JERUSALEM — Israel on Tuesday for the first time identified the Australian-Israeli at the heart of an espionage saga that has tested ties between the close allies, relations that Israel's prime minister said remain strong.
In a statement, Benjamin Netanyahu denied reports that the man worked for Australia's security service, further loosening a veil of official secrecy surrounding an affair that has dominated headlines in Israel for the past week.
Australian media have said the man, identified as Ben Zygier, was an Australian immigrant to Israel who served in the Mossad spy agency at the time of his death in December 2010. The report added that he may have also been working for Australian security services. Zygier reportedly was imprisoned in Israel for unspecified security offenses.
The affair, suppressed by Israeli authorities until Australia's national broadcaster broke the story last week, has shined a rare spotlight on the murky dealings of the Mossad and brought scrutiny on Israel's system of military censorship and gag orders.
Earlier Tuesday, Israel partially lifted of a gag order over the investigation into the death of the prisoner, concluding that he hanged himself in his cell. Israel has kept the case under wraps for more than two years, only acknowledging it last week 24 hours after Australian ABC TV broke the story.
Critics have accused the Israeli government of trying to cover up the affair and are demanding a full investigation. Australia has asked Israel to hand over all relevant information on the prisoner for their own investigation into his death.
Netanyahu's office insisted there was "excellent cooperation, full coordination and complete transparency" between the two countries. The statement added that it "would like stress that the late Mr. Zygier had no contact with the Australian security agencies."
According to the new information released Tuesday, Israel concluded the prisoner killed himself at 20:19 on Dec. 15, 2010, by hanging himself with a wet bed sheet from the bathroom window in his cell.
The investigation, conducted by an Israeli judge, suggested negligence on the part of the prisoner's jailers.
The prisoner was placed in a maximum security cell that had been specially designed for Yigal Amir, the Jewish ultranationalist who in 1995 assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The cell was supposed to be under constant surveillance but it appears part of the bathroom was out of camera range when he took his own life.
The court document did not identify Zygier by name – calling him only John Doe – or mention the crimes of which he was accused.
But the ABC program that initially broke the story revealed Tuesday that Zygier was arrested by the Mossad after they suspected him of telling Australia's domestic intelligence agency about his work for the Israelis. Without naming its source for the information, the program said that Zygier set up a communications company in Europe for the Mossad along with two other dual Australian citizens. Their goal, it said, was exporting electronic components to Arab countries and Iran.
One of Zygier's lawyers, Avigdor Feldman, has told The Associated Press that his client denied the allegations levied against him and was being pressured into a plea bargain at the time of his death.
The affair has fueled a debate about balancing national security and freedom of information in a country that prides itself as a vibrant democracy.
Israeli officials have said that while the matter was kept from the public, the prisoner was given legal representation and maintained contact with his family. Following the backlash, Israel has slowly begun disclosing any elements of the case not deemed an imminent danger to national security.