In yet another embarrassment for the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security organisation, Israeli newspapers reported yesterday that one of the Shin Bet's paid informers is a friend of Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir. However, Avishai Raviv, head of the extreme-right Eyal group, reportedly failed either to uncover or report the assassination plans. He is said to have passed information to the Shin Bet as an informer known as "Champagne" for the past two years.
"He knew the murderer but didn't know or didn't report his intentions," the Ma'ariv daily said. Mr Raviv has said he knew Amir - both religious Jews appeared side-by-side in a file photograph of an anti-government demonstration in Ma'ariv yesterday. But he denied any knowledge of Amir's plans to kill the Prime Minister.
Asked about the reports that he was recruited by the Shin Bet to spy on militant Jews, Mr Raviv told Israel Television in a telephone interview: "I never was and I never will be."
The question of whether the Shin Bet had a mole in the Jewish extremist camp dominated headlines and television news in Israel, overshadowing the start of the state inquiry into the 4 November assassination.
Israeli political analysts said the reports, if true, pointed up Shin Bet incompetence but did not implicate it in Rabin's killing by the 25- year-old Jewish student opposed to his peace agreements with the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
"Nobody's talking about any conspiracy of the Shin Bet," said Danny Rubinstein of Israel's Haaretz newspaper.
Mr Raviv, arrested after the assassination on suspicion of knowing Amir's plans, was freed on bail last week although seven suspects remain in custody. "They had nothing on me, from the start," Mr Raviv said in the television interview.
The Jerusalem Post said that in return for Mr Raviv's informing on other extremists, the Shin Bet promised to allow him to run Eyal, the Hebrew acronym for "Fighting Jewish Organisation", without interference. Experts on Jewish extremists noted that Eyal had never been linked to any terror incidents against Arabs and had focused instead on verbal attacks on government policy.
Israel Television said Mr Raviv had handed out at a right-wing rally in Jerusalem last month photo-montages of Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform - one of the worst insults a Jew can level against another Jew.
Jewish settler leaders voiced outrage after the report, saying it suggested the Shin Bet may have been behind a campaign of provocation to stir up public revulsion against the protest activities of government opponents. The Prime Minister's office, directly responsible for the Shin Bet, declined to comment on the reports surrounding Mr Raviv because the state inquiry is under way.
The disclosure that Mr Raviv may have worked for the Shin Bet will further inflame the dispute about how it failed to know about the plot to kill Rabin. Rabbi Benny Elon, a right- wing activist, said: "I knew, and many people knew, that the one working most closely with Raviv was Yigal Amir."
Mr Raviv, 27, like Yigal Amir, went to the conservative Bar-Ilan university near Tel Aviv and founded Eyal two years ago. Amir was closely associated with the small organisation, even if he was not formally a member.
The interrogators of Mr Raviv are reported to believe that other members of his group suspected he was a mole for Shin Bet and did not tell him about their plans to kill Rabin.