How Netanyahu Silenced Israel’s Spies and Soldiers From Dissenting on Annexation

Annexation could set the Mideast on fire. But Netanyahu has kept Israel’s security and intelligence chiefs completely in the dark – and now he’s replacing them with acquiescent loyalists

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Mossad head Yossi Cohen at an event, October 2, 2017.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Mossad head Yossi Cohen at an event, October 2, 2017.Credit: Haim Zach/GPO
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

July 1 has come and gone – the earliest date that the Netanyahu government could announce the annexation of the West Bank, or at least parts of it. It didn't happen, but in the shadow of the Israeli prime minister's still-extant promise to annex, and the forceful resurgence of the coronavirus, this is a dramatic time in Israeli history, and perhaps in all the annals of Zionism.

Annexation may bring an end to Israel as a democratic and Jewish state, replacing it with either a binational entity or, even worse, an Israeli apartheid, accompanied by a spiraling COVID-19 illness rate.

And yet despite the urgency of the moment, and the ramifications of annexation – with the potential of triggering a new war with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas (finding rare cooperation in necessity) which could set the Middle East on fire, Israel’s security and intelligence chiefs are being completely kept in the dark. Netanyahu is excluding them from the decision-making process, in a power-play inversion of the intelligence world’s compartmentalization rule.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar (4th L) takes part in a rally against annexation in Gaza City on July 1, 2020.Credit: AFP

In such critical times, Israel needs stable, continuous and experienced leaders for its famed national security infrastructure. But the exact opposite is occurring. In the coming months no less than five senior members of the security establishment face replacement. 

They are: Yossi Cohen, head of Mossad (Israel’s foreign espionage agency); Nadav Argaman, head of the Shin Bet, (domestic security service); Major-General Tamir Hayman, chief of Military Intelligence, and its Research Directorate director, Brigadier-General Dror Shalom; and finally, Meir Ben Shabat, head of the National Security Council. 

Those personnel changes are a matter of routine bureaucracy and legal requirement, as their terms end soon. But it means that the only constant in the top tier of Israel’s intelligence and defense realms will be IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi – staying on for at least another two and half years – and Netanyahu himself, to whom the Mossad and Shin Bet are directly answerable.

In the past, before making decisions on strategic, political or security matters, Israel's prime ministers would consult defense and intelligence leaders, and might well accept their opinions. 

In the lead-up to the annexation date, Netanyahu neither convened those experts nor asked for their opinions. The decision whether to annex or not will be made solely between the left and rights lobes of Netanyahu’s head.

By belittling his security chiefs in such an unprecedented manner, Netanyahu follows in the footsteps of U.S. President Donald Trump who declared war on his intelligence community even before he entered the White House.

The concern now is that Netanyahu will exploit the degradation of national security officials who could have tried to push back against annexation and use the upcoming turnover period to install amenable yes-men. In other words, to further cultivate the seeds he’s already planted to politicize the top echelon of Israel’s security establishment.

In its first 15 years of independence, during which Israel was ruled by founding father and Labor party leader David Ben-Gurion, the civil service in general, and the intelligence community in particular, were heavily politicized. Since then, the intelligence community underwent a kind of cleansing, a professionalization, with a commitment shared with the country's premier to select senior officials for their merit and skills, not their political and ideological tendencies.

Those norms – of disregarding security chiefs' backgrounds and expecting them to be true civil servants, loyal to the state and respecting the law – held firm until Netanyahu came to power in 2010. 

Since then, and in an accelerating manner over the last five years, Netanyahu has tried to reverse the process, taking Israel back to the days when politics routinely contaminated intelligence assessments and actions. One key playing field for Netanyahu’s sustained pressure is the process of nominating candidates to serve as the chiefs of Israel’s natsec community.

In 2011, Netanyahu nominated Yoram Cohen, a Shin Bet officer who grew up in a religious home and went through the state religious school system, to lead the service. The prime minister believed that Cohen was a right-winger, and hoped he would be soft on militant Jewish settlers. However, Cohen remained loyal to his professional norms. 

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Police chief Roni Alsheich at a ceremony in Kfar Sava in 2017.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Despite that disappointment, Netanyahu tried again to appoint what he thought would be an acquiescent gate-keeper. It was Roni Alsheich, also a Shin Bet operative, with a similar upbringing to Yoram Cohen; Alsheich was selected by Netanyahu to command the National Police service.

Once again, Netanyahu’s hopes were dashed when Alsheich refused to stop the police investigating Netanyahu. Those investigations led to the prime minister’s indictment of criminal charges of corruption; his trial opens this month.  

Netanyahu remained indefatigable in his quest to domesticate the security establishment. In 2016, he appointed Yossi Cohen, who also grew up in a religious community, as head of the Mossad. 

Nobody denies that Cohen is an outstanding intelligence officer. However, one of the main reasons for Netanyahu handpicking him to head the Mossad was the close relationship Cohen had cultivated with him and his influential wife Sara. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem, May 2, 2018Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO

Netanyahu has not concealed the fact that a critical precondition for these lofty appointments is loyalty to him. The only time a candidate has pushed back against that conditionality was when he announced he would appoint Tamir Pardo to replace Meir Dagan as Mossad head in 2011. Pardo said that he would be loyal to the job and to the country. Netanyahu appointed him anyway. 

The prime minister also asked similar questions of the three candidates to replace Pardo. Eventually, Netanyahu nominated Yossi Cohen, who doesn’t hesitate to conflate Israel with the prime minister: he sees his office as owing loyalty to Netanyahu, as to all previous Israeli PMs, because they are the state. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Council head Meir Ben Shabbat, April 2, 2018Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/ Government Press Office

Meir Ben Shabat, currently head of the National Security Council and a leading candidate to replace Argaman as head of the Shin Bet, is another important example of Netanyahu’s devious efforts to personalize security chiefs to his tastes and interests. Shabat is a Shin Bet veteran and is also a member of the religious community. 

For most of his term as Sin Bet head, Argaman has exhibited resilience and grit, not hesitating to offer security assessments that would irritate Netanyahu and his right-wing government.

Argaman is particularly sensitive to annexation’s potential to fuel a new round of violence, not least due to his key responsibility to prevent terror attacks. Based on his professional expertise, Argaman is also very concerned about the future relations with Jordan. 

In recent years, the center of gravity of the special strategic ties with the Hashemite Kingdom has moved from the Mossad to the Shin Bet. Throughout his term, Argaman was forced at least twice to deactivate mines sown by Netanyahu that threatened to blow up relations with the Amman. Once, when Netanyahu, backed by the police and contrary to the opinion of the Shin Bet, ordered metal detectors to be installed at the entrances to the Temple Mount. The second occasion was when a security guard at the Israeli Embassy in Amman shot and killed a Jordanian worker, and Netanyahu applauded his actions.

Argaman and the most other NSC heads are well aware that annexation will fray the already fragile relations with King Abdullah.

Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman at the Knesset, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

They face a determined opposition from Netanyahu loyalists Yossi Cohen and Ben Shabat, who are convinced Jordan needs Israel more than the anger being expressed at annexation; they will therefore swallow any decision by the prime minister.

Ben Shabat actively favors annexation, and believes relations with Jordan are solid enough to overcome even the tensions that annexation will cause. He even said in the past that although annexing the Jordan Valley would cause short-term tension, at the strategic level and over the long term, Jordan would ultimately benefit from severing its onerous relationship with the Palestinian Authority.

But Argaman, IDF Chief of Staff Kochavi, Military Intelligence head Hayman and most of their senior subordinates feel otherwise. They believe the annexation, partial or not, would accrue more damage than any possible advantages.

Difference of opinions, non-conformism, pluralism and original and creative thinking are important signs of health for any country’s intelligence community. Silencing security and intelligence chiefs is clearly a sign of a diseased democracy.

The greatest challenge of any intelligence organization is to prevent its politicization tainting its professional judgment. Such a contamination is extremely hard to reverse: Once national security considerations are not purely professional but geared to appeasing vested interests, or the personal political needs of the boss, as is happening now in Israel, it’s hard to eliminate the blight.

The security and intelligence leaderships, degraded and under pressure, become accustomed to giving the leader the picture that he wants, and not a real assessment. It’s hard to think of a more perilous situation for Israel’s security.

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