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, Anglicised 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 U.S. 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.