Spy Fail

Why Israel Couldn't Contain Prisoner X Story

Dan Goldenblatt explains why even with the increased flow of information about Prisoner X—Ben Zygier, aka Ben Alon, aka Ben Allen—we will probably never really know the truth.

Even with the increased flow of information about Prisoner X—Ben Zygier, aka Ben Alon, aka Ben Allen, aka…—we will probably never really know the truth. What could be the chain of events that led a good Jewish boy from Melbourne, Australia, who, it was confirmed by Israel, worked for the Mossad for 10 years, to end up as an anonymous prisoner in complete isolation in Israel's most secure and watched prison cell? The fact that under what was supposed to be 24-7-365 observation he also succeeded to hang himself only adds to the mystery.

Prisoner X seems to have been employed by what the Guardian is calling a front company set up by Mossad in Europe that was involved in selling electronic wares to Iran and elsewhere. One needs not to be an investigative journalist or spy novelist to see a possible connection between this and a long list of unexplained explosions, highly sophisticated viruses and a long list of assassinations that have reportedly negatively affected the progress of the Iranian nuclear program.

This will and may already be material for a Hollywood box office hit. However, from Israel's point of view I would like to highlight two troubling points:First is what appears to be a colossal failure of Israel's crowned spook agency to understand new media and the information age. The Mossad may know how to develop sophisticated viruses that destroy uranium centrifuges and other hardware but when it comes to Twitter, Facebook and other social media, the start-up nation's spy agency and the prime minister's office (its direct boss) failed in a most embarrassing way and probably exacerbated the damage of the case. The fact that this is not the first case of failure of the system to try to hide information that is de facto, beyond its control should not really contribute to our sense of security. This happened in 1990 with Israel's embarrassing attempt to prevent the publication of "By Way of Deception," a book by former Mossad agent, Victor Ostrovsky. The effort that included a failed lawsuit filed by the Israeli government both in Canada and the U.S. catapulted the book into a New York Times bestseller.

And so, an attempt by the Chief Military Censor to enforce one of the most over-reaching the gag orders ever issued by an Israeli court on the three Members of Knesset, Zehava Gal-on, Dov Henin and Ahmed Tibi, after they had already presented their questions to Justice Minister Yaacov Neeman, was a clumsy, not to say incompetent one. If anything, it only fueled interest in the case. The fact that the following day Israel officially confirmed most of the findings of Australian's ABC investigative piece and the court significantly reduced the scope of the gag order demonstrates that the use of "national security" to block everything is an anachronistic and counterproductive strategy.

The second point of concern is the reaction of some and the silence of others since the case exploded all over global and local media. Forget the embarrassing Member of Knesset Miri Regev's call to indict the three Members of Knesset who exposed the case. Israel has gotten used to Regev's pigeon Hebrew and sustained lack of understanding of the meaning of democracy, the role of Parliament and the rule of law. Her vocal reactionary buffoonery has become part of Israel's political entertainment. Much more troubling, though sadly not surprising, is what Avigdor Lieberman, until a month ago Israel's Foreign Minister, Prime Minister Netanyahu's party deputy, had to say. Lieberman accused the three Member of Knesset who used their Parliamentary immunity to breach the gag order, of willful and repeated attempts to harm national security, to justify the enemy and of identifying with the enemy during times of war. Basically: treason. The obvious proto-fascist ultra-nationalist position of the person who used to be Israel's first diplomat should serve as an ominous reminder of how close a reality whereby darkened windowed cars pull up to political dissident's homes in the middle of the night, dragging us out of bed can be. To end on a more positive note, I will carefully say that the results of the last elections have strengthened the democratic forces in Israel and reduce the chances of Israel slipping into tyranny. However, having had our prime minister murdered by a Jew, nothing should be dismissed as impossible in Israel.

So what does this all mean for Israel, for the Mossad, for Iran? There is probably some damage caused Israeli intelligence. Not for the first time, probably not the last and not something that will cause the Mossad to go legit (a legit spy agency is afterall an oxymoron). Sadly, this will, at the end of the day, have little if any effect. It will obviously have no effect on the one single transformative strategic step that Israel needs to take to significatnly improve its safety and security and ensure, its continued vibrant existance in the middle east. The step that will inevitably pull the carpet under the Iranian threat, that is resolving the the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.