Zygier spy case gets ever curiouser
The case of Prisoner X, Australian Jew Ben Zygier, gets ever stranger. It appears that his crime may have been confirming to Australian spooks that Israel was indeed misusing Australian passports to run security operations.
From afar Israelis may not have appreciated the fury of the Australian government and people after Mossad used fake Australian passports in the operation to kill a Hamas man in Dubai. At the time an Israeli intelligence agent was expelled from the Israeli embassy in Canberra.
If the reports are true, Ben Zygier was not a mortal threat to Israel because he was passing secrets to enemies such as Iran. Rather, he would embarrass Israel because he would corroborate an illegal, hostile, and shameful act by Israel against a supposed friend, Australia.
The problem is not that average Australians are especially precious about their passports. Rather, if foreign security agencies routinely abuse Australian passports, it puts the integrity of those documents in doubt, with serious consequences. The ability of Australians to travel freely may be impeded because other countries may begin to view our passports with suspicion.
More worryingly, if other countries suspect that Australian passport-holders might be Mossad spies or assassins, it could cause a great deal of trouble for innocent Australians, many of whom have Jewish or Middle Eastern heritage. Israel is some friend to do this.
The case of Prisoner X has divided Australians. The prevailing sentiment is that whatever Zygier did, Israel must show that it respected his rights in detention and in the criminal process. There is also a strong belief that Australia too must prove that it did everything to ensure his rights were protected. In recent years, Australians have been concerned that their governments have not protected citizens at risk strongly enough, from David Hicks in Guantanamo Bay to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
There is, however, a minority view that those who live by the sword must expect to die by it, particularly if a person betrays one country (Australia) to help another (Israel). After all, Zygier was under investigation in Australia for illegally misusing his passport to help Israel. That Zygier may have had a change of heart - by planning to speak out about Israel's passport infractions - complicates that view. No doubt there are other Australian-Jewish-Israelis who play for both sides in the dangerous security game.
The case raises the broader problem of divided loyalties among Australians with multiple national identities, in this case some in the Jewish community. Australia permits dual citizenship. It becomes a problem where people put themselves in the position of having to choose between competing obligations of different countries, whether by spying or through military service.
Israel and Australia are indeed good friends, but they are not always on the same page. For a start, there is a gulf in values. Australian security services do not assassinate people, including civilian scientists driving to work in nearby countries. Australia does not torture prisoners. Australia has not militarily occupied a foreign people's land for more than 40 years, or built illegal colonies on their lands. Australia does not believe in nuclear weapons or hide their existence.
When it comes to the crunch, most Australians would expect Australian Jews to choose loyalty to Australia over Israel, or even hope that the Australians in Mossad are our double agents. Undoubtedly Israelis would wish them to side with Israel. Spying will continue because every country has an interest in it. The trick is to be better at it than others, and better at catching others' spies than they are at catching yours.
But the case of Ben Zygier shows that it is not easy to have it both ways. Conscience can get in the way. There comes a point where a Jewish person cannot faithfully be both Australian and Israeli. One has to choose. The same goes for Australians who are also Americans or Chinese.
Israel's apparent willingness to abuse the trust and confidence of Australia also suggests that no country can take its friends for granted. All countries understandably put themselves first. But Israel might question whether its long-term security interests are best served by alienating its closest friends.
Ben Saul is professor of international law at the University of Sydney and a barrister who has worked on human rights cases in Israel and national security cases in Australia.