I’ll tell you something that no Israeli will ever read or watch currently in their domestic media: the favored candidate to succeed Yoram Cohen as the next Shin Bet chief is former settler, Roni Alsheikh (trade nickname, “The Fox”). Officers and agents of Israeli intelligence agencies aren’t named publicly. This is the only media source which has named him (and a number of other previous directors-to-be as well). Alsheikh is Orthodox and from Mizrahi ethnic background. Those aren’t the usual origins of most former Shabak directors. Haaretz’s Sefi Rachlevsky said about him that he makes Col. Ofer Winter, the Butcher of Khuza’a, “look quite moderate.” He also called the Shabak official “messianic.”
Israeli intelligence bosses usually serve a single five-year term, which may be renewed for another year. I’m not certain why Cohen won’t be serving an extension. It could be because he hasn’t found favor in the eyes of Sara Netanyahu, who scuttled the candidacy of the leading candidate last time around, Yitzhak Ilan. That led to Cohen. Whatever the reason, it’s well-known in media circles that Alsheikh is favored to get the top job this time.
That hasn’t stopped agency insiders and former insiders from lobbying for their own candidates and interests. Yesterday, Walla! published a breathless “scoop” (Hebrew) claiming to detail the secret goings-on in Shabak’s fight against terror. In reality, it was an interview with former Shin Bet chief, Yaakov Peri, who is an MK from the center-right, Yesh Atid. Either he wanted to make known is distaste for Alsheikh; or to weigh in with his opinion that the next head of the Shin Bet should be a former field agent (as Peri and all previous directors have been) and not a former interrogator (as Alsheikh is). In the intelligence hierarchy (both the Mossad and Shin Bet) the glory goes to the field operatives: the ones recruiting and running agents in hostile environments, which offer the gravest dangers and risks. Naturally, those who’ve served in such capacity take umbrage when those they believe aren’t worthy get recognition and the top job.
But before getting to the real point of the interview, to lay down his markers in the fight over the next agency chief, he has to tell a few war stories about his covert ops. These are the stories guys tell of the fish that got away; or that they brag about if they caught it. Except in this case, they’re bragging about their skill at murdering Palestinian militants. This type of story is quite common and I’ve been reading them for years. Sometimes the interviewee is anonymous if he’s a current minister or official; and sometimes he’s identified, as is Peri in this story.
Readers should keep in mind, as with much reporting on Israeli national security matters, that they’re only hearing one side. They’re hearing Peri tell us about the multiple terror acts which his victims supposedly perpetrated. But the reporter asks for no proof, nor is he offered any. In Israel, the security forces are gods. They are always taken at their word. For example, you will almost never see the word “alleged” used in news reports about security arrests or targeted killings. The victims are always unqualified terrorists, their guilt presumed merely from the word of the Shabak.
Returning to Peri’s lobbying against Alsheikh, you’ll see it couched carefully in this passage:
Past Shabak field agents have tried to identify the common denominator for the role, from which arise many future agency chiefs: the field operative must be humble, possess a sensitive type of intelligence, be ethical, and able deal with great mental burdens, and act under pressure, but also be skeptical, and able to engage in quick analysis.
Former Shabak field agents speak consistently about the ethical aspect and professional integrity concerning human life–of both the Israeli civilians whom they protect and the spies they “run” in the field. The ethical dilemmas are quite complicated and unending. That’s why former Shabak chiefs claim the Shabak Law [which is supposed to govern how the agency operates and limits to its behavior], which details clear rules of conduct and detailed guidelines, is much more than a compass which points out the various powers which the field agent has at his disposal to stop terror attacks.
Even in extreme moments during which the agent much make critical decisions, not everything is permitted. Restraint of power is a concept heard a great deal during the training of field agents…
That Peri’s account is self-serving and flattering to himself and the agency is beyond question. Among other things, the reporter says that the field agent must never use violence against his spies, but rather his relationship must always be based on “personal connection.” The agent must also not only speak Arabic fluently and recite the Koran by heart, he must “see the beauty” in Islam. All this while planning to murder its adherents. Do you get the impression that these people must either harbor split personalities or be masters of duplicity or self-deception? But it’s one thing to lie to oneself; it’s quite another to lie to an entire nation and have its citizens take you at your word as a man of honor.
In a subsequent passage, Peri describes the coordinated effort the Shabak makes among professionals with varied skill sets all working together to combat terror. If you read carefully, there’s one prominent Shabak unit omitted:
Shabak rests on the broad shoulders of field agents, whose decisions and assessments hold great weight in combating terror. The agent is engaged in recruiting and running spies and composing a full picture built from many pieces. But the agent isn’t alone in the work of amassing intelligence. Alongside him toil the special operations officers and SIGINT, who can gather vital intelligence from telephone calls, text messages, photographs, chat messages, and e-mail. At headquarters there are also desk officers who centralize the information and aid in building the intelligence puzzle.
Yes, you guessed it. There are no interrogators in this world. No one does the dirty work of breaking down prisoners, tearing them limb from limb. Of course, the omission is deliberate and the insult intentional.
But there may be another point Peri is trying to make. Relatively speaking, field agents have “cleaner hands” than interrogators. By emphasizing the ethical component, and limitations on torture and cruelty, Peri may be implying that interrogators like Alsheikh have dirty hands which shouldn’t be running the ship.
According to a confidential Israeli security source, Alsheikh, who is currently deputy Shabak chief, and “Netzer,” who is the chief of interrogations, are livid at this article. They see it as part of a political campaign by Shabak insiders and ex-insiders, mostly Ashkenazi, secular and more liberal politically (though in today’s Israeli political climate, that term is relative), to derail Alsheikh’s candidacy.
As for me, I don’t know which is worse: having the guy who recruits Palestinian agents through threats or blackmail be the boss; or the guy who tears a suspect’s nails out and shakes him till his brain pan rattles in his skull.
Peri’s influence in the appointment process is questionable. He’s not a government minister and his party will likely not participate in the next governing coalition. But as part of the jockeying for influence among the political elites, this makes for interesting tea-leaf reading.