Intelligence Chiefs vs. Democracy

Heads of Israel's intelligence apparatus complain that the public campaign to free captive soldier Gilad Shalit has weakened their bargaining position with Hamas.

Under the guise of offering their "professional" expertise, the heads of Israel's intelligence apparatus voiced a rather strange complaint at a recent cabinet meeting regarding Gilad Shalit - the state of democracy in Israel. Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin, Military Intelligence head Amos Yadlin and deputy Mossad head "T." bemoaned that the public campaign to free the captive soldier had weakened their bargaining position with Hamas.

This is not a new allegation. The Military Intelligence chief has said that various media exposes have harmed Israel's security interests and helped its enemies. Such assessments are presumably supported by solid evidence such as (this is merely a hypothetical example) intercepted conversations where Hamas leaders express encouragement about pressure on the government by the Shalit family, its supporters and the media, and thus agree to harden their stance on a prisoner swap.

Still, there is a sneaking suspicion that intelligence officials and the prime minister are raising such claims because they actually torpedoed negotiations, and are now simply blaming Hamas and "public opinion."

Nonetheless, Israel's decisions raise a few questions. Why was Diskin really sent to Cairo? Would it not have been better to send only Ofer Dekel, Olmert's lead negotiator? It is doubtful that the head of an organization that detains and imprisons terrorists would be completely cool-headed and objective regarding releasing prisoners.

Also less than convincing is the intelligence heads' claim that if 450 terrorists are released instead of 325, Israel will suffer irreversible security damage. God help us if Israel's security lives or dies based on 125 terrorists. Nor is the explanation that those Israel refused to free are any more dangerous than the ones it agreed to. Is there really a difference between Mahmoud al-Krum, who planned a Haifa suicide bombing that killed 15 people - and whom Israel was prepared to free - and Bahij Mahmoud Bader, responsible for the murder of 18 people in suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the Tzrifin army base - whom it refused to release?

The claim that public opinion "harms" negotiations should not be voiced in a democratic country. Intelligence officials lack the authority to evaluate the influence of Israel's democratic values on the enemy's intentions. Democracy in Israel must not be contested, certainly not by public servants. Anyone who airs such opinions broadcasts that perhaps he would prefer to head the intelligence service of a non-democratic country, where public opinion does not matter.

It's true that some degree of asymmetrical, psychological warfare is being waged between Israel and its terrorist enemies. This asymmetry stems from Israel being an open society where human life has value and the public has the right to protest, criticize and influence decisions, as opposed to non-democratic societies. This asymmetry clearly works against democracy. But when defense establishment heads cast Israel's democracy in doubt, it testifies to a flaw in their understanding of the rules of the game.

It is particularly unfortunate that none of the government ministers found the courage to tell them that such opinions may not be within their "professional" authority, and to ask them a simple question: What are you whining about? Serving in a democratic society? Are you really not proud of that?