Before you begin reading this major scoop, I want to tell you where you won’t find this type of reporting. Not in the New York Times, nor Haaretz, or even The Nation. Hell, you won’t even read it at Electronic Intifada. Only here. That’s where you’ll find this reporting. So I ask you to think about supporting my work. Just as spring turns young men’s (and women’s) fancy to love, the holiday season turns the hearts and minds of those who want to change the world to supporting what they believe in. I know you believe in my work or you wouldn’t be here. I hope you will click on the WePay or Paypal links and make a generous end-of-year gift. If you know others who should be reading my work or who can fund it, tell them as well.
Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for some time will not be surprised to learn that the IDF is not just a powerful military force, but also a national institution riven by corruption, petty jealousies, and naked political ambition. So much so, that at times you wonder how it actually defends the homeland given the level of dysfunction within. I’ve documented most of these themes before in a number of posts. But recently, I learned about a scandal which, though the events transpired over a decade ago, was only exposed in 2011 with the publication of Ronen Bergman (his website) and Dan Margalit’s book, Ha’Bor (The Pit–this is the link to the relevant chapter from the Hebrew edition). Since the book hasn’t yet been translated into English (Bergman is working on a new book for Random House, a history of Israeli intelligence), some of the incidents described in it are almost unknown outside Israel. The hysterical reaction Bergman received to the book from the IDF itself isn’t even well-known inside Israel.
The general overview of the story comes from Uri Misgav’s Haaretz piece linked above. But some key details below are reported for the first time based on my own interview with Bergman. I thank him for sharing it with me (and you). It begins with one of the most secretive and highly sought-after units in the IDF, the Special Operations Executive (מערך המבצעים המיוחדים) within the military intelligence division, AMAN. SOE includes Sayeret Matkal, the élite special forces unit, which has produced many of Israel’s prime ministers and defense ministers. About a decade ago, a whistleblower came forward from within the SOE and exposed massive corruption within its technology unit. Not only was the sheer volume and types of corrupt acts extraordinary, the amounts involved were eye-popping.
To understand the story, we have to take a step back and understand who these soldiers are serving in this unit. The SOE is the forward-intelligence unit which plans and executes some of Israel’s most dangerous and most controversial acts of espionage, sabotage and assassination. They infiltrate hostile countries, plant surveillance devices, sabotage facilities, and murder key targets among the enemy. Think Iran, think Lebanon, think Syria. They work in the most secret and sensitive of units. They risk their lives regularly. They see and do things that most Israelis hopefully will never do. Because of this, the nation largely gives these men a pass when it comes to monitoring their behavior. They have carte blanche to spend what they want, do what they want, take what they want–as long as they get the job done. It reminds me of what they say about sausage: it tastes good but you don’t want to know how it’s made.
When the SOE whistleblower came forward he did so within the IDF. The Israeli public still didn’t know a thing about the scandalous behavior he revealed. The IDF doesn’t like to wash its dirty linen in private, let alone in public. So the military criminal investigations division (CID) did open an inquiry into the charges. And they were unbelievable: millions of dollars were spent every year with virtually no oversight. Using U.S. military aid, they bought an entire gym and sauna in the U.S., imported it to their base, and restricted its use to only the most senior officers. An officer charged unit expenses on his personal credit card, on which he earned tens of thousands of points which he redeemed for luxury vacations. Agents extended their visits in foreign countries in order to have time to “play” and shop.
Luxury furniture, sofas, beds and other goodies were purchased for the offices and living quarters of the officers. When an officer didn’t like to color of an armoire purchased for him, they bought new paint and had it repainted. Outside contractors laid down new lawns and built pergolas for the grounds of the base where SOE was housed. Contractors threw free parties for the children of officers. These contractors often didn’t charge for their services because they had lucrative inside deals with unit personnel. Often a son of a current or former member of the unit owned the company and either gave or got a sweetheart deal.
For the unit’s operations, it purchased high-end vehicles which were only meant to be used for official purposes. Yet, the officers took these luxury SUVs and sports cars to and from work so they could enjoy the thrill that their everyday personal vehicles couldn’t give them.
Expenditures for the unit which exceeded $2,500 needed a higher level of authorization and received more scrutiny. In order to avoid this, the personnel regularly split purchases into smaller amounts that were under the $2,500 threshold. Those within SOE who were supposed to authorize the spending either didn’t know what they were signing or left it to their subordinates to do the dirty work.
Aside from these shenanigans, there is one important figure in the mix: Lt. Col. Boaz Harpaz. He was the operations officer for SOE. He was a combination of a fixer, improviser, and conjurer. His job was to make things happen. If you think of the novel Catch 22, Harpaz is Milo Minderbinder. The former will figure largely in a later scandal in which he allegedly forged a memo that was intended to buttress the chief of staff candidacy of a candidate favored by then Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. The memo was also meant to smear then-defense minister, Ehud Barak, who was in the midst of a scorched-earth campaign against Ashkenazi.
Though Barak hated anyone sharing the limelight with him and resented Ashkenazi’s efforts to burnish his own image in the media, the chief of staff harbored his own grandiose vision of his worth. Unlike past chiefs of staff, who understood that they served at the pleasure of the defense minister, Ashkenazi mounted what might be called a coup. At first, he sought an extra year to his term (chiefs of staff generally serve four years and then retire from service, where they turn their experience and connections into lucrative consultancies for security or energy companies). When Barak denied him that, Ashkenazi began a campaign to sabotage the defense minister’s preferred candidate, Yoav Galant (who Ashkenazi despised). That is how the forged memo came into the picture.
Returning to the SOE scandal, Bergman says that up to $20-million yearly was spent each year on these unconventional purchases. Though not all of the money involved corruption or abuse, certainly a substantial portion of it did. While $20-million is a large sum to you or me, within the overall expenditures of AMAN it was exceedingly small potatoes. At the time of the original corruption investigation, the IDF wanted to keep the lid on things. So it refused to file any criminal charges despite the massive amounts of evidence uncovered. Only two officers were disciplined, one of whom quit the IDF. Though scores of others were involved, no one else faced any penalty. All this would’ve stayed quiet had not Boaz Harpaz taken it upon himself to “help” his boss, Ashkenazi to get his man promoted to chief of staff.
Why is all this so important to any of these IDF officers? Because, as I mentioned, the army is a good old boys club. If your guy becomes chief of staff, that translates into millions of dollars in business deals you can expect throughout the rest of your career. Not to mention the other prestige and status being associated with the right people affords. You get invited to the right clubs, the right parties. You enjoy that privileged lifestyle accessible only to the golden boys of Israel.
We don’t know who first told Bergman about this scandal, but I can guess that it was likely someone close to Ehud Barak. With Ashkenazi undermining his authority as defense minister and an all-out war between them, Barak would’ve felt either angry enough or threatened enough that exposing the SOE scandal, linked as it was to Boaz Harpaz, would cast dirt on Ashkenazi.
Whoever was Bergman’s source, Ashkenazi was not happy when he learned that Harpaz was the villain of the journalist’s new book. Bergman was summoned to Ashkenazi’s office for a meeting with his chief of staff and Ashkenazi’s public affairs officer, Avi Benayahu. The latter is a legendary character: rotund, with a few strands of hair he combs over to mask his balding pate. He’s also a bluff, blustery character known to make loud threats against anyone who crosses him. At this meeting, Benayahu and the chief of staff presented to Bergman top-secret documents which they attempted to use to defend Ashkenazi’s reputation.
They also informed the journalist that when Ashkenazi left the army, he fully expected to become the next prime minister (this aspect of the meeting is reported here for the first time). As hard as it may be now for anyone to believe that the chief of staff and his hangers-on could believe something so incredible, at the time it seemed credible, even inevitable–at least to them. As they posed it to Bergman: Ashkenazi would be a leader without a party seeking a party without a leader (an ironic twist on the classic Zionist maxim: “a land without a people for a people without a land”). The not so hidden message: cross a man who’s about to become the next prime minister at your peril.
When they couldn’t move Bergman to back off his investigation, they threatened to charge him with espionage (this is the first time this aspect of the story is being published outside Israel), one of the most serious offenses in the Israeli criminal code. They not only threatened, they actually pressured both the Shabak and attorney general to open an investigation. They charged that Bergman was in unauthorized possession of the very documents they had shown him in their office! Those two bodies, however refused to accede to chief of staff’s wishes. Bergman wasn’t investigated or charged with any crime. I’m guessing that at least one of the reasons for this might have something to do with a certain senior minister who didn’t want Bergman to face criminal prosecution.
If any of this seems far-fetched to you, even in the Israeli context, let me remind you that weighing heavily on Bergman’s mind was the fact that Uri Blau, another brilliant Israeli investigative journalist, had been forced to flee the country to avoid prosecution on a very similar charge. Blau had received top-secret IDF documents from Anat Kamm which he’d used to publish an article which tarnished the army’s reputation. Eventually, Kamm was convicted of a criminal charge and imprisoned, while Blau was forced to cop a plea and served four months community service. So espionage was no idle threat to Bergman.
Ironically, Harpaz himself was forced to leave the IDF when he was discovered with top-secret military documents on his own personal laptop which was not secured or encrypted. He faced no other charges for this behavior, which leads you to believe that there is one standard of justice for the officer élite (like Harpaz) and another entirely for the lowly privates (like Kamm), and the journalists with whom they collaborate. Indeed, powerful Israeli ministers and journalists handle such documents virtually every day. If you got them from the right source, you were golden. If you were promoting the agenda of the right powerful person, no one would harm you.
But if you had guts and values, if you crossed the wrong person, then you were fair game. This is what also happened to Haaretz military affairs correspondent Reuven Pedatzur. In 1994, he too suffered a year-long investigation in which he was charged with espionage and possession of top-secret documents. During that time, Pedatzur’s phone was tapped and the most powerful security agency in the country brought its full weight to bear against him. So again, Avi Benayahu was not posing an idle threat against Bergman.
Israel already ranks quite low among the ranks of so-called democratic nations for its level of press freedom. In Reporters Without Borders 2013 report (full report here), it dropped from 92nd (last year) to 112th (this year) out of 179 countries ranked. RSF should include the bullying and threats I’ve noted here when they produce their next report. Israel is a country in which reporters are free to report what the powerful want them to report. If you want to cover what they don’t want you to report, then you are at the mercy of the security services and all bets are off.
There is an overall moral to this story: not only does absolute power corrupt absolutely; when a State’s citizens give over their liberty and security to a group of men who are unaccountable to anyone, then the same thing happens. Think about these soldiers of the SOE. Their lives on base were swathed in presumptions of privilege. They were the kings of their domain. No one questioned them. They got what they wanted when they wanted it. If their lives on base could be so corrupt, imagine how they’d behave when they were on active duty in enemy territory. Imagine to what levels of depravity they might stoop to get the job done. Imagine the corners they’d cut. Imagine the cheapness of the lives they’d take.
There is an arrogance at the root of the behavior of the SOE. But it isn’t just the smugness of this one élite unit, as great as that might be. The corruption within this one unit is writ large in much of the behavior of the IDF. There is a similar code of privilege and impunity in virtually everything the IDF does. It explains why it mounts endless wars that offer Israel no more security than before they started. It explains why virtually no soldier is ever held accountable for his behavior. It’s why six times more Palestinian civilians are killed than Israeli civilians. It’s why an IAF commander can say the only sensation he feels before he kills a Palestinian is the shudder of the plane just after it fires its missile. It’s why another AMAN interrogator can sodomize a Lebanese suspect in hopes that he might reveal the whereabouts of a captured Israel airman, and then sue the State after being drummed out of the IDF.