Knesset finds ‘severe’ failures in Zygier case

Knesset finds ‘severe’ failures in Zygier case

Draft report from Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee accuses Mossad of serious mistakes in ‘Prisoner’ X affair

Lazar Berman is a former breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Ben Zygier (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Ben Zygier (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

The parliamentary team assigned to investigate the 2010 suicide of incarcerated Mossad agent Ben Zygier — also known as “Prisoner X” — determined that the recruitment and handling of Zygier by the Mossad constituted a “severe systematic failure.”

The findings were leaked to Haaretz by an MK involved in writing the draft report on the affair. The lawmaker asked to remain anonymous.

According to the draft, the primary failure lay with the Mossad’s human resources department and with those responsible for selecting and filtering candidates. Mossad chief Tamir Pardo told the committee that since 2003, when Zygier was recruited, the recruitment process has undergone major changes.

The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, chaired by Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) decided on February 17, days after the story was broken by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, that it would open a probe into the affair. The investigation team was headed by Aryeh Deri (Shas), who was joined by Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid) and Ze’ev Elkin (Likud).

According to Haaretz, the committee heard from all the organizations involved in the affair, including senior Mossad, Shin Bet, and Prison Service officials. Zygier’s lawyers also testified.

The committee is not expected to hold anyone personally liable, especially in light of the fact that most of the individuals involved in the case are no longer serving in the Mossad.

German and Australian newspapers reported that Zygier was sent to Europe in 2005 to infiltrate companies dealing directly with Iran. Zygier’s mission was to try to gain access to potential informants in Iran and Syria. However, after two years, during which he was employed in the accounting division of a company, Zygier was recalled to Israel without having achieved substantial results.

Zygier, dejected, was assigned a desk job, but still hoped to find his way back into the field, Der Spiegel reported. Apparently, on his own initiative, he began trying to recruit informants in Lebanon to spy on the Hezbollah terror organization. He contacted an affiliate of the group in a Balkan state and tried to recruit him. However, the Hezbollah member succeeding in turning the tables and duped Zygier into providing information that eventually led to the arrests of a string of Israeli informants in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, after spending a year behind a desk, Zygier asked for permission to continue his academic studies in Melbourne, and in 2008 he began a graduate degree at Monash University. While studying, Zygier was apparently indiscreet about his activities with the Mossad; the agency eventually learned he was leaking details of his service, some of them inaccurate.

Zygier was recalled to Israel to face an investigation, during which details of his maverick Hezbollah operation came to light. He was subsequently arrested, incarcerated under strict secrecy, and charged with what one of his lawyers described as “serious” crimes.

Israeli authorities reportedly sought a prison sentence of up to 10 years for the offenses. A plea bargain was under discussion when Zygier, who was 34 and married with two children, entered the shower with the lights off and hung himself with a wet bed sheet on December 15, 2010. His body was only discovered more than an hour later.

Amid myriad speculations and theories regarding aspects of the Zygier case and his alleged crimes, none of which suggested deliberate treason, Israeli authorities have remained tight-lipped over the precise details of the story.

In April, the State Attorney’s Office announced it will not press charges in Zygier’s death, saying there is not enough evidence to establish a causal link between failures in his supervision and the prisoner’s eventual death.

In its review of the judge’s investigative report, the State Attorney’s Office argued that even checks every half-hour would not have been enough to prevent a determined Zygier from taking his life. The state noted that a hanged Zygier would have died within minutes at most, far less time than the interval between periodic visual checks.

It is not yet known when the Knesset’s final report will be published.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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