On Thursday night, Israel Channel 12’s Ilana Dayan dropped a bombshell. In an interview with former Mossad head Tamir Pardo, she asserted that in 2013, Yoram Cohen, the head of Israel’s general security service, the Shin Bet, had refused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request “to carry out surveillance operations, including wiretaps, against a group of officials who were privy to a top secret, which included the head of the Mossad and the army Chief of Staff.” For the next 48 hours, the Israeli media was in a frenzy.
Netanyahu’s initial reaction was relatively restrained, by his standards. His office told Dayan’s TV program, "Uvda," “This is a complete distortion of systemic efforts that are made from time to time to safeguard information on sensitive matters of supreme importance to Israel’s security.” By Friday morning, however, after realizing that the story was gaining steam, Netanyahu’s changed his tone. In a video message, he described Dayan’s report as “an absolute lie.” Even the former head of the Shin Bet, Netanyahu asserted, had denied the report.
In point of fact, however, Cohen had only denied that he had been given “specific” instructions to wiretap the head of the Mossad, then Pardo, and the army’s Chief of Staff, then Benny Gantz. It was Netanyahu, not Dayan, who made such a claim. Cohen did not issue a denial – which, under the circumstances, was tantamount to confirmation – that Netanyahu had sought to surveil the entire group of those privy to the top secret, which included Pardo and Gantz.
Moreover, at least two other journalists confirmed Dayan’s story independently. Channel 10 cited a former top security official who was present at the meeting in which Netanyahu had requested the sweeping surveillance as saying that he had been “shocked” by the prime minister’s directive. If there was an “absolute lie," therefore, it was Netanyahu’s, not Dayan’s.
In Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu launched another counteroffensive. Ostensibly citing Pardo’s words to Dayan that the “fun part” about the Mossad was that it was a “licensed crime organization” Netanyahu said that the Mossad “was not a crime organization but a glorious organization that does holy work in the war on terror, and which we all salute.” Netanyahu conveniently neglected to cite the end of Pardo’s statement: “For King and country," the oath used since Roman times, and especially in English history, by soldiers willing to sacrifice their lives for their nations. The Mossad is a “licensed crime organization," Pardo meant, but only in the service of Israel’s greater interests.
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As with his skewed presentation of Dayan’s original claim, Netanyahu’s distortion of Pardo’s statement was malicious, not coincidental. Netanyahu knew full well that Pardo’s words were said in jest. He was well aware that Pardo was using insider vernacular to describe the Mossad. And Netanyahu knows, more than most, that all Mossad operations abroad, from wiretapping through the stationing of a spy to the assassination of an enemy, are illegal in the countries in which the spy agency operates.
Netanyahu purposely perverted Pardo’s words in order to portray him as a traitor to the organization that he served for close to 40 years. In doing so, he signaled his attack dogs in politics and the media that open season had been declared on Pardo and his record. Retired IDF general Minister Yoav Galant and the head of the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee Avi Dichter, himself a former head of the Shin Bet, wrongly attributed the revelation of Netanyahu’s surveillance order to Pardo and described it as a “big lie," even though they had no way of knowing. “The Enemy Within” was the headline of a column in Maariv. “Pardo aided and abetted Iran and Hezbollah” was another, printed in the right-wing Makor Rishon. “He’s a traitor,” “Lock him up” and “Pardo joins Israel’s enemies” were the slogans quickly churned out by Netanyahu’s right-wing trolls on the internet.
The tidal wave of indignation sparked by Netanyahu obscured Pardo’s revelation that in 2011, he and Gantz had followed in the footsteps of their predecessors, Meir Dagan and Gaby Ashkenazi respectively, in refusing to go along with Netanyahu’s order to prepare the army for an attack on Iran. The cardinal question of how and why Netanyahu has succeeded in alienating successive leaders of Israel’s security arms and losing their confidence also vanished. Pardo, who devoted his life to Israel’s security – and was at the side of Yoni Netanyahu, the prime minister’s brother, when he was gunned own in Entebbe -joined the ever-lengthening line of senior security officials who turned into public enemies number one for Netanyahu’s minions. His service record was erased overnight. He was tarred and feathered for committing the most cardinal of sins in today’s Israel: Speaking out against Netanyahu, the anointed one.
The prime minister may be more careful and cunning than his great American friend Donald Trump, but at their core, they are one and the same. They will tear down hallowed institutions, fight the rule of law, demoralize the intelligence community, sully the reputations of devoted public officials, lie and distort to their heart’s content if anyone dares confront them. Their loyal stormtroopers, including supposedly independent politicians, will follow them into the deepest gutters to ingratiate themselves with their idol and to finish his dirty work.
Pardo, at least, knew what was coming. At the end of his interview he reflected on the sad fate that awaits those who dare criticize Emperor Bibi: “What is happening in Israel in recent years is the delegitimization of thinking differently. The minute you don’t think and speak like the prime minister, you move to the other side, to the side of the traitors, to the side of those who wish to cause Israel harm.” But even he could not have anticipated the ferocity of the attack or the intensity of the venom. Even he could not admit to himself that Israel is turning away from cold, hard truths and addicting itself to lies, distortions and incitement, in which, one must admit, Netanyahu is a world-class master.