Israelis call for the release of Jonathan Pollard on March 19, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel.
“Hypocritical.” “Illegitimate.” “Unacceptable.” All these words and more are being used in Israeli political circles to describe Friday’s revelation that the NSA spied on former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former defense minister Ehud Barak in 2009.
And how does the Israeli right wing believe its government should respond to this revelation? Well, it should demand that the U.S. release Israeli-American spy Jonathan Pollard, a man sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of spying for Israel, pronto. Because, obviously, right?
This reaction is so absurd that not even Netanyahu — a longtime Pollard advocate — can assent to it. He agrees that the NSA espionage constitutes an egregious breach of trust between allies — as he made clear in a statement Monday. And he agrees that Pollard should be freed — as he reiterated Sunday in a renewed request for Pollard’s release. But even he is too embarrassed to suggest there’s any sort of causal link between the NSA espionage and the case for clemency where Pollard is concerned. In fact, he went out of his way to clarify that his request “is neither conditional on, nor related to, recent events, even though we have given our opinion on these developments.”
Ynet.co.il, the news site associated with Yediot Ahronot, has a profile of incoming Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (known since his youth by the nickname “Boogy”). It’s important reading, so I’ve translated it below.
Here’s the background that’s not in the profile: Born Moshe Smilansky in 1950, raised in suburban Haifa, he was active in the Noar Oved ve-Lomed youth movement and was in a garin (settlement group) named Garin Yaalon (from which he took his name), which joined with a sister garin from American Habonim to rebuild Kibbutz Grofit near Eilat. He returned to the army after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and rose through the ranks. Commanded the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, became chief of Military Intelligence in 1995 and chief of Central Command, in charge of the West Bank, in 1998. During this period he underwent a famous conversion from left- to right-wing, claiming publicly that he now realized the Palestinians had no intention of making peace. In 2002 he became chief of staff, serving three years after Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz denied him the customary fourth-year extension due to his outspoken opposition to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan. It’s worth noting that of the 18 living ex-chiefs of the IDF, Mossad and Shin Bet, he is the only one who opposes a two-state solution. - JJG
Political Hawk and Loose Tongue
Moshe “Boogy” Yaalon called his General Staff colleagues “snakes” and the organizations on the left “a virus.” He believes that evacuating settlements is “perverse” and that the IDF can attack any nuclear installation in Iran. Over the years Yaalon’s statements have reflected a determined, activist security philosophy. In his gunsights: leftists, Turks and of course Ehud Barak.
By Roy Mandel, Ynet 3/18/13
In April 2012 Moshe “Boogy” Yaalon absorbed criticism at home when he dared to declare that he was Benjamin Netanyahu’s heir and would one day run for the leadership of the Likud and the country. The prime minister, as we learned from the negotiations with Yair Lapid, does not like politicians who openly declare that the house on Balfour Street is the object of their dreams. But ever so quietly, under the radar and almost without opposition, the former chief of staff has found himself in an excellent launching pad for the fulfillment of his vision, now that he has been named defense minister in Israel’s 33rd government. The man who declared on the day he was demobilized from the IDF that he was careful to keep his boots on at General Staff headquarters because of all the snakes will soon enter much taller shoes and march in them to his new office, which is located in the same General Staff compound, the Kiryah.
Moshe Yaalon, ID no. 2057989, is a kibbutznik who returned to active duty after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a retired chief of staff, the commander of the IDF during the second half of the second intifada and a person who ended his military service in grating tones when his tenure was not extended on the eve of the Gaza disengagement. Now, after a term as minister for strategic affairs, he is returning to run the entire system.
The man who led a hawkish line at the General Staff and in the government, who believed that Yasser Arafat had never deviated from his goal of destroying the state of Israel, who insisted that the paradigm of two states for two peoples was unworkable—will now navigate the security establishment, effectively oversee millions of Palestinians and deal with Israel’s security and strategic challenges. Many on the dovish side of the political and military map fear that his line will drag Israel into diplomatic and security complications.
Ynet’s Atilla Shomfalvi quotes unnamed government insiders who say Prime Minister Netanyahu can’t order a military strike against Iran, even though it’s his decision to make, because the security establishment is unanimously opposed and the cabinet won’t approve an action over the defense chiefs’ opposition.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared last night [Tuesday] that he is responsible for deciding on military action in Iran, but senior political figures involved in the discussions reckon that in light of the determined opposition at this point of the heads of the security establishment—the chief of staff, the director of the Mossad, the chief of military intelligence, the IDF chief of operations and the heads of Mossad directorates—it is unlikely that ministers asked to vote for an attack will do so.
Shomfalvi writes that although Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak strongly favor an attack, Netanyahu has permitted his ministers to debate the issue freely behind closed doors. The eight-minister security cabinet reportedly is evenly split between advocates and opponents of a strike, as it has been for months.
Israel’s state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, in his second-to-last report before retirement, delivers a searing critique of the Netanyahu-Barak government’s handling - make that catastrophic mishandling - of the lead-up to and aftermath of the May 2010 Turkish flotilla incident. The report charges haphazard, seat-of-the-pants decision making in place of planning, consultation and staff work. Yediot Aharonot political-military commentator Ron Ben-Yishai writes about the report’s broader implications for Israeli security - the evidence that Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak simply ignore the elementary requirements (including legal requirements) of good defense and intelligence work when they make fateful decisions about Israel’s future. He worries - as do numerous other commentators in the last few days - about the fact that these are the guys who will decide whether or not to take Israel to war against Iran.
The report, and particularly Ben-Yishai’s analysis, flesh out what I wrote a few months ago about the disorder in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bureau, with accent on his critical mishandling of the National Security Council set up three years ago, largely in response to his own legislative initiative as an opposition lawmaker before the 2009 election.
Having said all that, the most stunning piece I have read about the comptroller’s report and what’s not in it - namely the Israeli public’s response to the flotilla incident - is this blog post by Chemi Shalev in Haaretz.
In case you can’t get past the paywall, here’s the heart of his argument:
Leslie Stahl’s “60 Minutes” interview Sunday night with former Mossad chief Meir Dagan (transcript) gave important exposure to his views on the folly of attacking Iran. However, she got two things very wrong, both of which weakened the strength of his case against a military strike. The bottom line is, she let you think Dagan is a lone voice. In fact, it’s Bibi Netanyahu who’s nearly alone on this. The trouble is, Bibi’s the one who gets to make the decision. That’s why Dagan and nearly every other military or intelligence chief is speaking out against him: They’re scared of him.
Stahl suggested as though it were credible that Dagan was pushed out of the Mossad, supposedly because of the messy assassination of Hamas arms procurer Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai in January 2010 — and hence that his campaign against the Netanyahu-Barak war talk is a petty act of revenge. In fact, Dagan was supposed to retire in late 2009 at the mandatory age of 65, but Netanyahu asked him to stay on for another year and he ended up retiring on schedule in January 2011.
More seriously misleading is her assertion early on that it’s “unheard of for someone who held such a high-classified position to speak out publicly.” That makes it sound like he’s a lone voice in the wilderness. In fact, as I’ve written before, Dagan’s views have been publicly echoed by every single ex-Mossad or Israel Defense Forces chief going back to 1996, with the single exception of super-hawk (and Netanyahu ally) Moshe Yaalon. Now, that is unheard of.
Even more astonishing, the current heads of the IDF and Mossad, Benny Gantz and Tamir Pardo, have now gone public resisting Netanyahu’s war push. Even Dagan didn’t dare to do that. That’s beyond unheard-of.
Here’s the roll-call:
In addition to Mitt Romney’s remarks at AIPAC yesterday, arguing that his approach to Iran would be a radical break from Obama’s (though nothing he said indicated how it would be different), one of his high-profile foreign policy advisers, Dan Senor, also had a well-placed op-ed in the Wall Street Journal making similar points but with not much more substance.
Senor, who some will remember was the Bush administration’s spokesman in the first days of the Iraq War and more recently the author of “Start-Up Nation,” about Israel’s successes in high tech, briefly flirted in 2010 with a run for Senate from New York. He has since hunkered down with Romney and is presumably a key part of his brain trust when it comes to figuring out the Middle East.
Senor set out to explain, as the headline of the op-ed put it, “Why Israel Has Doubts About Obama.” He didn’t dispute the major piece of the administration’s counter-argument, that security cooperation between the two allies is at an all time high — though he does try to attribute this to commitments made by President Bush (commitments, it goes without saying, Obama could have ignored but instead reaffirmed and strengthened).
Instead, Senor simply strings together a few offhand comments from administration officials that he argues make the Israel-U.S. relationship look vulnerable when viewed from Tehran. The overwhelming majority of these comments came from the mouth of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. There was the time in October 2011 when Panetta worried about Israel “isolating” itself in the diplomatic arena, and then in December when Panetta implored Israel to “get to the damn table.” There’s not much more to Senor’s argument. He mentioned Obama’s not having visited Israel yet, but as we reported here, George W. Bush (Senor’s former boss) went twice at the very end of his second term. His father, George H.W. Bush, never went. You know who else never visited Israel as president? Ronald Reagan. So maybe we can just retire this debating point.
But if Senor’s argument about the administration is really an argument about Panetta, the defense secretary’s words this morning at the AIPAC conference should really suffice to slam the door on this Obama anti-Israel trope the Romney folks are trying to develop.
Just take a look at some of Panetta’s statements:
Yet another embarrassment to Israel’s prime minister in his effort to drum up support for a military attack on Iran: Haaretz reports that the newly appointed director of the Mossad intelligence agency, Tamir Pardo, downplayed the severity of the Iranian nuclear project, telling a closed gathering of senior Israeli diplomats that an Iranian nuclear weapon is not necessarily the “existential threat” it’s often described as being.
“What is the significance of the term existential threat?” the ambassadors quoted Pardo as asking. “Does Iran pose a threat to Israel? Absolutely. But if one said a nuclear bomb in Iranian hands was an existential threat, that would mean that we would have to close up shop and go home. That’s not the situation. The term existential threat is used too freely.”
Remember, Pardo was appointed a year ago to replace the legendary, long-serving Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who has since called a military attack on Iran “the stupidest idea I ever heard” and worried aloud that his successor wouldn’t be able to stand up against a trigger happy prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak. Dagan has said he fought for years, together with the Shin Bet director and military chief of staff, to restrain the two from “adventurism.” All three security chiefs were replaced this year with newcomers who were supposed to be more compliant.
Nothing like good news to ruin an Israeli prime minister’s day. And that’s not the end of it:
“Have the prime minister and defense minister sealed a deal between them, one on one, to attack the nuclear reactors in Iran?” So asks Nahum Barnea, commonly described as Israel’s senior and most respected political journalist, in an article leading the top of the front page of today’s Yediot Ahronot. He writes that growing rumors to that effect have created a quiet but urgent buzz within Israel’s political and military elites. They’re also troubling foreign governments, which “have a hard time understanding what is going on here”: a fateful decision that could “seal the fate of the Jewish state” for good or ill, and yet near-total silence on the topic in the public arena.
Barnea writes that the question of whether or not to attack divides Israel’s leadership into four camps. One camp says the benefits would be slim and the risks “insane,” given Iran’s ability to bombard Israel with deadly missiles from Lebanon, Gaza and Iran itself and touch off a regional war “that could destroy the state of Israel.” This camp says it’s better to focus on international sanctions, bearing in mind that if they fail and Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, “it won’t be the end of the world” — while an Israeli attack just might be.
The second camp says there’s no rush. Iran is still at least two years away from a weapon, which leaves plenty of time to let other options play out, reserving a military attack as an absolute last resort. Barnea quotes a senior American diplomat who told him Israel should back renewed negotiations on international inspections. If and when Iran turns out to be lying, an Israeli attack will have a lot more international understanding and support, which could be crucial in determining how well Israel survives the ensuing onslaught. Some Israeli cabinet ministers subscribe to this view, and suspect that the growing pressure for an immediate attack stems from “outside motives, whether personal or political.” More on that later.
There is still much discussion about the firing early last week of Larry Derfner, the lefty Jerusalem Post columnist. Derfner wrote in our pages that he regretted making it seem like he was legitimizing Palestinian terror against Israelis. He intended only to shock his readers into thinking about what some of the reasons behind the terror might be, namely the occupation.
To its credit, The Jerusalem Post ran on Sunday an op-ed by Jeff Barak, a former editor-in-chief of the newspaper, defending Derfner. Barak made the point that whether you find Derfner’s opinion abhorrent or not, “it’s not really a viewpoint that’s outside the Israeli consensus.”
As Exhibit A, he pointed to a well-known quote from Defense Minister Ehud Barak from when he was running for prime minister in 1999. If he had been born a Palestinian, he said, “I would join a terror organization.”
But it is how Barak (Jeff, not Ehud) ends his piece that seems most provocative. He sees in Derfner’s firing not what is wrong with Derfner or even the Jerusalem Post, but what might be wrong with an increasingly vocal element in Israeli society. Here are his closing words:
In fact, it is the readers who vehemently called for a boycott of the Post if Derfner were not fired who present the real danger to Israel. Their narrow, self-righteous view of the world and Israel’s place within it, coupled with their failure to accept any criticism of Israel that jars with this viewpoint, encourages a totalitarian mind-set that damages the fabric of Israel as an open, tolerant society in which freedom of expression is a basic right.
Some days it’s just not worth getting out of bed. Here are some top headlines from today’s Haaretz.com. After the jump, some top headlines from Ynet-Yediot.
Turkish officials tell Hurriyet Daily News that Turkish navy will strengthen presence in eastern Mediterranean Sea to stop Israeli ‘bullying’.
Israeli passengers authorities at Istanbul airport humiliated them and made them undress to their underwear; Officials in Ankara say Turkish tourists subjected to same treatment evening before at Israel airport.
Dozens of Israelis say they were humiliated at Istanbul airport, forced to strip to their underwear on Monday; Foreign Ministry officials say humiliation of Turkish citizens happens on regular basis in Israel.
Although official denies wall is to protect Israeli mission, move follows repeated angry protests outside embassy.
Previous media reports said that Egypt had begun operations to close smuggling tunnels under its border with the Gaza Strip.
Benjamin Netanyahu urges attendees of weekly government meeting to ‘maintain balance between social sensitivity and economic responsibility’; says Trajtenberg Committee recommendations to be published within two weeks.
In a video address to the Israel 2021 Conference on Sunday, Netanyahu warned that the government must maintain economic discipline, lest Israel deteriorate to the level seen in other countries, which have let the reins go.
WATCH LIVE: International confab aims to boost Israel’s cooperation with Arab world; Bank of Israel chief: Cut in trade with Turkey will be ‘expensive’; Peres: Relations are more important than borders.
After it emerges that Shin Bet and MI were ordered to keep mum on certain pieces of intelligence pertaining to the escalation in south, MK Shaul Mofaz accuses PM, Defense Minister of being a danger to the functioning of Israel’s security organizations.
… Sources in the committee pointed out Netanyahu and Barak’s decision to allow Egyptian military units in to Sinai without the Knesset’s approval – and the recent row between Netanyahu and Mofaz over Israel’s unpreparedness for the Palestinian independence bid – as further examples to the breakdown of relations between the Israeli security apparatus and the committee that is charged with its oversight.
Next: Headlines from today’s Ynetnews.com: