Growing unhappiness with the government's handling of the Pollard spy affair has galvanized Israel's parliament into launching its own investigation. ``We are going to ask how this happened, why this happened, who handled it, and why they did what they did,'' said Ehud Olmert, a member of the rightist Likud faction in the Knesset (parliament).
Support Mr. Olmert and other Likud Knesset members for an investigation is significant because the head of their party, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, is on the record as opposing an investigation. Mr. Shamir on Monday accused those in Israel who are calling for an investigation of fanning public ``hysteria'' to further political aims.
That Shamir is being criticized even by his Likud supporters is indicative, Israeli analysts say, of a growing bipartisan concern here not only with the government's handling of the Pollard affair but also of its general competence. The Pollard affair is now seen as one link in a chain of foreign policy mistakes that have strained Israel's ties with the United States and damaged efforts to refurbish its image overseas.
Yesterday, the government faced four motions of no-confidence on the Pollard affair. But because the coalition government enjoys a comfortable majority, all four votes were easily defeated.
A far more serious challenge to the government than no-confidence motions is the investigation scheduled to begin tomorrow by a Knesset security subcommittee. Political sources say some senior Knesset members seem determined to keep up pressure in parliament and the press on Shamir, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres until they rescind the promotions of two key figures in the Pollard case, Col. Aviem Sella and Rafael Eitan. US investigators believe Colonel Sella was a key ``handler'' of Pollard. Mr. Eitan headed the secret unit that Pollard worked for.
The Knesset committee's scheduled questioning of Mr. Rabin tomorrow is expected to focus on why he gave Sella command of a major Israeli air base only days before a US court sentenced American Jonathan Jay Pollard to life for spying for Israel.
US investigators say they believe Israel broke an agreement to cooperate fully in investigating the Pollard affair by withholding information on Sella, who has been indicted by a US grand jury on espionage charges.
Sella's appointment turned the Pollard affair into a hot issue here for the first time since Pollard and his wife were arrested in November 1985. The decision to promote Sella was denounced across the political spectrum and in virtually every Israeli newspaper.
At first, parliamentarians were primarily concerned with the Pollard affair's implications for US-Israeli relations. But the case is now viewed as perhaps the worst on a long list of bad decisions made by senior officials who are accused of operating by the seat of their pants, without virtue of staff work or parliamentary oversight.
Editorialists and parliamentarians say the Pollard affair raises disturbing questions about the decision-making process that has emerged in more than two years of coalition rule. In a string of cases, Israel's political leaders have disavowed responsibility for anything that went wrong and resisted investigation. Those cases are the Pollard affair; Israel's role in the Iran arms scandal; the scandal over the coverup by security men in the beating deaths of two Palestinian hijackers; and the scandal that broke when nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu sold what he said were photos and descriptions of Israel's secret nuclear bomb-making plant.
``The `prime ministers'' club, consisting of Shamir-Peres-Rabin, is the most exclusive club in the country,'' opined the right-leaning daily Yediot Ahronot yesterday. ``The basic law of the club says that its members know only what they want to know, and what they did not know does not obligate them . ... The question is for how long we will exempt the exclusive political echelon from its duty of responsibility. ...''
Another government misstep was recorded Tuesday by the Supreme Court when it rejected Justice Minister Avraham Sharir's decision not to extradite William Nakash to France. Mr. Nakash sought refuge in Israel before he was convicted in May 1984 by a French court of murdering an Algerian in France. Sharir decided not to extradite him on the grounds that, because Nakash was Jewish and Israeli, his life would be endangered in French jails. A group of Israeli lawyers and leftists challenged this decision. The Supreme Court said that unless Sharir could provide more persuasive evidence, Nakash must be extradited ``within a reasonable time.''
Until now, the government has usually escaped parliamentary scrutiny because the opposition parties cannot mount a strong enough challenge. That is still the case, but Knesset members seem now to be emboldened by the government's failures, political analysts say.
``I think that this series of shocks is now producing an earthquake here. There may at last be some reforms,'' speculated a source in the Foreign Ministry.