Ghosts of ’73

Israel refuses to press charges against general who disclosed identity of Egyptian spy

July 12, 2012

JERUSALEM – Reservist Maj. Gen. Zvi Zamir, director of the Mossad four decades ago, objected vehemently this week to a decision by Israel’s attorney general not to press charges against retired Maj. Gen. Eli Zeira, the head of military intelligence during the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

At issue: Allegations that Zeira revealed to journalists the identity of Israel’s most valuable spy, Egyptian Ashraf Marwan.

The Cairo businessman was the son-in-law of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and a close adviser of Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, who launched the war.

It was Marwan who tipped off Mossad chief Zamir on the eve of the surprise Egyptian-Syrian attack. The warning gave Israel a few precious hours to begin mobilization before the two-front assault almost overwhelmed the tiny nation.

Zamir said it was intolerable that a gross violation of a basic rule of intelligence—not to reveal the identity of covert sources—should occur without its perpetrator being duly tried in court.

'I have nothing personal against Eli, I have no desire to see him sit in prison, but you can’t just close the case," he said.

By revealing Marwan’s name, Zamir said, the military intelligence chief had compromised Israel’s future ability to recruit agents of similar caliber.

Marwan died in 2007 under mysterious circumstances, falling to his death from the balcony of his London apartment. A witness reported seeing two men "of Mediterranean appearance" emerge on the balcony afterwards and look down before disappearing back inside.

Officials in the attorney general’s office indicated that the decision to close the case had been made because of Zeira’s age, the contributions he has made to national security, and the time that has elapsed since the incident. Zeira is 84 years old.

Zeira declined comment. Attorney David Libai said, 'Every level-headed person realizes that the statute of limitations has run out."

Considered a brilliant intelligence officer, Zeira insisted before the war that the Arab countries would not dare attack Israel, despite saber rattling by Egypt and Syria.

Although he never denied his responsibility for Israel’s unpreparedness, Zeira attempted to detract from the reputation of Mossad's Zamir—his colleague and rival—when it became public knowledge a decade ago that the Mossad had been warned by a secret source of the impending attack on the eve of the war.

Zamir gave strong hints about the identity of the Mossad’s source in meetings with several foreign journalists and academics.

He suggested the spy was a double agent who had not warned the Mossad chief about the attack until it was too late.

However, the warning passed on by Zamir almost certainly enabled Israel to defend the Golan Heights thanks to the timely arrival of reservists.

Marwan's role became public knowledge in 2002 after one of the reporters with whom Zeira spoke hinted at his identity in a book and then identified Marwan by name to an Egyptian reporter.

The writer, echoing Zeira, claimed Marwan had been a double agent who intended to fool the Israelis. Contacted by the Egyptian media, Marwan dismissed the spying allegation as "an absurd detective story."

Meanwhile, former Mossad chief Zamir publicly demanded that Zeira be put on trial for harming the security of the state.

Zeira countered with a lawsuit.

The two men agreed to put their dispute to an arbitrator, retired Supreme Court justice Theodore Or.

Or dismissed Zeira's libel charge in June 2007 on the grounds that Zamir had spoken truth.

A former Israeli intelligence analyst, Uri Bar-Joseph, in his book "The Angel," writes that the Egyptian establishment could no longer pretend that Marwan was an Egyptian hero after an Israeli Supreme Court justice concluded that Marwan had indeed been an Israeli spy.

Bar-Joseph conjectures that Egyptian security officials went to Marwan’s apartment and made him an offer he could not refuse: Jump from the balcony, or be thrown off.

Former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s son and other luminaries attended Marwan's Cairo funeral.

After Or's ruling, Zvi Zamir continued to demand that Zeira be put on trial. The matter remained "pending' until this week's decision to close the case.

Former Mossad chief Zamir expressed sorrow in an interview with this reporter at the death of the Egyptian agent.

"He had a family," Zamir said. 'He was a human being. We're all human beings."

Abraham Rabinovich is author of The Yom Kippur War.