With each hour that passes, with every new piece of information, the mystery of Ben Zygier, the prisoner who committed suicide in 2010, is gradually fading and losing its initial jaw-dropping effect. The Israeli media, which has based its reporting on Australian sources, gives us the following account of how this affair unfolded:
• Stories abounded, stimulating imaginations across the Middle East and reaching an apex when an Arabic-language newspaper reported that Zygier had taken part in the assassination of top Hamas operative Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai three years ago. He was then caught by the local authorities before being rescued by Israeli commandos. Even the Dubai police has denied this account. This all sounds like one big Middle Eastern folk tale.
• According to foreign media, Zygier was a Mossad agent who was about to reveal to Australian intelligence officials that passports from down under had been exploited by Israel. Whether this is true or not is unclear, but if it is, Australia would probably accept Israel's rationale for detaining Zygier. This is how countries defend themselves when their secrets are about to be compromised.
• Canberra received real time information on Zygier's arrest. Did it need anything beyond that?
• Legal advisers accompanied Zygier's arrest from start to finish. His family was made aware of his incarceration. He was afforded due process. He was represented by well-known defense attorneys. The last person to see him alive was attorney Avigdor Feldman. So enough about his "disappearance." That claim is plain rubbish.
• Placing him in solitary confinement was completely understandable, particularly if the Australian media's claim that he exposed Mossad secrets turns out to be true. Detainees who are arrested on national security violations are considered likely repeat offenders who might flout the rules. Many Israelis recall how Mordechai Vanunu (who was arrested after revealing Israel's alleged nuclear secrets) saw a decision to move him from one venue to another as an opportunity to reveal the details of the operation that led to his capture. This should not happen again.
• The allegations against Zygier may not be as grave as those against Vanunu, but they may very well be. In any event, they are not germane to his suicide. Nobody takes his own life just because he was given a secret identity; a person does such a thing because his personality dictates it. Such people just decide that they can no longer live their lives. Suicides are not limited to cases where people are suspected of national security crimes or have secret identities in secret prison cells.
It is now obvious that it was a mistake to try to suppress the coverage of the Zygier affair. It showed a lack of sound judgement by those who head the Mossad. It came across as an attempt to spare the spy agency and the Israel Prison Service the embarrassment associated with Zygier's reported recruitment and his eventual suicide. The media embargo had little to do with national security. The Mossad had ample time to cover Zygier's tracks, but that is a whole different issue.
Tamir Pardo, the head of the Mossad, should have known better before he convened the heads of all major news outlets and asked them to withhold publication of the story. It was a pointless endeavor and it demonstrated that Pardo is not up to date with the current media reality. He could have braced for the news coming out of Australia well in advance as he was aware of the investigative report that had been brewing for some time. The Mossad claims the media embargo it managed to impose gave it several hours to conduct damage control. I find that hard to believe. Pardo had three years to prepare for that moment. He may have found the Zygier affair to be unflattering, but that is no excuse for stifling free speech and compromising the public's right to know.
Too bad Pardo failed to realize that there was no turning back once the story was aired by the Australian TV network. He should have realized that a low profile response that included no comment would have been preferable. Every other day a new story emerges about some other Mossad affair. Some cast it in a negative light. Some don't. The general public has no way of knowing which stories are true and which aren't. By invoking legal statutes Pardo gave this affair unnecessary attention that made it look believable.
In other countries an agent such as Zygier would have been killed and then dumped in the river, with his body reappearing miles away downstream. Of course, if the reporting on Zygier turns out to be true it would merit some serious scrutiny to determine why he was recruited in the first place, why his fragile personality was not detected in time and why the Israel Prison Service failed to keep him alive. The last question is not as important as the others, because inmates who are bent on killing themselves are going to find a way to do it. That is just the nature of the prison environment.
On the whole, the affair was handled appropriately. Israel has nothing to be ashamed of. The actions of police, the Israel Security Agency and the Mossad interrogators were consistent with what such agencies are entitled to do and is in line with Israel's right to defend itself. It's time to put this in the right perspective: the Middle East is currently in the midst of a bloody life-and-death battle with casualties on both sides. Zygier was one such casualty.