Israeli Vice-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said yesterday he ``knew what a prime minister had to know'' about the 1984 killing of two Palestinian gunmen captured by Israeli security forces. Mr. Shamir's comment was the first indication that a Cabinet-level Israeli official might be involved in the affair that has sparked a furious debate here this week. Shamir, due to become prime minister in October, was prime minister at the time of the killings.
The two Palestinians were captured after they hijacked a bus near Ashkelon, Israel, and beaten to death on the scene. An Israeli Army officer was accused of the killings, but subsequently acquitted by a military court.
There has been rampant speculation in the Israeli press for two days about who ordered the killing of the gunmen, and who participated in what Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir alleges was a cover-up that followed the murders. Several Israeli newspapers, quoting unnamed sources, have alleged that Shamir and his then-defense minister, Moshe Arens, may have approved of the killings and participated in the subsequent cover-up.
Shamir's first statement on the case is only likely to increase the newspapers' calls for a full investigation, observers here say. Asked by a reporter for Armed Forces radio whether he had given the order to kill the gunmen, Shamir replied: ``I cannot give any details.''
``The security service [Mossad] needs secrecy like human beings need oxygen,'' Shamir, a former head of Mossad, added. ``It cannot function without it. I therefore strongly suggest that we stop examining it and let the service go on with its work.''
Mr. Zamir's insistence that the head of Israel's internal security be investigated for allegedly engineering the cover-up put him at odds with Prime Minister Shimon Peres and most of the Cabinet.
Members of the General Security Service, or Shin Beth, leaked to the press Wednesday that, unless the nation's political leaders prevented an investigation, they would reveal which Cabinet-level officials knew of Shin Beth's involvement in the affair and subsequent efforts to cover up responsibility.
Zamir reportedly has evidence that it was Shin Beth agents, and not Army personnel, who killed the captured and bound gunmen. He is alleging that GSS chief Avraham Shalom attempted to hide Shin Beth's involvement by destroying evidence, forging reports, suborning witnesses, and hampering the efforts of two committees of inquiry into the affair.
But because the prestige and credibility of the nation's internal security apparatus is at stake, Zamir is finding he has very little public support in his crusade.
The attorney general enjoys the support of Israel's press, some Labor Party members, legal scholars, and left-leaning opposition parties.
But the sympathy of the Israeli man on the street seems to lie with Mr. Peres and those in his Cabinet who argue that any investigation of Shin Beth threatens national security.