Analysis

A Non-denial Denial: Did Netanyahu Ask ex-Shin Bet Chief to Tap IDF, Mossad Heads?

Yoram Cohen says he never got 'specific' instructions from Netanyahu to listen in on Tamir Pardo and Benny Gantz, though the explosive report mentioned a general request to tap a series of confidants

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen, September 21, 2018
Haim Zach / GPO

Over five years later, the disputes among Israeli leaders surrounding the proposed attack on Iranian nuclear sites continue to reverberate in the media – and provide new revelations. The current maelstrom began Thursday around two tidbits exposed on the investigative television program “Uvda.”

The first: The previous Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo, told “Uvda” host Ilana Dayan that in 2011, shortly after Pardo was appointed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the security establishment to prepare for an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites within 15 days of an order being given. Pardo added that he consulted with his predecessors out of fear the order was illegal.

The second, around which a factual debate is roiling: Dayan reported that Netanyahu asked then-Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen to monitor several security officials – among them Pardo and the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces at the time, Benny Gantz – and even tap their phones to prevent leaks of sensitive information.

Netanyahu denied the second report twice. Responding to “Uvda” on Thursday, his office said the claim was “completely baseless” and the publication was “a total distortion of systemic efforts made from time to time to maintain information security on sensitive issues of paramount importance to Israel’s security.” On Friday morning, Netanyahu tweeted that “there’s no limit to the lies” and announced that he never asked anyone to spy on Gantz and Pardo. “This is an utter lie,” he said.

The original “Uvda” report failed to mention that these are two separate time periods. The incident Dayan referred to happened in 2013, and may not be directly related to the Israeli debate regarding an attack, which was subsiding after an interim accord was signed between Iran and the big powers, and Ehud Barak was replaced as defense minister by Moshe Ya’alon, who opposed a strike.

According to Dayan, Netanyahu was concerned about the possibility of a  security leak in a sensitive matter, so he asked Cohen to surveil a number of senior people, among them not only Pardo and Gantz but also top  intelligence officials.

Leak investigations have always been a sensitive matter between prime ministers and Shin Bet chiefs. For example, this issue created tensions between Netanyahu and Cohen’s predecessor as Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin. The Shin Bet isn’t eager to conduct such checks, which sometimes involve politicians and put them at odds with officials in counterpart organizations.

But in this case, “Uvda” reported, the request was to conduct a preliminary check: broad wiretapping of a raft of senior officials, among them Cohen’s counterparts in the IDF and Mossad, without any of them being suspected of anything yet. Cohen refused the request because of the invasiveness of the means, the infringement on his colleagues and the lack of suspicions for offenses.

Again, Netanyahu has issued denials on two levels: first, in a detailed description of periodical checks that “Uvda” took out of context, and later with a gross accusation that Dayan was lying – echoing the media clash between the two that occurred a year and a half ago.

On Friday evening, surely after many hours of probing by Cohen, the current Shin Bet chief’s office and Netanyahu’s office, Cohen released a statement on the matter. He said that “the reports in the media about orders allegedly given to me by the prime minister while I was still acting-Shin Bet chief – to specifically tap the phones of Gantz and Pardo – are untrue.”

The key word here of course is “specifically.” Contrary to automatic responses by Netanyahu supporters, Cohen isn’t denying the whole story  but rather the claim – which doesn’t appear in Dayan’s report – that Netanyahu ordered him to spy on Gantz and Pardo in particular. Dayan mentioned “a series of confidants, among them the IDF chief of staff and the head of the Mossad.” What did they call such a response during the  Watergate scandal? Non-denial denial.

The disagreement over the facts in the debate about an Iran strike won’t end here. It was a historically charged period whose echoes still resound, with two rounds of the debate taking place in 2009 and 2010 in which  Netanyahu and Barak favored an attack despite recommendations against one.

Even after all the relevant chiefs were replaced (Gantz for Gabi Ashkenazi as IDF chief of staff, Pardo for Meir Dagan as Mossad chief, Cohen for Diskin in the Shin Bet, Aviv Kochavi for Amos Yadlin in Military Intelligence,  Amir Eshel for Ido Nechushtan in the air force), there were two more rounds in the debate – in 2011 and 2012. Some of the people involved say the later rounds were even more dramatic, whether considering the power of the emotions or the level of the sophistication.

Either way, it seems this is where the roots of Netanyahu’s suspicions lay toward the security chiefs to this day. Netanyahu hasn’t derived much pleasure from these guys, who have repeatedly stood their ground, sometimes in defiance. All this will likely affect his considerations this year when it’s time to appoint a new IDF chief of staff, not to mention, against the backdrop of the corruption investigations into Netanyahu, a new police chief.