LAST WEEK, THE CHAIRMAN of the Israeli Religious Zionist Party, Bezalel Smotrich, who will soon be appointed as a cabinet minister, alleged that the Israel Security Agency (ISA) encouraged the killer of the late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin.
allegation shocked many Israelis, because of the unfortunate timing —it was
uttered close to the annual Remembrance Day for Prime Minister Rabin, who was
assassinated by radical rightwing activist Yigal Amir 27 years ago. But also
because of the unacceptable content, which echoes conspiracy theories that have
accompanied Rabin’s assassination for many years. To counter these conspiracy
theories, it is fitting to discuss the failure to defend Rabin that did occur
under the responsibility of the ISA.
failure that caused Rabin’s assassination was investigated by a National
Inquiry Commission (known as the Shamgar Commission), which found the ISA
responsible. In fact, it was deemed a double failure: the first by the
personnel of the VIP Security Unit of the ISA, and the second by the
intelligence personnel of the ISA, whose job it was to thwart in advance
murderous intentions by extreme rightwing elements in Israel. The intelligence
failure was not investigated in depth by the Shamgar Committee. It dealt mainly
with the security failure and only partially with the intelligence failure. Its
investigation focused on the activities of ISA agent Avishi Raviv (code name
CHAMPAGNE) who was tasked by the ISA to infiltrate extreme rightwing groups.
The Committee did not ask: could the ISA’s intelligence have prevented the
also possible to ask: why was the mandate of the Shamgar Committee limited to
investigating the area of security, and not intelligence? And why did its
members refrain from extending their investigation to the issue of the
intelligence failure? There are no answers to this question, even in the
autobiographical book of the Committee’s chairman, the late Supreme Court Chief
Justice Meir Shamgar.
Piece of Intelligence
referred to agent Raviv, who was indeed run in a deficient and unprofessional
manner. Yet no malicious intentions can be attributed to the ISA. In any case,
Raviv’s defense attorney convinced the court that Raviv did not know about the
assassin’s intentions before the murder. The key piece of intelligence, which
the ISA had received six months before Rabin’s murder, regarding Amir’s intentions,
was handled extremely poorly: an asset of the IDF Central Command’s
intelligence department told his commander that he had heard “a small, rotund
and armed Yemeni” speaking at a bus stop about his intention to assassinate
Rabin. The intelligence was immediately passed on to the head of the
appropriate department in the ISA. Unfortunately, however, instead of the
source being interrogated by trained ISA personnel, a police investigation was
conducted that did not reveal any significant additional information.
that key piece of intelligence, the ISA did almost nothing to find out who the
suspect was. Only on the night of the murder did the asset admit to ISA
interrogators that when he gave the initial intelligence, he already knew that
the “small and rotund” person was Yigal Amir, but he did not want to reveal it
so as not to be a “collaborator”. He added that he believed the ISA would soon
arrest him based on the information he had provided. He later said he was
surprised that he was questioned by the Police and not by the ISA.
of attributing malicious intentions to the ISA’s personnel, it is more
appropriate to point out the unprofessionalism of those who dealt with the
intelligence about the potential killer. Unlike their colleagues in the Prime
Minister VIP Security Unit, the ISA’s intelligence personnel failed in their
duties. The question of the intelligence that the ISA did or did not have
access to prior to the murder has yet to be investigated in depth . Perhaps it
is time for this issue to be the subject of a state inquiry, and for the facts
to be clarified once and for all. That would arguably prevent the emergence and
spread of senseless conspiracy theories.
insinuation that the ISA encouraged Amir to commit the murder is undoubtedly
baseless and absurd. But his words open an interesting Pandora’s box: who did
encourage the killer to assassinate the Prime Minister? In this matter, one can
only rely on Amir’s own confession; the killer said he would not have done the
deed without the encouragement he received from rabbis. He was not satisfied
with the political climate at the time, and concluded it was permissible to
harm Rabin. Amir promptly consulted a number of rabbis, who not only failed to
dissuade him from his intention, but also failed to report his intentions to
the police or the ISA.
gave the names of these rabbis. However, the attorney general, out of a desire
to temper the tensions after the tragic event, decided not to investigate the
issue and not to prosecute these rabbis for failing to prevent a crime. That
was a serious mistake: it was obligatory to exhaust the law in that instance,
and the best prosecution witness would have been Amir himself.
perhaps there is something else here: an attempt to harm the ISA, or in fact a
portion of it. The organization is also charged with thwarting radical Jewish
terrorism. The extreme right often issues calls to close the Jewish department
of the ISA, which is tasked with preventing terrorist attacks by Jewish
extremists. The structure of the new Israeli government may be critical in this
matter. For example, for many years the ISA has been on guard and has warned
about the dangerous consequences of changing the status quo on the Temple Mount.
That is where the second Intifada began, where the knife Intifada began in
2015, and where the conflict with Hamas and the violence inside Israel in
Operation WALL GUARDIAN began. Is Smotrich and his party members, who are
sympathetic to the possibility of changing the status quo, signaling to the ISA
that it should leave them alone? Soon Smotrich, and possibly his political
partner Itamar Ben-Gvir as well, will sit in on top-secret cabinet meetings,
where the ISA will update the ministers on sensitive intelligence on precisely
such issues. Tensions will be inevitable at that point.
Avner Barnea is research fellow at the National Security Studies Center of the
University of Haifa in Israel. He served as a senior officer in the Israel
Security Agency (ISA). He is the author of We Never Expected That: A
Comparative Study of Failures in National and Business Intelligence (Lexington