was arrested because he had “endangered, at a high level, the security of the State of Israel.”

Maariv also includes a list of unanswered questions, with a focus on the operational end of the affair, such as “Where and when was Zygier arrested?” Referring to the inquiry into Zygier’s death, which was completed only six weeks ago, the paper asks, “Why did it take two years to investigate his death?”

The interim Speaker of the Knesset, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, also received some questions about the affair, most notably from defense officials who asked him at 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning to impose a gag order on statements made by Knesset members about the affair and broadcast on live TV. “To that question I immediately answered, ‘No,’ ” he tells the paper.

Israel Hayom’s main article focuses on Zygier’s reported association with Iranian students while studying in Australia in 2009. The paper also quotes foreign press reports that Zygier traveled to Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

Aside from Zygier’s movements, the paper’s coverage includes an article about the reaction of his family in Australia. “We are in too much pain to speak at the moment. We understand the renewed interest about this issue, but we have decided not to speak to anyone,” his father is quoted as saying.

Opinions, not answers

All of the papers provide ample space for their commentators to discuss the incident. Israel Hayom’s Dan Margalit worries about the effect of the media coverage on Israeli security. Margalit argues that Israeli journalists and Knesset members should have respected the gag order on the case. “If a newspaper can do whatever it likes with the judicial decision, do Migron settlers also receive the same right to violate the law?” he writes, arguing that even though the incident merited investigation, the media should have just remained mum.

In Yedioth, Ronen Bergman asserts the inverse — that, in fact, the case needed to see the light of day. Bergman writes that if Israel had conducted an investigation and hadn’t tried to prevent information from leaking out, the story would have been less intriguing, but because of Israel’s anachronistic efforts it achieved the exact opposite result. “Instead of a little incident with lots of question marks, the state attorney now has to deal with a very serious international incident that we are only seeing the beginning of,” he warns.

Haaretz’s editorial argues against the procedure of “forced disappearance” of citizens. “The state’s secrets should indeed be kept, but that can’t justify such a grave infringement of the civil rights of people who are imprisoned under false identities and with no public supervision.” The piece goes on to argue that such practices should be discontinued. “The state’s security must be protected,” the piece concludes, “but not with sinister methods.”

And now for something completely different

Aside from the news about Prisoner X, the attempt to build a ruling coalition continues, but the Likud may have suffered a setback. Israel Hayom reports that the Jewish Home party has rejected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer to join a coalition. Jewish Home states that the offer was meant to drive a wedge between its members and their friends in Yesh Atid. In response, the Likud says the party’s leader, Naftali Bennett, was being “childish.”

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