Gwynne Dyer: Prisoner X and the gang who couldn’t shoot straight
Ben Alon, Ben Allen, and Benjamin Burroughs are dead. So is Benjamin Zygier, an Australian Zionist who moved to Israel in the 1990s and became an Israeli citizen. He then adopted the curious custom of flying back to Australia at fairly frequent intervals to change his name (Australia lets its citizens change their names once every 23 months). And every time, Zygier would take out an Australian passport in his new name.
The reason, it turns out, was that he had been recruited by Mossad, the Israeli external intelligence agency, to supply it with Australian passports for use in its foreign operations. So far, nothing new. Israel has been compelled at various times to apologise to the British, Canadian, and Australian governments, among others, for using the passports of Israelis with dual citizenship in its various clandestine operations abroad.
But then the Israeli government arrested Zygier, and held him in solitary confinement until he committed suicide in his cell in late 2010. It has taken until now for the story to get out because Zygier’s imprisonment without trial was treated as a state secret.
Even his jailers were not allowed to know the name of “Prisoner X” or the reason he was being held—and after his death the Israeli government went to extreme lengths to keep the whole affair secret, even threatening Israeli editors with fines or jail if they reported on it. What could he have known or done to merit such treatment?
Maybe he had stumbled across some apocalyptic secret that would change everything if it got out. Maybe Israel doesn’t really have hundreds of nuclear weapons, or even any. Maybe all the Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are just Potemkin villages. But it seems improbable, doesn’t it?
The likely answer is that the Mossad hit team that murdered Palestinian leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January, 2010 used one or more of Zygier’s passports, and he started to get cold feet. Especially since around the same time the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation woke up and had a little chat with him about his multiple name changes.
So did Zygier just lose his nerve and confess the passport scam to the ASIO? That would annoy his Israeli employers, but not so much that they would turn him into “Prisoner X”. The Australian government would complain through diplomatic channels, the Israeli government would solemnly promise not to do it again, and Mossad would just carry on as if nothing had happened.
Israel regularly spies on the United States, its greatest ally, and then shamelessly lobbies Congress to get its convicted spies released, so it’s obviously not going to worry about offending the Australians. But what if the ASIO turned Zygier into a double agent, and pumped him for information on Israeli “black” operations?
If he had real information about those operations and started passing it to the Australians, that would explain the great anger of the Israeli authorities and the extreme secrecy that surrounded his case.
Whatever. The point is not Zygier’s personal tragedy, or even Israel’s misuse of the passports of its friends and allies in its black ops. It is rather that all this Boy’s Own cloak-and-dagger stuff is profoundly foolish. Or at least the dagger part is.
When Mossad occupies itself in gathering intelligence and doing strategic analysis, it does good work. For example, it has been successful so far in its attempts to talk Benjamin Netanyahu’s government out of launching an extremely ill-advised attack on Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons ambitions. But Mossad’s assassination program is a long-running disaster.
Sometimes it kills the wrong person, as when it murdered an innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway whom it mistook for one of those responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. But what enemy of Israel was deterred, what further attack on Israel was prevented, by Mossad’s success in hunting down and killing more than a dozen other people whom it suspected of being involved in that atrocity?
When five Mossad agents, travelling on Canadian passports, poisoned Khaled Meshaal, then head of Hamas’s political bureau, in Amman in 1997, it nearly wrecked Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel, and in the end Israel had to come up with an antidote for the poison. Canada even withdrew its ambassador from Israel for a time.
And when it murdered Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai three years ago, just three days after the first-ever visit by an Israeli cabinet minister to the United Arab Emirates, it put a promising detente between the two countries into the deep freeze indefinitely.
The whole wig-and-fake-passport nonsense is worse than a distraction from Mossad’s real job. It is self-indulgent and counter-productive. And often, when innocent bystanders are killed in these operations, it is criminal. You know, like those US drone strikes that kill innocent bystanders every month.