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Spy suicide scandal focuses attention on Israel's foreign Jews
Published Thursday 14/02/2013 (updated) 17/02/2013 21:57
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The headstone of the grave of Ben Zygier is pictured at a Jewish
cemetery in Melbourne Feb. 14, 2013. (Reuters/Brandon Malone)

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- The jailhouse suicide of an Australian immigrant who may have betrayed Israel's Mossad has focused attention on the agency's recruitment of foreign-born Jews who could spy under cover of their native passports.

After a three-year blackout was broken by an Australian TV expose, Israel on Wednesday acknowledged that a dual national had committed suicide in prison where he had been kept isolated in the name of state security.

Authorities made no effort to deny reports the man was 34-year-old Ben Zygier, a Melbourne Jew who moved to Israel, became a citizen, joined its military and Mossad, only to be arrested in early 2010 on suspicion of betraying secrets after Canberra began investigating trips he took to Middle East trouble-spots.

Such travel would be impossible for an Israeli but not for an Australian, especially if - according to one media account - Zygier used a passport reissued under a new, Anglicized name.

Israel has made little secret of seeing its influxes of foreign Jews, often from Muslim countries, as intelligence assets given their language skills and cultural savvy. Many immigrants recall being tapped by Mossad recruiters or asked to loan out their original passports, presumably a cover for spies.

But Israeli officials insist that Jews abroad are never used by Mossad against the interests of their countries -- a lesson from the enlistment in the 1980s of US Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, whose discovery provoked lasting outrage in Washington.

While some intelligence veterans say employing foreign-born Jews is consistent with the universally elastic ethics of espionage, it has dangers. Vetting foreign volunteers is difficult, opening Israel up to security leaks less likely with homegrown spies. Some experts say Israel also needs to be wary of miring allies in its shadow wars and stirring suspicions about the allegiances of Jews abroad.

Threat to a lot of people

Warren Reed, a retired officer with Australia's overseas intelligence service ASIS, said the Zygier affair could endanger compatriots who might now be mistaken for Mossad spies while traveling in areas hostile to Israelis.

"This poses a threat to a lot of people, especially journalists who move around frequently," Reed told Reuters.

While all intelligence agencies work with assumed or filched identities, Reed argued, Mossad creates a bigger probability of reprisals by "by being more severe in its actions, given Israel's security predicament."

These actions are reputed to include assassinations, such as of a Palestinian weapons procurer in Dubai in 2010, in which the suspected Israeli hit-team used forged Australian and European passports.

The Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida quoted unidentified Western sources on Thursday as saying Zygier took part in the Dubai operation and offered information on the killing of Mahmoud al-Mahbouh in return for the emirate's protection.

In another twist, Australia's Fairfax Media said Australian security officials suspected Zygier may have been about to disclose Israeli intelligence operations, including the use of fraudulent Australian passports, either to the Canberra government or to the media before his arrest.


Israel has not confirmed publicly that Zygier was a Mossad operative. But Avigdor Feldman, a criminal attorney who met Zygier in his isolated jail cell a day or two before his death, appeared to let slip that he was indeed a spy.

"The Mossad liaison I was in touch with informed me that, unfortunately, my client was no longer alive," Feldman told Israel's Kol Barama radio station.

Nick Pratt, a retired US Marines colonel and CIA officer now with the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, took a forgiving view of Mossad passport tactics.

"Israel is a unique country. They live in a bad neighborhood and they will do anything they can to preserve and protect that country, and quite frankly I have absolutely no problem with that," he said.

Citing his own experience of foreign nationals being brought in as CIA officers and then deployed to their areas of origin, Pratt said the priority was to ensure that their loyalty was exclusively to the recruiting country.

"Intelligence agencies break the law - but other people's laws," he said.

Both Reed and Pratt said disclosures of Jewish diaspora involvement in Israeli espionage could stoke anti-Semitism and allegations of dual loyalty - an opinion shared by Gad Shimron, a former Mossad officer who writes on intelligence issues.

"This is a problem that has always been there, and will remain," Shimron said. "I don't know what to say, other than that the rule is: Never turn a Jew against his host country."

While Zygier's family declined all public comment on his case, friends of the dead man recalled his Zionist upbringing and pride in Israel, where he was married and had children.

The idea that someone like Zygier had violated Mossad's code of silence, perhaps even imperiling lives, provoked soul-searching in Israel. "Did the Mossad operative commit treason?" asked the biggest-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth on its front page.

Shimron said this was a possibility, given Israel's past cases of double-agents and moles, among them Jewish immigrants.

"There's always the chance of bad apples in a batch of recruits. The trick is to weed them out in good time," he said.

Reed suggested Mossad was likelier to miss warning signs in candidates from abroad, where Israel would find it harder to carry out comprehensive background checks and psychological screening, especially if there were a rush to find recruits to fend off proliferating Middle East menaces.

"If they don't have the time and inclination to carefully build up a picture of the person, including the first 20 years of his or her life, they never really find out what's in their heart," Reed said.

"I would imagine that this paradox is a real problem for Israeli intelligence, and possibly people there are saying now, 'I warned you!'"
1 ) Colin Wright / USA
14/02/2013 21:19
Haaretz' is running some distinctly amusing leads on the 'Prisoner X' scandal. "Inside Yigal Amir and Prisoner X's prison cell, which was designed to prevent suicides The cell where Prisoner X committed suicide was equipped with state-of-the-art monitoring devices and watched 24/7. However, a determined prisoner will always be able to defeat the system..." Uh huh. It can prove especially hard to prevent the suicide if the Australians have recently learned you're holding the prisoner.

2 ) Colin Wright / USA
14/02/2013 21:36
"This is a problem that has always been there, and will remain," Shimron said. "I don't know what to say, other than that the rule is: Never turn a Jew against his host country." Well, unless that host country is the United States. We would be an exception. Witness Jonathan Pollard.

3 ) Colin Wright / USA
14/02/2013 21:39
The use of the wording 'host country' is also curious. Once again, Zionist and Nazi ideology betrays a curious kinship. The Nazis also defined Jews as essentially an alien nationality in a 'host' country. Funnily enough, it goes on. The Nazis saw this as bad -- and so do the Zionists.

4 ) ian / australia
14/02/2013 22:35
This is a big story in Australia because basically we are sort of stunned that a young man can set off on a long dreamed-of adventure, a right of passage (which is a very Australian thing to do) have a ball, by all accounts, fall in love with his new home, serve in the army, get married, have children...and end up dead in a maximum security prison known only as Prisoner X. I mean WHAT did he do? No-one buys the "grave crimes" story because if he turned traitor/whistleblower like Mordechai Vanunu

5 ) ian / australia
14/02/2013 22:37
(contd.) or sold secrets, publicising the crime is in Israel's interest. The TOTAL secrecy about the details is decidedly creepy (and fishy) also the air of sadism in his isolation and loss of identity and rights (see Abu Ghraib). This isn't how we do things in Australia. Here, the inference is clear: Ben Zygier embarked on an adventure, got involved in something way out of his depth, became a liability, a dangerous threat, and the state of Israel killed him.

6 ) Colin Wright / USA
15/02/2013 00:42
' Israel's foreign Jews' is a redundant expression. The most accurate term for those descended from the native Jews would be 'Palestinians.'

7 ) ian / australia
15/02/2013 11:53
Apologists in damage control are starting to spin this: Ben Zygier was a "bad apple", an unfortunate choice insufficiently vetted, a failed Mossad recruit lacking the "right stuff", a disloyal foreign Jew about to blab to the Australian government about misuse of passports in the Mahmoud al-Mabhouh hit in Dubai. Passport fraud? Killing Hamas militants? Really? Israel weathers worse press than THAT before breakfast and with contemptuous indifference to what anyone thinks. No, the "disappearing"

8 ) ian / australia
15/02/2013 11:54
(contd.) (and execution) of this poor Zionist sucker suggests that whatever it was he got involved in or knew too much about was far more explosive and dangerous than that. (Re: #4, I meant "rite of passage". Yes, I can't spell.)

16/02/2013 19:30
Do you know that during the cold war, a Russian spy who defected to the US was thrown into a hole in the ground - a hole - with no medical services for years - until someone realized he was not a spy. He lost all of his teeth. Spying is a very nasty business in every country. Mr. Zygier subjected himself to all this - no one forced him to become a spy, if he was a spy. We have spies in the US - in jails. And we have many suicides in the US - in jails. Whiny fake naive hand wringing.

10 ) gabi / australia
17/02/2013 01:02
why does anyone need dual nationality? See what can happen? You perform some undercover action for one of your nations, then decide to warn your other nation of what you have learned is planned for it, then you get abandoned by both!!!

11 ) Colin Wright / USA
19/02/2013 23:20
To Ian #4-5: 'This isn't how we do things in Australia. ' No offense -- but that has yet to be seen. If your government goes along with this, it IS how you Australians do things.

12 ) Colin Wright / USA
19/02/2013 23:24
To USAUSA: ' And we have many suicides in the US - in jails. Whiny fake naive hand wringing.' I'm sorry -- did I express concern for Zygier at some point? As far as I'm concerned, there's definitely an element of poetic justice here. That he may have died when he tried to pull back from the Dark Side is a disturbing element -- but nevertheless, he ultimately brought this on himself. If you choose to serve evil, you can hardly complain of the consequences.

13 ) Mel / USA
20/02/2013 19:09
The most informed people regarding Israeli Zionist abuse/deception of global Jewry...are GLOBAL Jews outside Israel,who know the pressure& emotional BLACKMAIL/guilt-trip that Zionism&Israel exerts on foreign Jews to endorse Israel/Zionism NO MATTER what the legal,moral,ethical,spiritual cost,or foreign NatSec.dangers. Israel's Zionism is SOCIOPATHIC & IMPLOSIVE! Israel thrives on cold,deception&,by assoc.so shall global Jews be judged!

14 ) Colin Wright / USA
21/02/2013 22:14
To Mel #13: "Israel's Zionism is SOCIOPATHIC & IMPLOSIVE! " Indeed. However, I wish it would hurry up and implode. I want to visit a free Palestine in ten years or so -- and by 'free' I do not mean an Indian Reservation on the West Bank.

15 ) Yehuda Solomon / Israel
22/02/2013 02:25
This article is very-well said and much thought-provoking. [Hmmmmm ... I also have to admit the above comments (as I compose this I'm reading 1) to 13)) are also VERY-well said and thought-provoking, as well.] To start: @ 1), Point well-taken about Zygier's suicide now that his exposure to the Australian government became known. What can anyone say ??? ... If you crack, then you crack. It's sickening but if you take the risk you risk the ultimate. @ 2), Yes and we learned our (cont.)

16 ) Yehuda Solomon / Israel
22/02/2013 02:48
lesson from the Pollard affair very well. It was a damn stupid, colossal mistake; we never should have done it; it embarrassed and backfired on us like hell; we apologized like hell ... So what do you want to do now almost 30 years later ??? ... Grind our nose in it for another damn 30 years ??? ... @ 3), Your point about the Nazis is correct ... Your extension of that to us as Zionists sucks. No Jew is "alien" to Israel even if recruited by our (spy) services. If he (she) would (cont.)

17 ) Yehuda Solomon / Israel
22/02/2013 03:07
commit treason or other such damaging conduct we deal with it on a case-by-case basis. The Nazis lumped all Jews in the same boat: Their policy was genocide (simple, obvious difference). Next time think before biting yourself in your own analogous ass. @ 6), Your point about labeling the indigenous Jews of Palestine who (generation-after-generation) had lived there since before 1948 as "Palestinians" does have merit but only as far as geography, not (obviously) as far as "religious"(cont.)

18 ) Yehuda Solomon / Israel
22/02/2013 03:29
or cultural heritage. Just remember that. The most accurate term for those of us descended from native/indigenous ("Palestinian") Jews would be native/indigenous Israelites (just remember that, too). @ 4), 5), 7), 8) (all Ian), All the sordid revelations will eventually come out in the wash but, except for our Mossad, NO one can yet fully explain all that Zygier knew or what he was possibly motivated to do with his information, together with the tragedy of his death, at least not YET. (cont.)

19 ) Yehuda Solomon / Israel
22/02/2013 03:52
@ 10), Good question. Dual nationality for diaspora Jews in general (without focusing right now on those who have spying on their minds) probably appeals to their psychological "need" to be identified with Israel as a "real" part of us (those of us who LIVE here) without being hampered by the necessity of STAYING here (should they want to return to their native country). For me, that calls into question their commitment to their citizenship of Israel.

20 ) ian / australia
23/02/2013 22:52
#10 "why does anyone need dual nationality? See what can happen?" Interesting gabi. Dual citizenship can bite you on the a**. You could argue once BZ was grabbed by the Mossad, Australia's duty to him ceased. He was detained AS an Israeli, IN Israel, BY Israel and the dual citizenship deal must involve respect for jurisdiction and an undertaking to butt out of the other state's business. Apart from his grisly end (which you wouldn't wish on anyone) I've got zero sympathy or respect for him. As a

21 ) ian / australia
23/02/2013 22:54
(contd.) committed Zionist, apparently his single loyalty, what he was committed to sucked. (To me he looks selfish, immoral and generally loathsome...also naive and kinda stupid, in a word, duped.) But there's a message here: if you want to be a citizen of a decent liberal democracy like Australia AND a police state, dont.

22 ) Peter Hindrup / Australia
01/03/2013 13:12
Why the sympathy for this creep? Part of Israels 'secret service'. Known throughout the world for their murderous ways. Ought to happen to many, many more of them.
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