I’ve noticed a rather remarkable phenomenon among Israeli intelligence chiefs and prime ministers. While in office they speak loads of rubbish. But once they leave, a cloud lifts and their minds clear and they become lucid, incisive, even brilliant. But of course, the problem is that they could’ve only benefited the nation from those brilliant insights they discovered after leaving office, while they were in office. It does themselves or Israel little good, for example, for Ehud Olmert to discover all the errors Israel made in not resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after he left office.
What is it about Israeli leaders that causes them to be idiots while in office but savants after? Part of the issue is political: no Israeli leader can speak truthfully about national security issues unless they wish to destroy their political careers. Once they step down though, they have the luxury of hindsight and can speak candidly about everything they could and should’ve done while in power.
When I hear the compelling statements by Yuval Diskin (Hebrew and Jodi Rudoren’s NY Times coverage) in these videos (watch all of them if possible and you know Hebrew: here) of a talk he gave in Kfar Saba this week, I want to grab him by the lapels and say: “why didn’t you do or say any of these things when you had a chance to make a difference?” Of course, this is putting it wrong, because any political player who would say these things would not remain so for long.
Israel’s national security policy is made in a very small circle and hews to a very limited set of ideas. That is why Israel faces such a disastrous set of policy options in so many areas. If policymakers could entertain a wider set of political ideas the country would be far better off.
For example, in one of the videos Diskin notes the extraordinary decline in relations between Israeli Jews and the Palestinian minority. He deplores the benign neglect to which almost all Israeli prime ministers have subjected the Palestinian Israelis (with the exception of Yitzhak Rabin) since the creation of the State. He almost sounds like a flaming liberal.
Until you remember that this is the same Yuval Diskin who, in 2007, warned the very same Israeli Palestinians that if they lobbied for any major change in the Israeli state they would be viewed as enemies of the State and prosecuted as such. He even made clear that such punishment would be meted out to those Palestinian leaders and NGOs even if they violated no laws in advocating for their political ideas.
This is indeed what happened to Azmi Bishara and Ameer Makhoul, one of whom was hounded into exile and the other railroaded into prison for nine years for no other crime than advocating that Israel be a state for all its citizens. The outrageous prosecutions of these uppity Palestinian leaders happened on Diskin’s watch, and this can’t be whisked away.
Nonetheless, Jewish law says that one who repents sincerely from his sin must be respected as a true penitent. Therefore, I value Diskin’s “conversion” even if it came too late to impact the policy debate for good.
Much is made here by certain right-wing commenters of the supposedly equal sins of Israeli leftists and rightists. The claim is that we leftists pretend that we’re as pure as driven snow, while in truth we are just as violent and seditious as anyone on the right. I’ve always thought this was a particularly delusional and self-serving view and Diskin confirms my impression by noting there is no proportionality between the extreme left and right. The latter, he makes clear, is prepared to engage in far more violence than the left. What’s more, he warns that the rightist violence that brought about Rabin’s 1995 murder is not a thing of the past. It very much can happen again.
He also warns against complacency in believing that the only dangerous Jewish terrorists are in the settlements. He tells us that there are many just as dangerous within the Green Line. This is meant to shatter the equanimity of those Israelis who’d prefer to isolate the problem to settlers or settlements. The problem is, he warns, right here and within us. He also says that in the past 10-15 years Israeli society has become increasingly racist not just against Palestinians, but against foreigners and foreign workers. There is also an increasing tendency to use brute force in resolving conflicts not just related to the Occupation, but even in domestic situations having nothing to do with that.
Diskin also shatters the Likudist line that Israel is interested and ready for peace but there’s “no partner” on the Palestinian side. The former intelligence chief says that, in fact, it is the Netanyahu government that doesn’t want peace and that if the Palestinians came forward with a serious offer Israel would fly away as fast as its feet could carry it.
In another video segment from this speech, Diskin speaks candidly about the support network for Jewish terror. Among those who aid and abet it are the rabbinical leaders in the settlements and within the Green Line, who publicly defend or justify acts of hatred, while privately decrying and even denouncing them. In other words, Diskin is saying that the very leaders of the Israeli ultranationalist right who could rein in the violent rhetoric refuse to do so in any way that would make a difference (not so different, in fact, from Diskin refusing to speak truth to power while he was in office).
Yesterday, I reported that Diskin lambasted Netanyahu and Barak in this speech. And the counter-attack has begun, with Israel’s Bobsey Twin co-leaders calling the former Shin Bet chief disloyal and irresponsible (among the milder comments). But senior members of the security cabinet have also ralied to Diskin’s side and said that while they wouldn’t have expressed themselves as strongly, they too believe that Bibi and Barak are deceiving the Israeli people about the fallout that would come after an Israeli attack. If we compare this to an American cabinet, can you imagine a secretary conceding even anonymously that Leon Panetta and Barack Obama were lying to the American people about any matter related to national security? Though Israeli cabinets tend to be a lot more fractious than U.S. ones, this is still pretty eye-opening stuff.
In this Haaretz column (Hebrew), Amos Harel returns to the momentous 2010 cabinet meeting at which the military and intelligence chiefs presented a united front against a Bibi-Barak initiative to mount an attack on Iran. From this meeting, at which Meir Dagan, Diskin and Gabi Ashkenazi all spoke strongly against such an assault (and carried the day), flowed many of the critical developments of the two years following. The prime minister’s refusal to extend Dagan’s term, the former’s refusal to name Diskin to replace Dagan in the Mossad post, Bibi’s refusal to name Yitzhak Ilan as Diskin’s chosen successor at the Shin Bet as had been expected, and the subsequent crusade which Diskin and Dagan launched on regarding Iran, all derived from the 2010 showdown.
For those of you keeping score at home of who’s up and who’s down in the internal Israeli cabinet sweepstakes, Harel claims that the military-intelligence anti-war triad was intended to buttress an effort by Bogie Yaalon to oppose the government’s march to war. Given Yaalon’s profoundly rightist hawkish bias on all matters related to Israel’s Arab enemies, I found it surprising Yaalon would oppose such an attack. But my Israeli friends remind me that Barak and Yaalon, both former IDF chiefs of staff, detest each other. So for Yaalon, stymieing his nemesis in the latter’s march to war would be sweet revenge. In how many countries can you say that momentous affairs of state are driven and decided by such petty interpersonal conflicts?
Finally, there’s something quite amazing and typically Israeli about the backdrop for Diskin’s talk in these videos. He seems to be outdoors in the middle of Kfar Saba with scores of passersby looking on inquisitively at the event being filmed. It’s so informal, so democratic in a way for the nation’s leaders to be meeting with citizens in such a frank and open manner. Until of course you realize that Diskin would never have held such a meeting while in office. Only relatively powerless former officeholders take their cause to the people in such a fashion.
I can remember when I was a graduate student at the Hebrew University in 1979-80 and teaching myself to read Hebrew by reading every daily issue of Haaretz. In those days the paper was the loyal opposition to the Begin government and it lambasted him every chance it got. I was then perhaps more naive than now, and every article I read convinced me of the righteousness of Haaretz’s cause; and made me believe that the fall of the Likud could only be a matter of time.
But I learned then that no amount of powerful journalism or whistleblowing can bring down an Israeli government unless a series of other sometimes very extraneous factors also aligned favorably. Which means that in any other country the domestic and international intelligence directors uniting to attack the government might very well topple it. But in Israel, it’s unlikely to have a decisive impact on the stability of the government or even on the prospect of an attack on Iran. But Dagan and Diskin’s joint attacks will chip away at Bibi’s Teflon-Don reputation.
Thanks to Zohar Eitan, who first brought the video series to my attention and helped fill out some of the crucial content I omitted the first time I published this post.