Israel's attorney general, Yosef Harish, told the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shimon Peres today that if it does not approve his recommendation for a judicial commission to investigate the 1984 beating deaths of two Arab prisoners and the alleged subsequent cover-up, he will order the national police to begin an inquiry.
Harish, whose warning appeared designed to force a conclusion to the month-long controversy over whether Israel's secret security service, the Shin Bet, should be subjected to an inquiry, reportedly said he was convinced that Israel's High Court of Justice would order an investigation anyway.
The attorney general is scheduled to appear before the High Court on Wednesday to respond to an order to show cause why a full-scale probe into the Shin Bet should not be conducted.
The Cabinet scheduled an extraordinary session for Monday to consider Harish's request.
Peres has already said he will abide by the attorney general's request, but the rightist Likud faction of the coalition government remains opposed.
At issue is the question of whether Avraham Shalom, former chief of the Shin Bet, ordered five of his agents to beat to death two captured and handcuffed Arab suspects following the hijacking of an Israeli bus to the Gaza Strip on April 24, 1984, and then directed a cover-up that involved perjury, suborning witnesses and falsifying evidence during two civilian inquiries and an internal Shin Bet disciplinary hearing.
Harish, according to Cabinet sources, told the ministers that he is convinced the High Court will order a thorough investigation into the alleged cover-up and that the Cabinet should preempt that ruling by initiating a more limited inquiry.
The attorney general, Cabinet sources said, told ministers that Shin Bet agents should not be questioned "like criminals," because it would damage morale.
However, Harish was reported to have said that if a special judicial panel is not formed, he will be required by law to order a police investigation.
Attorneys for several civil rights movements have filed petitions to the High Court, asking it to order an inquiry and nullify a presidential pardon issued to Shalom last month following his resignation from the Shin Bet.
On Thursday, Labor Party Cabinet ministers formally voted to support a special inquiry into the Shin Bet.
But Peres said then that he would not bring the question to a Cabinet vote, so as to avoid a confrontation with the Likud faction. Its leader, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, is scheduled to rotate into the premiership on Oct. 25.
Following today's Cabinet meeting, Communications Minister Amnon Rubenstein, of the Shinui Party, told reporters, "That there will be an investigation, that's clear. What we would prefer is a judicial inquiry. A judicial investigation would be much better for the sake of the country, because it can be conducted in total secrecy and because it can be expanded to noncriminal elements."
Rubenstein appeared to be referring to allegations that Shamir, while prime minister, tacitly approved a cover-up of the killings.
Shamir has denied the allegations, saying that he did not learn about the cover-up until October 1984, about the time Peres assumed the premiership.
Economics Minister Gad Yaacobi of the Labor Party said a judicial inquiry would be "more hermetic" than a police investigation, but he added there was still formidable opposition from the Likud members of the Cabinet.
"Perhaps the fact that the attorney general is at last backing this position will convince some of the ministers to endorse and adopt this approach," Yaacobi said.