"Being stationed in Australia is pure joy," an Israeli diplomat who served in the far-away continent once told me. "It is like being on home turf. You don't have to provide explanations for every little thing, all the time. The local government officials welcome you with great hospitality, and among the diplomatic community you are regarded as someone who belongs to the in-crowd. And if that's not enough, you have an extremely warm and supportive Jewish community that wants nothing more than to make your life easier. Add to that the fact that the Jewish community there is part of the upper class, and you understand just how good you have it," the diplomat added.
But these promising words were recently replaced with the word "embarrassment" when the Prisoner X affair broke and dominated the headlines down under. Though this is not the first time that the Israeli Mossad has surprised/embarrassed the Foreign Ministry (each side can choose the term that better suits its respective view of things), but this time, perhaps, it went just one step too far for the Australians, and Israeli diplomats in Canberra were caught unprepared.
The Prime Minister's Office views the relationship between Israel and Australia as strong and transparent, but over the last three years, our diplomats have had to deal with the repercussions of the use of Australian passports in the assassination of top Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Jan. 2010 (attributed by foreign media to the Mossad). The fact that the Mossad representative in Australia was deported as a result of the fallout of that affair, several months later, also did not contribute to Israel's good reputation.
According to Australian media, these incidents involving foreign passports prompted Australia's allies to apply heavy pressure on Canberra to issue a sharp response. Germany, France, Ireland and especially Britain, were all outraged. Then-British Foreign Minister David Miliband even took a personal stance and demanded harsh measures from the Australians — like the deportation of the Israeli "diplomat."
It is up to Israel's ambassador to Australia, Yuval Rotem, to put the Prisoner X affair into the right perspective. That is presumably what he tried to do at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra, when he was summoned to provide clarifications on the circumstances surrounding the affair. Much ado about nothing, he explained: Ben Zygier's parents, who live in Melbourne, knew about their son's arrest; the Australian authorities were informed that a citizen had been arrested; Prisoner X had more defense attorneys than any other ordinary prisoner — four in total.
Rotem also knows that the Australians, too, have a secret intelligence agency, and that their spies also often opt to compartmentalize intelligence and keep things from their colleagues, even on issues that appear in the papers. That is why he was able to say that there are many details that he simply did not know, being a diplomat and not a spy. And in any case, diplomatic compartmentalization is especially necessary in these times of trouble. A diplomat can feel slighted for being kept in the dark (there are plenty of examples) but in reality, this compartmentalization helps the diplomat to restore order.
Rotem, like any other Israeli diplomat, is well aware of the big challenge he faces — having to clean up after the Mossad like the cleaner character played by Harvey Keitel in the film Pulp Fiction. He or she has to do this not only vis a vis the foreign office, but more importantly in regard to the media and public opinion in the host country. It happened in Bern, in Cyprus, and even in Amman after the failed assassination attempt on Khaled Mashaal (even though in that instance most of the appeasement efforts were directed mainly at Jordanian king Abdullah).
It is a dirty job. It is unpleasant. But it is not necessarily terrible. The short and mid-term trust suffers, but then you move on, especially if one side imposes a sanction on the other. Morally, it allows both sides to turn over a new leaf. In the current situation, it appears that both countries are beginning to identify the culprits responsible for the real breakdowns in this affair: A suicide in a high security prison cell and Australia's various ministries' failure to communicate with one another.
Surprisingly, or not, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr (formerly the premier of New South Wales) didn't have a clue about the affair, whereas the diplomats working under him had been thoroughly briefed on Ben Zygier's Dec. 2010 arrest. In fact, this incident is far more embarrassing for the Australians than it is for us. Therefore, even if it is not unanimous, they want to investigate.
A question of loyalty
It is important to recall that most Diaspora Jews have two true loves: Israel and the country they chose to live in. When I was sent over the years to lecture in different places around the world (Finland, Belgium, Canada, Italy and Australia as well) on behalf of Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal), I was always received by a warm Jewish audience that loves Israel and donates generously. (I was also sent to Muslim countries, but the situation there with the local Jewish communities is entirely different). However, these Jews found a home in the country they live in. The same is true for Australia's Jews.
For them, it is like having a wife and a mistress who know about each other and live in peace and joy with each other, even though their non-Jewish Australian neighbors may not understand this arrangement. Dual loyalty is not easy to understand. Therefore, Israeli diplomats have yet another important task: Part of the cleanup job is to restore the activities of the Jewish community to their rightful path. This needs to be done with extra care, so as not to be perceived by the locals as trying to recruit Australian Jews for security purposes.
Last summer, when I returned from Melbourne, I was asked by Australian diplomats to talk about my impression of the Jewish community there. I was immediately reminded of the time when I was working as an Israeli journalist in Paris in 2002, during the dark days of the second Intifada. In those days, Israeli citizens were being killed in suicide attacks on the streets, but in Europe, Israel was the target of condemnation and boycott calls.
As I told the Australian diplomats, France's Jewish community reported to the Jussieu Campus (Campus Universitaire de Jussieu) — a higher education campus located in the 5th arrondissement of Paris — to protest an initiative to boycott Israel's academic institutions. They were demonstrating in support of Israel but carrying French flags. In this regard they reminded me of Australia's Jews — they were very much Zionists, but also very Australian.
Despite my impressions, the issue of dual loyalty remains a very complex subject. It was enough to hear the Australian ABC network, exposing the Prisoner X story, saying that "Zygier was arrested on suspicion that he had turned information on secret operations over to Australian agencies," to raise the problem to the surface. According to that Australian report, Zygier had met with ASIO (the Australian internal security service) agents and gave them detailed information on several Mossad operations (including one that was about to be carried out in Italy). The question is whether it was Zygier's initiative to reveal this information or whether he was forced to reveal it because the ASIO had discovered his secret activities.
It was recently reported, in this context, that the Australian security service suspected Zygier and two additional Israelis who held Australian passports of working for the Mossad after they filed requests to change their names. The German news magazine Der Spiegel even included the 'names' of the additional suspects — Paul Y. and David Z. — in their report.
Still, despite the involvement of the ASIO in the affair (in one way or another), Australia, as I've said, is not uniform in its stance on how to handle the situation. Australian Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has remarked that he did not see any reason to investigate the organization's conduct and its role in the affair. Meanwhile, Carr launched an independent investigation into the arrest and mysterious death of Prisoner X. Incidentally, in Carr's case, it is suspected that the motive for his investigation is personal, aiming to address the reason why he knew nothing of the incident.
In any case, following the reports in Australia, Israel's Prime Minister's Office made an unusual decision this week and issued an uncharacteristic announcement stating that "contrary to various reports, Ben Zygier was not in contact with Australian security services or security agencies." The prime minister even added, perhaps due to the strong alliance between Israel and Australia, that "the cooperation between the State of Israel, including all its organizations, and the Australian government and its security organizations is excellent and fully coordinated. There is complete transparency in the handling of current issues."
Choosing a side
It is important to keep in mind that spy stories always stimulate the imagination. Even more so when the spy story involves the Mossad. Therefore, since Australian law allows citizens to change their first and last names every year, the feeling among Australians is that Australian Jews make attractive targets for Mossad recruiters — a new name means a new identity and an ability to easily assimilate oneself into a new setting for espionage purposes. Now, every young Jew is going to be viewed by the Australians as a potential Mossad spy, or, alternately, an active agent.
But reality is shifting rapidly. The Australians are still outraged over the use of Australian passports for spying purposes, even if the spying is not hostile, but the Prisoner X affair is becoming more and more of an internal issue in both countries, and less and less of a strain on Israeli-Australian relations.
The Brisbane Times was right to report that the "Zygier spy case gets ever curiouser" bringing us back to the main conundrum of dual loyalty. According to the Brisbane Times, Australians believe that the country's Jews must put Australia first, while Israelis feel that they must put Israel first. "Spying will continue because every country has an interest in it," the paper writes, and immediately takes a jab: "The trick is to be better at it than others, and better at catching others' spies than they are at catching yours."
In addition, the Brisbane Times raises the need to choose a side. "There comes a point where a Jewish person cannot faithfully be both Australian and Israeli. One has to choose," the paper writes. They try to make the point general by referencing Australians who are also American or Chinese, but the emphasis is clearly on Jews, while the focus is on the Zygier case. In fact, this is the most dangerous aspect of this story, which poses a huge obstacle for Jews in the world in general, and namely to Australian Jews. They are a tempting target for Mossad recruiters, due to their legitimate passports and readily available cover stories (the ability to legally change their names).
Incidentally, there are those who believe that the Prisoner X affair will soon become one of the hot-button issues in the upcoming Australian elections. The Jewish community will most likely try to keep a low profile on anything having to do with the affair. The Australian Jewish community recently suggested protesting the fact that the elections have been scheduled to coincide with Yom Kippur. Under the new circumstances, it will be interesting to see whether anyone actually does.
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In conclusion, perhaps in efforts to assuage fears, I will mention one of the instances in which Australia stood by our side. It happened while I was serving as Israel's ambassador to Mauritania — a hostile country that had undergone a military coup and "democratic" elections, and was considering severing diplomatic ties with Israel. It was the Australian Embassy that rushed to stand by my side at that time and to explain to the local authorities the importance of maintaining ties with Israel — both for the Australians and for the Mauritanians.
There is no doubt that Australia will continue to stand by us in the future, despite the current delicate situation and the fears that were raised in this article. The central question is this: Beyond the passport crisis and the Prisoner X affair, will anyone ever be able to explain what happened to Ben Zygier, whose passport was obviously real, but to whom something mysterious went terribly wrong along the way?