A different and shorter version of the following article appeared earlier this week in the IHT-NYT.
It is a story almost 40 years old, yet still painful as a fresh wound. On Monday, it emerged that Israel’s Attorney General has decided to not to indict a former head of Military Intelligence for allegedly leaking the identity of an Egyptian spy.
The former MI chief, retired general Eli Zeira, is 84 years old. His chief accuser, former head of Mossad Zvi Zamir, is 88. The alleged spy, Ashraf Marwan, is dead. His broken body was found five years ago on a sidewalk in London.
Did Marwan fall from the balcony of his home in June 2007? Was he pushed to his death? Zamir believes that Israel risked the life of its most valuable source ever, by not being strict enough about keeping secrets. Zeira believes that Marwan was a double agent – that his last-minute warning before the 1973 Yom Kippur War was meant to deceive Israel.
Such tale, such drama. Over the last two years, I have had to immerse myself in many of the details of this endless debate, having been the editor in charge of two books about it: The Angel, by Prof. Uri Bar Yosef, the most detailed account to date of Marwan’s story; and Zamir’s book on the Yom Kippur War, Eyes Wide Open.
Zamir’s book begins with a long flight after a meeting in London with “Zvika’s friend” – Marwan. He was heading back to Israel, shortly after the meeting in which he was informed that war with Egypt was imminent.
“Ben-Gurion Airport was shut down. After hours of waiting in Cyprus, our pilot, Danny, was permitted to fly home, in the evening, at low altitude. I remember not liking this flight in the dark”.
Marwan was the son-in-law of the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and adviser to his successor, Anwar Sadat. Four years before the war, in 1969, Marwan contacted Israel’s spy agency, Mossad, and a long relationship with Zamir ensued.
The Yom Kippur War found Israel unprepared. General Zeira and other Military Intelligence officers believed that Sadat would not dare attack, and ignored all signs to the contrary, including those provided by Marwan via Zamir to the government. In Zamir’s tale, catastrophic results could have been prevented, if only his warning had had an earlier and more serious hearing.
Zeira and others believe that Marwan deliberately delayed his notification. “The coded warning that Zamir phoned in… could have been sent a critical day earlier”, wrote military analyst Amir Oren.
Years have passed, but the war over the war has refused to subside. Zeira has been talking to journalists and researchers trying to convince them that Marwan was a double agent, and that Zamir, just like him, fell prey to Egyptian trickery. This claim was quite convincingly refuted in Bar Yosef’s book, which is the most comprehensive account of Marwan’s personal story, his relations with the Mossad, but also of the debates surrounding his true motives, and the revelation of his identity.
His name was publicized. It is a long story, but Bar Yosef gives details of meetings in which Zeira provided very specific hints that led other people to the exact name. In 2004, Zamir blamed Zeira for leaking the name of a source, and, along with other former intelligence officers, demanded action against Zeira.
Zeira denied his involvement in any leaking of the name, and sued Zamir for slander. But in 2007, a senior judge appointed to examine the case ruled against Zeira. The Attorney General was left with this hot potato on his desk: Should he indict the aged general for leaking the name of the agent?
It took him quite some time to reach a decision. The story is old, the general is old – both got even older during the years of hesitation – and public interest will not be served by dragging the warring officers through courts. Leaking the name of a source is a crime, but this should have been handled many years ago, that’s the Attorney General’s position.
When I called Zamir I knew it was probably not a good day for a quick chat. He was angry. If generals can leak and get away with it, how can Israel demand secrecy from lower ranking officers? If leaking the name of the most sensitive source is not prosecuted, how can Israel ever prosecute the leaking of lesser sources?
Zeira’s age is irrelevant, Zamir told me, the court has to rule, has to make it clear that such leaks will never be tolerated. Zamir was still hoping to keep the case opened, vowed to keep fighting this fight with an Attorney General who possibly “did not understand” the damage he was about to cause.
Zamir was venting his rage, and I had to listen; I had to agree that he was probably right – in principle; I’ve had to admit to myself that principles aside, I’m still more relieved than irritated by the decision to leave Zeira alone; I had to remind myself that as a writer who sometimes lives on leaks, I’m probably less sensitive than the secretive intelligence operative to such crimes; I had to realize that I’m probably too young to understand the anger so many Israelis still feel about the way the Yom Kippur War was handled.
As war broke out, when Zeira and Zamir had to decide if Marwan’s warning should be taken seriously, I was five years old.