Advance tip on Rabin plot is disclosed Israeli security force admits it failed to foil plan despite warning

Shake-up of agency denied

Assassin's description received five months ago, Shin Bet says

November 13, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israel's vaunted security service suffered new embarrassments yesterday from revelations that it got an advance tip of the plot to assassinate Yitzhak Rabin.

The Shin Bet, or internal security service, received a warning five months ago about the plot and a description of the assassin but failed to find him, the service acknowledged in a statement yesterday.

The disclosure is another blow to the Shin Bet, often described as the best in the world, and adds to the security shortcomings revealed by the assassination Nov. 4 of the prime minister.

Shimon Peres, the interim prime minister, denied yesterday that he is planning a shake-up of officers of the Shin Bet.

"The prime minister informed the head of Shin Bet that he has full confidence in him," said Israeli Cabinet Secretary Shmuel Hollander.

Israel's internal and foreign security services are shadowy organizations. The names of their officials are never published in Israel. Their size, their activities and even their budgets are state secrets.

The security services have long enjoyed an international reputation for expertise. Retired officers from Shin Bet and the Mossad -- the foreign intelligence branch -- routinely sell their services for top dollar to countries throughout the world, some of them unsavory dictatorships.

"There's no doubt whatsoever that the Shin Bet failed in this case," said Shlomo Gazit, a retired head of Israeli army intelligence.

"The question is, what kind of focus should they have put on the reports [of threats] beforehand. If they get 20 such reports a week, there is a limit to the investigating you can do," he said.

The lapses of Shin Bet began with a failure by Mr. Rabin's bodyguards, who belong to a special branch of the service, to protect his back, said to be a cardinal rule of such protection. The prime minister was shot twice in the back as he left a peace rally.

As arrests in the case have grown -- there are now seven men in custody suspected of knowing of the assassin's plan or of actively helping him -- it has become clear that the killer and his friends had loose lips.

One warning came five months ago from a man who apparently knew of an alleged conspiracy to kill Mr. Rabin. According to a statement from Shin Bet yesterday, the man, Shlomo Halevy, told his army commander about the plot but apparently said he had overheard the details in a public toilet. He described one of the men whom he overheard as 25, short, with black hair and a member of the militant Jewish group Eyal, according to Israel radio.

The information was passed along to Shin Bet. The description closely fits Yigal Amir, 25, who associated with the tiny Eyal organization and has confessed to killing Mr. Rabin.

The Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot quoted unnamed members of the Shin Bet as saying: "There was nothing in the information which could lead to this man. There weren't sufficient details."

But such conclusions are certain to prompt intense criticisms of the security service. Already, a senior member of the Shin Bet's executive protection system has resigned, and three other officers have been suspended.

Accounts now coming out from police and others are striking for how much activity went on before the assassination, apparently unnoticed by Shin Bet.

Police Minister Moshe Shahal has said that the suspects had tried several times before to kill Mr. Rabin. Israel TV reported that Mr. Amir and his brother, Hagai, had initially planned to kill Mr. Rabin outside his home, using a sniper's rifle and a telescopic sight.

They observed Mr. Rabin's movements, his timetable and security arrangements around the suburban Tel Aviv apartment building where he lived, according to the report.

According to police, Yigal Amir stockpiled a cache of weapons and explosives -- most of it stolen from the army -- near his parents' home. Police told a Tel Aviv court yesterday that the group had planned to set off car bombs in Arab population centers.

None of this activity apparently was noticed or investigated by Shin Bet. And discussion of the plot may have been widespread.

There was considerable debate in right-wing circles about whether Mr. Rabin should be killed, according to accounts now emerging. Police are investigating whether a right-wing rabbi was consulted and gave approval for the killing under religious law.

Knesset member Naomi Chazon said she turned over a mimeographed call for Mr. Rabin's assassination to the security services one month ago.

She said a friend of Mr. Amir's later claimed to have authored the call, a "prayer" distributed in several Jerusalem synagogues. But the security services had not seriously followed up the matter, she said. "It was clearly a failure on their part," said Mrs. Chazon.

The revelations are likely to prompt questions of why the Shin Bet did not know of or heed the talk of assassination, or follow up the many leads.

"There's a common Israeli tendency to immediately cast the blame," said Dore Gold, an analyst at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "Everyone is looking in every direction. In an environment like this, people can get hurt."

The criticisms may contribute to a demythologizing of the security services. Mr. Peres has been quoted previously as scoffing at the value of intelligence estimates from the Mossad, saying its predictions were invariably wrong.

Shin Bet's reputation suffered during the seven years of the Palestinian "intifada." Its agents shared responsibility -- with army intelligence -- for trying to stop Palestinian attacks on Israelis. Although the intelligence services foiled many such attacks, they failed to prevent others, and the means they used -- including torture and assassination -- often provoked controversy.

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