TEL AVIV — Israel’s former Shin Bet security chief has joined a growing list of retired officials publicly critical of what they view as the diplomatically shortsighted, militaristic manner in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are managing the Iranian nuclear threat and Palestinian peace process.
In a damning indictment published Jan. 4 in Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yuval Diskin describes an opportunistic, ego-driven duo lacking the leadership qualities necessary for steering the ship of state.
“My colleagues and I did not have a sense of security in the ability of Netanyahu and Barak to lead an action against Iran,” said the man who served eight years as Shin Bet director under three prime ministers and worked closely in a deputy capacity with another four heads of state. “It’s relatively easy to enter into such an event. All you need is to decide: ‘Let’s attack Iran.’ But once we’re in this event, will these two — Bibi and Barak — be truly able to get us out of it with results desirable to the State of Israel?”
Naming former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and retired Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the former Israeli military chief of staff, Diskin added, “We didn’t feel comfortable with the motivations of [Netanyahu and Barak].”
Diskin went further than Dagan, Ashkenazi and others, including President Shimon Peres, who limited public criticism to the wisdom of a prospective Israeli unilateral attack on Iran.
“Extraordinarily severe assessments from an extraordinarily serious professional with intimate knowledge of what went on. ... His words should not be ignored,” a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff told Defense News on Jan. 7 of the Diskin interview.
In a May 2011 Hebrew University address, 16 months after retiring from more than eight years as head of Mossad, Dagan said plans by Netanyahu and Barak were “the stupidest thing I ever heard.” And in an August 2012 interview with Israel’s Channel 2 television, Peres said it was “clear to us” that Israel “can’t do it alone. We have to proceed together with America.”
Both men were subjected to ad hominem attacks by anonymous officials in the prime minister’s office, including some who threatened to investigate Dagan for security infractions.
“If I’m a criminal from field security, they should charge me in court,” Dagan fired back at his anonymous accusers at a November 2011 gathering of the Israel Commercial and Industrial Club.
In his unprecedented interview with Dror Moreh, an Israeli filmmaker whose latest documentary on the Shin Bet, “The Gatekeepers,” is up for a U.S. Academy Award, Diskin claimed Netanyahu and Barak lack essential leadership qualities — such as the ability to make decisions and take responsibility for their consequences — that he saw in former Israeli prime ministers.
“When I take the spectrum of leaders under whom I served, I can say there were leaders that always gave me the sense that in the moment of truth — when the national interest conflicted with their personal interests — that they would prefer the national interest above all,” he said. “Sorrowfully, my sense and that of many senior officials, some retired and others still serving in the defense establishment, is that with Netanyahu and Barak, their actions and decisions are led, above all, by personal, opportunistic and immediate interests.”
Diskin said he broke the vow of silence that governed his 33 years in the secret service due to the need for public debate over Netanyahu’s management of the national security agenda during this time of strategic change sweeping the region.
Netanyahu’s office, however, said Diskin’s decision to go public now, after more than a year in retirement, was a politically motivated attempt to influence Jan. 22 elections.
“Diskin’s baseless comments ... were motivated by personal frustration at not being appointed head of the Mossad,” the prime minister’s office said in a prepared statement.
Barak’s office released a similar statement assailing Diskin’s “baseless” comments and questioning the personal motivations of the former Shin Bet chief.
Regardless of his reasons, the Diskin interview provided riveting accounts of dysfunctional closed-door deliberations, including new details of a 2010 showdown between the security chiefs and Netanyahu and Barak over orders that could have sparked regional war.
“They tried to drag us into activating the military and security system for an operation which was sure to bring us into war,” Diskin said of the opposition he shared with counterparts from the Israel Defense Forces and Mossad. “This forced all three of us to stand up and say the decision was illegal; they could not give us such an order ... that launching a war is a decision only the government is authorized to take.”
When asked what he thought motivated the two officials, Diskin replied, “I won’t get into a professional psychological assessment, but I think it has a lot to do with ego. I have a very deep sense that on the Iranian issue, Netanyahu is haunted by Menachem Begin, who attacked the [nuclear] reactor in Iraq; and by [Ehud] Olmert, to whom the attack on the Syrian reactor is ascribed.
“Bibi wants to go down in history as the one who did something much bigger. It wasn’t only once that I heard him disparage what his predecessors had done by saying that his mission — Iran — was of an entirely different magnitude.”
He added, “Luckily, Bibi is usually hostage to his fears and suspicions, and therefore I am a little less concerned about him [acting] alone without someone at his side who he can pin the blame on if things go wrong. He [Netanyahu] will find it hard to take significant decisions without a strong military chief of staff or defense minister by his side.”
Rami Tal, a veteran commentator who worked closely with Netanyahu on his 1993 book, “A Place Among Nations,” said Diskin reinforced his belief that the Israeli premier would not order a unilateral attack on Iran.
Squandered Peace Prospects
On the stagnation and persistent recriminations characterizing the Israeli-Palestinian peace track, Diskin warned that Netanyahu’s policies over the past four years are reducing the prospects — however slight — of securing two states for two peoples.
He dismissed as “empty words” Netanyahu’s much-vaunted Bar Ilan University speech of June 2009, in which the Israeli premier pledged to pursue “a demilitarized Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state.”
“Netanyahu remains ideologically suspicious of a two-state approach, and his personality is not built for making the momentous decisions that were made by Begin and [Yitzhak] Rabin,” Diskin said of the former’s peace deal with Egypt and the latter’s agreement with former Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat.
The retired Israeli counterterror chief accused Netanyahu of squandering the hard-fought operational achievements that restored calm in the West Bank.
“I’ve been in this game most of my adult life. In the end, the security forces need to do the hard and sometimes dirty and unpleasant work. But the job of the security forces is to create the conditions for action by the political echelon,” Diskin said.
Warning of the third intifada to come from the prolonged stalemate, Diskin appealed for greater involvement from Washington in prodding diplomatic progress before extremists from both sides spark further violence.
“Sadly, the Americans are not applying their influence,” he said.
Without a diplomatic horizon, Israel will eventually need to use force to suppress the resentment percolating in the Palestinian streets of the West Bank.
“When the ground is bubbling, we’ll have to take steps. And forceful measures breed forceful reactions, which in turn creates a process that leads us to a third intifada,” Diskin warned.
According to Diskin, Netanyahu’s primary objective during his four-year term was the survival of his coalition government rather than the national imperative of reaching a two-state solution. He insisted that Netanyahu’s constant belittling of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has strengthened Hamas and other extremists unwilling to renounce terror and recognize Israel.
“The quiet that was achieved in the last few years should never have been wasted. So one can label Abu Mazen a peace refusenik. I say this is not so. He’s not an easy partner for peace, but let’s face facts: Are we ourselves easy partners?”