Pardon of Israeli security chief sparks new controversy over 1984 hijacking

The Presidential pardon and resignation of the head of Israel's internal security services have apparently ended attempts to probe his alleged cover-up of the circumstances surrounding the death of two captured Palestinian hijackers. The move has, however, sparked a political debate that could mark the beginning of a new controversy over the affair.

The pardon, approved by an 8 to 1 vote in Israel's ``inner'' Cabinet Tuesday, appeared to reflect a wide-ranging government consensus that the issue was too sensitive to be investigated.

President Chaim Herzog granted a request for pardon from Shin Beth chief Avraham Shalom and three other members of the organization who were implicated in a cover-up of the 1984 incident. The two Palestinians had been taken alive off a bus they had hijacked and were later killed during a Shin Beth interrogation. Mr. Shalom had allegedly ordered his subordinates to falsify testimony and hide evidence from two investigation commissions. Shin Beth officials involved in the incident were cleared of guilt for the death of the hijackers. Former Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir, who recently demanded a new investigation, was removed from office earlier this month.

In his letter of resignation, Shalom said the disclosure of his name and identity and the accompanying publicity had made it impossible for him to continue in his post. Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who accepted the resignation, said he would set up a committee to determine future modes of operation by the Shin Beth, ``based on past lessons.''

New Attorney General Yosef Harish said that, though he had originally told ministers that a police investigation of the incident could not be stopped, Shalom's pardoning made an investigation unnecessary. But senior staff of the state attorney's office who had been investigating the cover-up allegations were reportedly ``astounded'' by the pardon arrangement.

Political observers say that the pardon arrangement reflects united opposition to an inquiry by leaders of both major parties in Israel's coalition Cabinet. Both Mr. Peres and right-wing Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir expressed concern that the investigation would expose the Shin Beth to public scrutiny that could harm its effectiveness.

The pardon arrangement was applauded by right-wing parties, including the Likud bloc led by Mr. Shamir. Shamir, who was prime minister at the time of the 1984 incident and its investigation, said the arrangement was the only legal way to prevent a probe that could have harmed state security. Member of parliament Geula Cohen of the right-wing Tehiya Party said the arrangement had prevented exposure and damage of an organization vital to Israel in its ongoing battle against terrorism.

However, left-wing opposition parties were sharply critical of the pardon. They labeled it a whitewash and said they would present to parliament motions of no confidence in the government.

Criticism also came from members of Mr. Peres's own Labor Party. Energy Minister Moshe Shahl said Shalom's pardon was legally questionable, since it came before the Shin Beth chief had been investigated and tried. Shahl noted that presidential pardon law applied to convicted criminals. If such crimes had been committed, he said, they should be investigated -- even at the political level.

Communications Minister Amnon Rubinstein, a law professor, called the pardon ``a very negative precedent.'' However, a spokesman for President Herzog said several Israeli legal experts were of the opinion that a presidential pardon could be given prior to a conviction.

Minister-without-portfolio, Ezer Weizman, was the only minister to vote against the pardon on grounds it implied that Shalom is guilty of wrongdoing.

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