Probing the intelligence failure behind the assassination of Israeli PM Yitzchak Rabin

Rabin ArafatLAST 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. Smotrich’s 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.

The 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 murder?

It is 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.

A Key Piece of Intelligence

Smotrich 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.

Following 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.

Instead 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.

Who Encouraged Amir?

Smotritz’s 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.

Amir 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.

However, 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.

Author: Avner Barnea | Date: 23 November 2022 | Permalink

Dr. 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 Books, 2021).

About intelNews
Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

3 Responses to Probing the intelligence failure behind the assassination of Israeli PM Yitzchak Rabin

  1. Anonymous says:

    Typo?
    …encouraged the killer of the late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin’s killer…

  2. intelNews says:

    Thanks for noticing that. Fixed. [IA]

  3. Anonymous says:

    Political division and partisanship in the the ISA appears to have a more recent shape in the political division and partisanship (trumping professionalism)
    identified within the FBI and Secret Service in seemingly not predicting the likelihood of armed insurrection on January 6, 2021.

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