Israeli secrecy becomes a dead letter

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The Independent Online
Jerusalem - Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Israeli navy, has agreed to serve as the next head of the Shin Bet security agency, according to media reports, writes Patrick Cockburn. This fact is about to become an official secret, since the head of the organisation is meant to be known only by the initial letter of his first name.

''Kaf'', the current head, resigned on Monday because of Shin Bet's failure to prevent the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister.

The identity of the head of the Shin Bet must be one of the world's worst- kept secrets and efforts to conceal it have become the subject of mockery in the press. At the time he was appointed, Kaf, 45, a specialist on Israeli extremist groups, was targeted by right-wing opponents who put his name and telephone number on the Internet. He has been shown repeatedly on television this week, with only his face blurred, and even gave an interview outside his office.

A majority of ministers favour publicising the name of the Shin Bet head, according to a television poll which said nine wanted to give his name, four were opposed and five refused to respond, but were believed to favour dropping the nominal secrecy. Ya'acov Peri, a former head of the Shin Bet, and Kaf both say the name should be disclosed.

The attitude of Admiral Ayalon to impending anonymity is not known. During his three years as head of the navy he showed little penchant for publicity, once telling a military magazine: ''We are not in the headlines - that testifies to our success.'' If appointed, he will be the first outsider to head the Shin Bet, an innovation that had been criticised by some former officers.

Palestinian intelligence has never been in much doubt about who headed the Shin Bet since it negotiated an agreement with its leaders in Rome 1994 on the division of authority between the two organisations on the West Bank.

Yossi Sarid, the Environment Minister, told Israeli radio yesterday: "The names of the two former heads of the GSS [General Security Service - Shin Bet] were known to the Palestinians, the radical right and the whole world. Only the Israelis did not know.''

Meanwhile, Kaf is reported by Palestinian security sources to have overseen the assassination of Yahya Ayyash, the Palestinian master bomber, from the Israeli settlement of Nisanit in the Gaza Strip last week.

Kamal Hamad, the building contractor who is accused of getting the booby- trapped telephone to Ayyash, apparently decided to become an Israeli collaborator after being bankrupted in a failed construction project. The Israeli press has speculated that he received $1m.