‘Arguably treasonous’? Former Israeli intelligence chiefs Meir Dagan of Mossad (left) and Yuval Diskin of Shin Bet / Wikimedia Commons
There seems be a growing realization on the pro-Israel right — in some corners of it, at least — that its notions of Israel’s security needs don’t have much support among Israel’s security professionals.
What the right calls standing firm on Israel’s bottom line, the generals call sabotaging the peace process. What the generals call basic Israeli security doctrine, the right calls left-wing, pro-Palestinian propaganda.
Reactions from the right to this realization have been pretty much what you’d expect from any self-respecting right-wing ideologue these days: indignant protests that the so-called experts don’t know what they’re talking about. In recent months a growing roster of conservative commentators in both Israel and America have accused the defense establishment as a group or its most prominent members of ignorance, stupidity, disloyalty and even “arguably treasonous” behavior.
This is a new and disturbing development. It’s enough to recall the response in September 2009 to the United Nations’ Goldstone Report, which accused Israeli troops of war crimes, to remember the onetime intensity of the taboo against questioning the integrity of Israel’s defense establishment. But that was before the political leadership of the Netanyahu era began spinning an ideologically-driven security agenda that was radically at odds with the longstanding doctrines of the defense and intelligence establishment, and the politicians discovered that they couldn’t get the generals and spymasters to tailor their assessments to fit the political winds.
The security establishment—former heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet, military intelligence and the IDF general staff—began aggressively speaking out around three years ago, some two years into the Netanyahu administration, once they began suspecting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline policies on Iran and the Palestinians weren’t tough bargaining positions so much as ideologically-driven recklessness.
In the first half of 2011, Netanyahu swept out the heads of all the main security branches, including the Mossad, the Shin Bet, the IDF and the national security council, all apparently because the incumbents had refused during internal deliberations to endorse an Israeli military strike against Iran. The months that followed saw a steady stream of public statements from ex-service heads, in speeches, interviews and op-eds, laying out their views on what Israel does and doesn’t need to be safe. Some were directly critical of the government’s policies; others criticized only by implication.
Hamas police on the Gaza-Egypt border, September 2013 / Getty Images
Ideology continues to trump security in the Netanyahu government’s approach to combating terrorism. As Hamas struggles to maintain its November 2012 cease-fire with Israel in the face of increasing rocket fire, mostly by al Qaeda-linked Salafi jihad factions, Israel responds by bombing Hamas facilities.
In addition to jihadis, the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has been responsible for a small proportion of the rocket fire. The front fired several rockets at the Negev from Gaza earlier in January, including two fired toward Ariel Sharon’s funeral January 13. Israel retaliated January 22 by assassinating a PFLP leader identified as responsible for the rockets, Ahmed Al-Za’anin.
The latest incident began late Thursday, when an unknown group fired a rocket that landed in field outside the Negev town of Netivot. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon declared Friday morning, as he has done repeatedly over the past year, that Israel considers Hamas responsible for all such attacks. The Israeli military retaliated later on Friday by bombing two terrorist installations, a rocket factory in the northern Gaza Strip and a weapons storage facility in the southern strip, that the army later confirmed were both Hamas facilities.
Hamas responded Saturday by withdrawing its rocket prevention units from the field. Initial Israeli responses interpreted the action as Hamas “giving a green light” to stepped up rocket attacks. But by Saturday night, as there had been no further rocket fire, Israeli sources began suggesting that the Hamas troop withdrawal was intended as a message to Israel to direct its fire toward those responsible, rather than punishing Hamas for actions it has been trying to prevent.
During the month of January some 20 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, equal the total for the entire preceding 11 months.
The developments come on the heels of a disturbing January 26 report that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been shaking up the hiring and promoting practices at the Shin Bet internal security service in order to create an agency that produces the intelligence he wants. The report, by Haaretz military analyst Amir Oren, says that as a result of the effort, the Shin Bet now has “three out of its four senior officials coming from a religious background and radiating sympathy for a worldview that opposes diplomatic compromise that would involve the evacuation of settlements.”
Oren claims that the shakeup follows Netanyahu’s frustration that he can’t get the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate (or MI) to produce the intelligence he needs to fend off Secretary of State John Kerry and justify an attack on Iran. Military Intelligence, like the rest of the military, insists on strict professionalism both in its assessments and in its personnel decisions, unlike the Shin Bet, which is under the prime minister’s personal supervision. Oren writes:
I guess we can all breathe a sigh of relief now that Andrew Adler has resigned as publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times. His January 13 column, proposing that Israel might consider assassinating President Obama, was enormously embarrassing to Israel, its supporters and Jews everywhere. Removing him from his visible position makes life a lot easier for the rest of us, doesn’t it?
One could argue that Adler’s outburst shouldn’t cause Jews to cringe; after all, we know that supporting Israel and loving America are not incompatible. We can’t be blamed collectively for the blathering of one fool, even if he provided fuel for the fevered imaginings of those who believe Jews are disloyal. We should have outgrown the old habit of worrying about what others think of us. Proud Jews do what they need to do, not what the world tells them to do. On the other hand, we also worry that Israel is waging a war against delegitimization and isolation, fighting for its good name and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. That is, we sneer at the opinions of the world, but we’re also worried sick about the opinions of the world. I’m sure those two thoughts fit together somehow, though I’m not sure how.
Before we put the Adler incident comfortably behind us, though, let’s linger a moment to consider how such a thing might have happened. After all, this wasn’t just some lone nut talking—it was the owner of the Atlanta Jewish Times, the semi-official voice of one of the nation’s major Jewish communities. A fellow like that is supposed to have some feel for the mood of the community he’s covering, plus enough common sense to run a business and write coherent thoughts. Nor is Adler some self-inflated businessman who decided to purchase intellectual gravitas. He has a B.A. in journalism, according to his LinkedIn.com page. He reportedly worked in the past as the paper’s managing editor, then started up a smaller, independent Jewish weekly before acquiring the Times. What made him wander so far off the reservation?
The answer is, he didn’t. He was speaking for a community—or rather, an assertive subgroup of the community—that considers itself the true heart of the Jewish people and lives in fear and loathing of President Obama. Anyone who circulates regularly in organized communal circles knows what I’m talking about: the earnest denunciations of Obama as hostile to Israel, sympathetic to radical Islam, the worst president for Israel in its history, intent on weakening Israel and leaving it vulnerable to its enemies. Liberals like to dismiss such talk as Republican partisan smoke, but it’s not. It’s widely believed. Lots of people, Jewish and non-Jewish, are genuinely scared of Obama. They shouldn’t be, as we’ll see in a moment. But they are. that needs to be understood.
Recently retired Mossad chief Meir Dagan, fresh from calling a military attack on Iran “the stupidest thing I ever heard,” said at a conference in Tel Aviv that Israel should embrace the Saudi peace plan.
He also said he has been speaking out against the prime minister’s policies since leaving the Mossad in January because “when I was on the job, I, (ex-Shin Bet chief) Diskin and (ex-IDF chief of staff) Ashkenazi could restrain any dangerous adventurism. Now I’m afraid there’s nobody to stop Bibi and Barak.”
Here is an account from the Sydney Morning Herald with some quotes from Dagan on the Saudi plan. (Dagan retired in January after nine years as director of the Mossad, and is a legend among security hawks. Here’s an interesting profile that shows where his reputation comes from.
The comments on Bibi and Barak don’t seem to be on the Web - they appear in Friday’s Yediot print edition. Dagan made his comments, according to Yediot, during a “closed meeting” at Tel Aviv University. Besides discussing the Saudi plan and his fears of Bibi’s recklessness and Barack’s enabling, Dagan also repeated his contention from January that attacking Iran is “the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
By implication, Dagan also confirmed what I have been writing in the past few weeks, that Bibi and Barak have managed in the past six months to remove the entire top echelon of the Israeli security establishment and replace it with a more compliant leadership that won’t talk back or raise hard questions (hence “there’s nobody left to stop Bibi and Barak”). The outgoing leadership was unanimously opposed to Bibi’s saber rattling on Iran and overwhelmingly in favor of renewing talks with the Palestinians ASAP. What this means is agreeing to resume talks where Olmert and Abu Mazen left off in October 2008, agreeing to the 1967 lines as the basis for the talks (as Dagan implies in calling for the Saudi plan) rather than insisting on starting again from scratch and dismissing all the concessions mooted up to that point, as Bibi has been demanding.
I know I’m going to hear that there are ex-generals who disagree, like former IDF chief of staff Moshe Boogie Yaalon, now Bibi’s deputy prime minister. That’s a good point. I can name you another: former
chief of Northern Command Yossi Peled, now a Likud lawmaker. That’s pretty much the list.
Taliban and Al Qaeda members are fleeing northern Afghanistan in disarray, amid a “collapse of morale” following the death of bin Laden, Juan Cole reports on his “Informed Comment blog.
It appears that the Taliban were still linked to, and perhaps taking direction from, al-Qaeda, more than most analysts had suspected. It also appears that Bin Laden had more of an operational, strategizing role than we had thought.
If it is true that radicals are fleeing Qunduz, and indeed other provinces as well, and heading for safe havens in places like North Waziristan in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt, it is likely primarily because they had direct contact with Usama Bin Laden and now fear that information about them is in American hands, since the SEALS captured his hard drives and thumb drives.
Speaking of disarray, there are more and more signs of alarm within Israel’s defense and intelligence establishment regarding the cliff toward which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is resolutely leading the country.
Meir Dagan, the long-serving former Mossad director who was a close ally of Ariel Sharon, told a conference at Hebrew University on Friday that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear project, an option cherished by Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak, is “the stupidest idea I ever heard.”
Dagan was immediately lambasted by Barak and finance minister Yuval Steinitz, a frequent Netanyahu surrogate. Both said he should have kept his mouth shut. But a string of top security honchos sprang to his defense, including former Mossad directors Danny Yatom and Ephraim Halevy. So did Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee chairman Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff and Ariel Sharon’s defense minister.
Dagan has been in this movie before. The day after he stepped down as Mossad chief in January, he testified before the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee and said Iran could not acquire a nuclear bomb before 2015 at the earliest. He said that Western sanctions and various accidents plaguing the Iranian project were continually pushing the date further and further into the future. (Here is the latest Iranian public acknowledgment of the serious threat that last year’s Stuxnet virus posed to the computer guidance of their centrifuges. They say it’s mostly under control, but it’s not. Here’s the head of the Iranian miltary’s cyber-defense unit in the Iranian army describing yet another virus they found in their nuke computers just two weeks ago.)
That drove Bibi ballistic, according to numerous press reports (including this piece by Ari Shavit in Haaretz, who agreed with Bibi that Dagan was irresponsible.
Dagan sheepishly backpedaled a week later, allowing as how maybe Iran could have a bomb sooner than 2015. It seemed clear at the time that he had been bludgeoned into recanting. Now it’s obvious.
If you were following the brouhaha over the naming of Israel’s new military chief of staff (here is my take on it from February 5), the outcome was more peaceful than it threatened to be when Bibi and Ehud Barak pulled back at the last minute from a bizarre decision they had planned to bring to the cabinet. On the other hand, several other military-related appointments are raising eyebrows, to say the least. Astonishingly, they’ve almost no play here.
On Sunday February 6 at the weekly cabinet meeting, Bibi and Barak, under pressure from the General Staff and key ministers, pulled back at the last minute from their plan to appoint a temporary Chief of Staff, current deputy chief Yair Naveh, and throw the search back open for two months of promised chaos and intrigue. Instead Barak named Major General Benny Gantz, who served as outgoing chief Gabi Ashkenazi’s deputy chief and stepped down last fall.
(Here is the official IDF backgrounder on Gantz. Here is a very smart take on who he is and what he’s up against by Amir Oren of Haaretz. Here is an acerbic backgrounder from Wikipedia that focuses mainly on his warts.)
Gantz was one of the three finalists in the first round of vetting, along with Northern Command chief Gadi Eizenkot, favorite of the dovish Ashkenazi, and Southern Command chief Yoav Galant, the blood-and-guts choice of Barak. Interestingly, Gantz was nobody’s first choice, which is probably why he was everyone’s second choice. He shares Ashkenazi’s views on the use of force, but he is also a firm believer in keeping his opinions to himself, which accords with the democratic ideas of civilian control but also means that the politicians don’t necessarily get to hear the professional, apolitical evaluations of their paid experts. In any case, his demure approach toward politicians is described as equal parts scrupulousness and timidity. One thing for sure is that Gantz is very, very tall for a Jewish soldier. His security detail is a specially chosen squad of very tall soldiers to make it harder for a sniper to pick him off. Seriously.
Bear in mind that commander who keep their views to themselves is a very high priority for Barak and Netanyahu. They have gotten endless grief from the outgoing class of senior commanders who just stepped down — Ashkenazi, Mossad chief Meir Dagan, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin—all of whom favored negotiating peace with Syria and opposed a military attack on Iran.
Now here’s the weird stuff. Major General Yair Naveh, who succeeded Gantz as deputy chief and was Barak’s choice for acting chief. He was hand-picked for the deputy post last fall by Yoav Galant, back when Galant thought he was going to be chief. Naveh is, among other things, the highest-ranking religious soldier in the IDF. He was appointed chief of Central Command in 2005 by Ariel Sharon, by most accounts because it was thought that the disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank would go more smoothly, with less resistance from settlers, if a religious commander was in charge. Instead he and his family got death threats.
His views are eye-popping (his Wikipedia page outlines a few of them). Most notably, as Wikipedia reminds us, he “predicted that King Abdullah would fall and that he would be Jordan’s last king, drawing an angry reaction from Jordan, for which Israel had to apologize on Naveh’s behalf.” So much for keeping your views to yourself.
Must reading on Barak’s resignation from Labor: Haaretz military correspondent Amir Oren writes today about the very complicated relationship between Barak’s defection, the retirement of Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and his replacement by Yoav Galant, and the Turkish flotilla.
Barak defected to save his own skin, of course. Avi Braverman and Buzhi Herzog were about to force a meeting of the Labor Party convention, which possibly would have decided to leave the Netanyahu government and probably would have set a date for a new party leadership primary. That would put a big shadow over Barak’s continued leadership and set the clock ticking on his service as defense minister. As Aluf Benn writes today, Barak very much wants to stay in government because he and Bibi want to keep up the pressure for a military attack on Iran.
IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi was a major obstacle to attacking Iran, because he’s against it. He’s been dismissed without the usual one-year term extension and is to be replaced Feb. 14 by Galant, who is all for the attack. This far, no surprises.
Meir Dagan, the just-departed head of the Mossad, was another obstacle to war. He’s against attacking Iran for the same reason Ashkenazi is against it - it would be enormously costly to Israel in terms of home front damage, Israeli civilian deaths, international condemnation and possibly worse if Iran retaliates with terror attacks against Western targets, which will get Westerners even madder at Israel. None of that is worth risking if the bomb be stopped or delayed without war. That’s why Dagan said last week, on departing the office, that Iran can’t get the bomb until 2015 because of successful covert work and sanctions. His point was that there are other ways besides war that work as well or better (war would only create a couple of years delay, which is what the covert action did) to stop the Iran bomb.
Dagan’s comment infuriated Bibi - who publicly dismissed it as intelligence speculation. And looks as though Bibi’s people planted a pretty vicious Fox News blog note alleging that Dagan had sabotaged Israeli policy for the sake of some personal grandstanding. You could say a lot about Dagan but not that.
One of the debates simmering just below the surface this week is the question of whether Israel is a strategic asset or burden to the United States. Pro-Israel advocates have maintained for decades that it is an asset, and a darned valuable one. This view has been emphatically restated in the past few days by, among others, the Anti-Defamation League (here), AIPAC and 334 members of the House of Representatives in (a letter) to President Obama.
The view of Israel as a burden is usually identified with folks like “Israel Lobby” authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer and others who would like to see America cut Israel loose.
This week the Israel-as-burden crowd was joined by none other than Meir Dagan, the ur-hawkish director of Israel’s crack Mossad intelligence agency. He explained it on Tuesday in a fraught appearance before the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee. It’s no less than a bombshell, though it got only minor coverage in the Israeli papers (here’s how Haaretz, Ynet and the Jerusalem Post covered it) and was almost entirely ignored over here.