A new Israeli film, The Gatekeepers (NY Times review), is under consideration as Israel’s submission to the Oscars and has won several prestigious awards. It consists of interviews with six former directors of the Shin Bet about their political and moral considerations in pursuing their mission. Ynetnews published two segments (the main one is linked here) with director Dror Moreh in which he portrays the interview with the most recent domestic security chief, Yuval Diskin.
It’s no secret that all of the security and defense chiefs who served during Bibi Netanyahu’s most recent term had fundamental disagreements with him on many issues, but especially war with Iran. While to someone with my views, these criticisms were welcome, it’s important to consider as well that the very figures attacking Bibi were themselves guilty of heinous crimes including targeted assassinations and slaughter of civilians.
In particular, in Diskin’s case one of the more disturbing political doctrines he espoused in 2007 was criminalizing Palestinian nationalism within Israel. He publicly announced that even legal political expressions by Israeli Palestinians would be considered seditious and prosecuted as such. That is why figures like Ameer Makhoul and Omar Said were hounded into confessions and prison.
There’s also an especially noxious Israeli political condition that afflicts Israeli leaders once they leave office. While serving they are ramrod straight security hawks with knives between their teeth. After they retire to the Israeli equivalent of Monticello, they all of a sudden become seers and scholars. Ehud Olmert, who “missed many opportunities to miss opportunities” to achieve peace while in office, has an almost lethal version of the condition. In other words, what matters is what you do when you have power to do something, not what you say afterward could’ve or should’ve happened; or what should happen now. So Diskin’s wisdom should be seen in the same context.
In a sense, some of what follows, especially that regarding the Palestinian issue, may come across as hypocritical and self-serving. Regardless, I don’t believe in dismissing substantive criticism merely because the speaker is morally tainted.
I’m offering an extended series of quotations of the most important passages from this article. If Israelis choose a series of egotistical, messianic, incompetent boobs to lead them into war with Iran and the Palestinians, at least I’ll be able to say I let the world see behind the curtains of the Great and Powerful Oz:
“I’ve had the chance to work with the top political echelons since 1994,” he said. “I’ve seen all kinds of leaders – Rabin, Peres, Bibi, Barak, Sharon, Olmert and Bibi again. When I consider this spectrum I can say that Rabin, Peres, Sharon and Olmert – in the moment of truth – would always prefer State interests over their own.
“They didn’t always make the right decision, but you knew where they were coming from – Israel’s interests trumped anything else,” he said.
“Unfortunately, my feeling, and many others in the defense establishment share it, is that in the case of Netanyahu and Barak, the personal, opportunistic interests came first.”
The heads of the defense establishment, he added, often felt that Barak was even more ego-driven than Netanyahu: “With Barak, even when it came to the most sensitive discussions, the question of who gets credit for them was very important and at times it led to some very odd decisions.
…”We’re in the middle of a crucial meeting on Iran; in a sensitive forum that includes a group of ministers, security establishment leaders and aides – and there they were: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister (Ehud) Barak and Foreign Minister (Avigdor) Lieberman, smoking cigars in front of everyone. The defense minister gets up, goes to the bar… and starts pouring himself a drink from one of the bottles. In the midst of this delicate and dramatic discussion, he stands there with his drink and cigar in hand – opposite IDF officers and intelligence personnel. All those present at the panel bore witness to the scene.
“I’m telling you; a picture’s worth more than a 1,000 words. Despite the profundity and magnitude of the talks, there was complete disregard for everyone present. I can’t even explain what we all felt at that moment. Defense Minister Barak isn’t just some guy off the street – a former combat soldier, army officer, Sayeret Matkal chief and IDF chief of staff. He’s the one who’s supposed to know what setting an example is all about, what the meaning is of being in command. What did he think was going on in the minds of those present? Everyone was looking at each other; texting back and forth.
…”What drove me to address this issue [the quality of Bibi’s and Barak’s leadership] was the fact that the entire time they were talking about the Iranian issue, they were mainly asking whether it was smart or not to strike Iran; whether we possessed operational capability or not. I have an opinion on that too, but I think that the more complex and the more fundamental issue here is whether the country’s leadership is even capable of orchestrating a scenario of such proportions.
“It’s easy, all you need to do is decide – let’s strike Iran. But once we’ve entered such circumstances, would they – those two, Bibi and Barak – be capable of actually attaining the desired results for the State of Israel? Seeing as I’ve seen these people in quite a few operations and under various circumstances in the current term and in the past, I and many of my colleagues do not feel secure in their ability to lead such a move. We don’t feel comfortable with their motives.
…”When I look at Netanyahu, I don’t see a leader who can be a role model; and when I look at Ehud Barak I don’t see a leader who can be a role model. I’m not naïve when it comes to Sharon and Olmert or others – everyone makes mistakes and has their own flaws – but still I feel, as do many of my colleagues, that Rabin, Peres, Sharon and Olmert knew how to put national interests ahead of anything else. I didn’t feel that with Netanyahu and Barak.”
Q. What do you think drives them?
“I can’t provide some in-depth psychological analysis, but I think that it’s a lot about ego. I’m pretty certain that when it comes to the Iranian issue, Netanyahu is ‘haunted’ by Menachem Begin, who struck the reactor in Iraq, and by Olmert, who many claim struck the reactor in Syria. Bibi wants to go down in history as someone who did something on such a scale. I happened to hear him say, on more than one occasion, that his mission – Iran – is on a different scale.
“Fortunately, Bibi is so entrenched in his fears that I’m a little less apprehensive about him working independently – without someone next to him to blame in case something goes wrong. Let’s just say he’ll have a pretty hard time making substantial decisions without an unwavering chief of staff and defense minister by his side.
…In the face of contemporary politics, he [Diskin] confesses: “After all these years of fighting terror and seeing so much death and killing in battle fields, on Israeli streets, in refugee camps and in villages in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon – there comes a time when you realize you must do everything, everything, to find some other way to talk and compromise so as to secure a better future for our children. And I’m not referring to the political right or left.
…”My opinion is supported by dozens of conversations with people at my rank… Most people are insecure, distrusting and have no appreciation for those two. What I gathered, and I’m assuming that others did as well, was that we must be more attentive than ever and make sure that all kinds of opportunistic ploys aren’t going on and putting the country in a bind.”
Q…What is your analysis of Netanyahu?
“Netanyahu has a bunch of things going on simultaneously – ideology and a deep sense of royal or elite entitlement alongside deep fears and insecurities when it comes to making decisions. He doesn’t have a solid enough core on which people can count.”
“I’ve mostly seen him teeter; avoiding to take a stand and driven by some momentary, opportunistic interest. That’s why we often felt we should ensure that we don’t find the entire country being driven to great abysses due to impertinent or fraudulent considerations.”
…”I’m not dovish on security issues, but I think that every country needs to be able to conduct itself with responsibility while being aware of its limits and not out of urges, which I perceive as right down messianic.
“I’ll tell you something else, even if it’s not so popular. Even if, God forbid, the Iranians have a bomb – which is not at all something I want – it’s still not the worst case scenario for Israel. It’s awful and we must do everything we can to prevent it, but I don’t see it as the worst. There are worse things that can happen. To me, inner national conflicts are much worse than an Iranian bomb.
Q…Are you sure that Netanyahu and Barak are heading to war with Iran?
“Some say this is a genius move concocted by these two guys from Sayeret Matkal trying to pressure the world into striking Iran. I can’t of course rule out the possibility that there’s some sort of trick here, but I’m one of those who still believe that a gun in the first act will be fired in the third act. Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly” is full of examples for the most irrational decisions made out of irrelevant considerations and dragging the whole world to the greatest crises or the most dramatic wars.”
Q. What about descriptions of Netanyahu and Barak preparing military leadership for war?
“I never wanted to get into that, but since things got out, I’ll tell you that there was a meeting in which they tried to convince us to prepare the military and security systems into launching an operation, when clearly such an operation would mean going to war. Then the three of us spoke strongly against the instructions and had a very harsh argument with Bibi and Barak.”
…”Mossad chief, Shin Bet director and the IDF chief of staff. I think the Military Intelligence chief was there. We got up and said that it was an illegal decision, that they couldn’t give us such instructions because it meant that you’re preparing the army for war. And going to war is a decision that only the government can make.
“If you tell the army to be prepared for action within a certain amount of time, these are not preparations that should be made in conference rooms. The army has all kinds of actions to perform – draft reserve units, preparing equipment and starting drills. It’s very hard to keep these things secret for long. When you work with such a vast system, you’re facing dire consequences. It’s not like I pick up a phone to a few guys and say ‘get ready,’ this is taking an entire country down a path that is very likely to lead to war. That is not a decision that could be made independently by the defense minister or the prime minister.
…”And that’s one of the reasons that I fear that there are stages where people’s egos and all sorts of messianic notions can drag us to places we never meant to get to. They may have not even meant to get there but suddenly you find a whole country sucked into this story. And what you can’t argue with is the fact this move was canceled. So I guess something was wrong with it.”
Q. What can we learn from this event?
“I don’t remember in all the years I’ve been involved in decision making processes such a prominent lack of trust by security officials in the leaders. And that’s something people must take notice of these days. All Israeli citizens have a good reason to be concerned.
“The public must take into account that people such as Meir Dagan and Yuval Diskin – both not known as “doves” on the security level, and people like Gabi Ashkenazi, Uri Sagi, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak – first rate security officials – are all voicing concern about this move. Suddenly we’re all cowards? No, it comes from a profound lack of trust in these two people and the moves they lead.”
…On the Palestinian issue his frustration…[and] main concern was the idleness and intentional stalemate which now threaten to ignite a third intifada.
“Notice the following fact: The Netanyahu government from the day it was formed drew its strength from stalemate. As long as there is deadlock in almost any area, the government and coalition will survive – and that’s Netanyahu’s primary goal.
“But beyond that, Netanyahu has ideological concerns with pursuing a two-state solution and more than that – he does not have the personal capacity to make decisions of the scale Begin, Rabin or Sharon made.
“What is most serious in my eyes is the fact that he is surrounded by people who drag the Likud further to the right. The Americans too, sadly, do not exert their influence in the region to make the parties move forward and that is how we are where we are.”
“But things don’t stop here. In the past few months we have seen growing unrest among Palestinians in Judea and Samaria. And when things become heated on the ground we will be forced to act in order to suppress the unrest. Forceful moves will beget forceful reactions and that’s how an intifada gets beyond control. ”
Q…Netanyahu stated that he is committed to the two-state solution in his Bar Ilan speech. Did you discuss this at all when you were Shin Bet chief?
“It came up in many discussions, but I never had the feeling that Bibi truly means to go through with it. It was empty words. There was a lot of nit-picking by him over the technical details of who will talk to whom, who will not talk to whom, which communication channels will be opened and which closed, but in actual fact there was very little to it. Until the end of my term, at least, I didn’t feel that there was true meaning behind it.
“There might have been one stage when I thought Bibi was waking up. He asked me, after a meeting in which I showed him the need to initiate a diplomatic process with the Palestinians, to come to the forum of eight top ministers and present my views on the matter.
“I came and talked and there were a lot of questions and arguments, but during the debate I could see Bibi folding and withdrawing into himself, and obviously not backing the things we discussed between us earlier, just sitting there silently. Finally it ended with the usual Bibi conclusion – we will have further discussions on the matter. I’ll let you guess what happened in the next discussion.”
Q. And what is happening today?
“We are making Mahmoud Abbas weaker every day and consider it a success. I think we should make up our minds with whom do we want to negotiate – Hamas or Abbas. If it’s with Abbas, then let’s talk to him. But what is actually being done is that no one talks to Abbas, mostly we just humiliate him.
“The height of absurdity: Through the years, one of the main people responsible for Hamas’ rise is Bibi Netanyahu, ever since his first term as prime minister.
…Bibi, from my acquaintance with him, is far more susceptible to pressure than he seems. I suppose that finally, if the Americans want it badly enough, the president will use his leverage and Bibi will fold.”