Jerusalem — Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres is caught up in a scandal that has rocked his government and raised questions about Israel's ability to balance its security needs with the requirements of justice.
At issue is a decision by Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir to prosecute Avraham Shalom, head of Israel's domestic intelligence services. Mr. Zamir alleges that Mr. Shalom withheld evidence and suborned witnesses to lie to a commission of inquiry that investigated the death two years ago of a pair of Palestinian gunmen at the hands of security forces.
Mr. Peres and most of his Cabinet oppose the prosecution of Shalom, arguing such a move would damage national security by undermining the morale of the General Security Services Shalom heads.
``The major point now is how to protect the GSS, how to prevent the kind of morale problems that will develop if the politicians do not back them,'' one senior Israeli official said.
The Israeli press has accused the government of trying to cover up the affair.
The government's efforts to keep the story out of the press here have become almost as much of an issue as the question of whether Shalom should be prosecuted. Israeli journalists were outraged that, although their own stories on the case were either killed or gutted by the military censor Sunday night, ABC News reported the issue in detail from Washington.
The Israeli public heard Saturday night on government-run Israel Television only that Zamir and the Cabinet were at odds over his determination to prosecute a ``high government official'' for ``serious crimes.'' They were not told who the official was, what service he was connected with, of what crimes he was accused, or when they were committed.
``On Sunday night, the censor killed both of my stories on the case,'' said Jerusalem Post writer Hirsh Goodman. ``Then Monday morning, I hear my story on Israel Radio -- quoting ABC News.''
Even Tuesday, gaps of white space appeared in Israeli newspapers, where elements of stories had been removed by the censor. Mr. Goodman said he was only able to say what he really thought was going on by writing an opinion page piece. Opinion pieces are not censored.
``Is it not possible that Peres is guilty of a cover-up?'' Goodman asked in his piece. ``Of using the ever-convenient cloak of security to protect himself and his Cabinet from scandal?. . . .''
``Here you have a man [Shalom], entrusted with the most secret of secret inner sanctums, who is suspected by the Attorney General of obstructing justice. There is no doubt it becomes a public issue of major importance,'' Goodman said in an interview. ``The guy is suspected of tampering with evidence. The public has to know. . . .''
The Israeli press says the scandal is a serious blow to the rule of law in Israel and has shattered the voluntary arrangement between the press and the government on censorship.
Zamir says he is determined to pursue the case despite ``the most severe pressures ever brought upon me'' by those in government who want him to drop it.
According to sources, Zamir has argued with the Prime Minister and Cabinet for two to four months that Shalom must be prosecuted. The dispute became public last week when a dismissed GSS man filed suit against the government, alleging he was fired because he had cooperated with Zamir's investigation of Shalom.
The Cabinet discussed the case Sunday and held a second session Monday. For once, most of the ministers, both from the Labor Party and Likud bloc, were united in wanting to avoid Shalom's prosecution.
But public and press sentiment seems solidly behind Zamir. Legal experts say the decision to prosecute is the Attorney General's alone, and cannot be superseded by government claims of national security interests. Tuesday, Peres angrily denied that he or his ministers had pressured Zamir or that there had been a cover-up.
The roots of the complicated case stretch back to April 10, 1984, when four Palestinian gunmen hijacked a bus near Ashkelon, Israel. Ten hours later, security forces stormed the bus. They initially said all four gunmen were killed in the ensuing shootout. An Israeli woman soldier was killed, and eight passengers injured.
But reporters on the scene snapped photos of two gunmen being led away from the bus by security forces after the gun battle. The military censor at first refused to allow publication of the pictures. Officials told editors that publishing the fact that the men died after being taken from the bus would endanger the lives of Israeli soldiers held by Palestinian guerrillas in Syria.
Eventually, the newspaper Hadashot published the picture and was briefly shut down. A commission of inquiry later determined that the two Palestinians had been beaten to death by security forces on the scene, but no one was ever convicted of the murders.
One officer was courtmartialed in connection with the case, but eventually acquitted and promoted. Of the three GSS men who were also allegedly involved, one was fired, one suspended, and one allowed to take leave.