Analysis |

These Are the Candidates for Next Head of Shin Bet

The chatter about the race for the top position is making security top brass nauseous: Some things should stay secret, they feel

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Benjamin Netanyahu in a security briefing, together with Meir Ben-Shabbat, far left, and Yossi Cohen, far right
Benjamin Netanyahu in a security briefing, together with Meir Ben-Shabbat, far left, and Yossi Cohen, far rightCredit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

Having finished with appointing a new head for the Mossad, D., Prime Minister Netanyahu is nearing a decision on the next top-level appointment in the defense establishment: a successor to Nadav Argaman, the head of the Shin Bet security service.

Argaman’s term is set by law at five years, which ends in four months. In contrast to the decision about D., which passed without drama and drew praise from former heads and senior members of Mossad, the race for chief of the Shin Bet is evoking strong emotions and heated debates even before any decision has been made.

That is because a leading contender, if not the main one going by assessments in the defense establishment and in Netanyahu’s bureau, is Meir Ben-Shabbat, the head of the National Security Council.

No decision has been made yet, and insofar as is known, Netanyahu hasn’t spoken with Ben-Shabbat or the outgoing chief Argaman about the matter. Nor is it clear whether the Shin Bet chief will recommend one or two particular candidates, or make do with presenting the prime minister with three suggestions, as has been the norm, leaving it to him to pick one.

If it was up to Argaman, this story and other reports about the next Shin Bet chief would never reach the press: they just make him and his associates sick to their stomachs. Commenting on a story recently broadcasted on Kan 11 television, claiming that top Shin Bet officials had threatened to quit if Ben-Shabbat is appointed to the post, the security service officially stated that “media reports relating to the suitability of this or that candidate are foreign to us a covert organization, and it would have been better were they not aired at all.”

Meir Ben-Shabbat, left, boards an El Al airliner with U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien and U.S. President Trump's senior adviser Jared Kushner as they fly to Abu Dhabi, on August 2020.Credit: NIR ELIAS/ REUTERS

The chatter and leaks whiff of a campaign to delegitimize Ben-Shabbat. They do not originate with the organization or its chief but, as on previous occasions, from ex-senior Shin Bet people who have access to serving senior officials.

In any case, there are two other contenders for the job, R. and Y. Insofar as can be determined, R. seems to be Argaman’s top choice despite their having had some professional differences of late.

Y. began his career in the Shin Bet as a case officer specializing in recruitment and handling Palestinian agents. This is what he did throughout most of his professional career. He has experience in field operations and has also served in staff and leadership roles. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, in Gaza, he headed the organization’s southern and Gaza division.

Over the years, he expanded his experience from “humint” (human intelligence) to “sigint” (signal intelligence), two disciplines that are at the core of Shin Bet operations. Y. was Argaman’s deputy during the first two and a half years of Argaman’s tenure, up to the end of 2018. Since then, while waiting to see if he gets the top job, he has been on loan to the Directorate of Defense Research and Development at the Defense Ministry.

R. has been serving as the deputy chief of the Shin Bet for the last two and a half years. He is considered to be Argaman’s protégé and has followed him closely at the operations division, which has in recent years become replete with technological tools. He has also served as the head of the organization’s staff department. R. and Y. also completed a Wexner Foundation fellowship at Harvard (for about 30 years the foundation has been granting fellowships to mid-level civil servants doing graduate degrees). Due to the ties between pedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein and the foundation and with its founder Leslie Wexner, and due to Epstein’s ties with Ehud Barak, certain right-wing mouthpieces – spurred by Benjamin Netanyahu and his son Yair – have been working on turning the foundation and its graduates into anathema.

Former Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen, left, and former Director of the Mossad Tamir Pardo. Credit: Emil Salman

Where loyalties lie

The third contender as we said is Meir Ben-Shabbat, who joined the Shin Bet in 1989. In November 2017 he was named the national security adviser to Netanyahu and head of the National security Council.

According to several former Shin Bet chiefs, Ben-Shabbat is unfit to head that organization for three reasons: his personality, his professional competence and his politics.

Professionally, Ben-Shabbat worked in the Shin Bet as an intelligence officer, holding several senior posts such as department and division head in the southern branch, which is responsible for the Negev, the Gaza Strip and Sinai. His work focused on staff and research matters, less on operations and field work. Ben-Shabbat never served as a deputy to a Shin Bet chief, which greatly helps in preparing someone for the top post. There has never been a Shin Bet or Mossad chief who was not a deputy chief before that, other than in the few cases when a military general was parachuted in to lead the organization.

Politically, perhaps the most damning argument his opponents cite is his proximity to the prime minister. Netanyahu was the one who plucked Ben-Shabbat out of the organization more than three years ago, promoting him as head of the National Security Council. Since then, Ben-Shabbat has been fulfilling that role diligently, loyally, and with boundless devotion, including deep involvement in the handling of the coronavirus crisis and in advancing the normalization agreements with Arab and African countries. On Tuesday, for example, he flew to Morocco at the head of an American-Israeli delegation that signed the normalization agreements with Morocco.

But this proximity bears a price. In November 2018 Ben-Shabbat found himself carrying out a political mission on Netanyahu’s behalf. He went to the house of Rabbi Haim Druckman (whose grandson is married to Ben-Shabbat’s daughter), as part of an effort to convince the Habayit Hayehudi party and its leader Naftali Bennett not to leave the coalition.

Guy David, head of discipline at the Civil Service Commission, had to address this issue, but decided in the end not to investigate Ben-Shabbat’s conduct, even though civil servants are categorically prohibited from dealing with political affairs. Four months ago, it transpired that Ben-Shabbat, at Netanyahu’s behest, also made some enquiries with the commander of the air force, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, regarding the air force’s position over the possibility that F-35 warplanes would be sold to the Emirates. This enquiry was done without the knowledge of army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi or Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

All that said, even Ben-Shabbat’s opponents admit that he’s a good staff officer who knows how to consolidate background material and information, to formulate it well and present it impressively. Also, his supporters stress the fact that he has headed three different branches at the Shin Bet. In 2011, he was appointed head of the cybersecurity unit, which was still taking shape. Six months later, then-Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen appointed him as head of the division in charge of foiling Arab terrorist activity, including subversion and espionage by Hezbollah and ISIS. In this post, he was involved in missions carried out by the Shin Bet, Mossad and military intelligence to foil terror operations by Iran and its delegates. It bears emphasizing that the Shin Bet has a separate department for such operations in the West Bank and Gaza.

Nadav Argaman, left, and Benjamin NetanyahuCredit: Amos Ben Gershon / GPO

Appointing chiefs to the Shin Bet and Mossad is completely under the purview of the prime minister, subject to approval by the cabinet. The prime minister may consult with a defense minister and hear the recommendations of the heads of those institutions, but ultimately, it’s his decision.

Since his return to the official residence in 2009, Netanyahu has not accepted the recommendations of incumbent Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs regarding their replacements. Yuval Diskin recommended the late Yitzhak Ilan, but Netanyahu chose Yoram Cohen. Cohen recommended Roni Alsheikh but Netanyahu preferred him as police commissioner, promising him (as long as he danced to Netanyahu’s tune) the job later. Netanyahu chose Argaman as he was preparing to retire in the belief that he stood no chance. In the Mossad, Meir Dagan wanted Diskin as his replacement, but Netanyahu hesitated and picked Tamir Pardo. Pardo recommended both N. and Ram Ben-Barak, and Netanyahu picked Yossi Cohen.

Inside the drainpipe of democracy

If the Mossad is like a boutique hotel, the Shin Bet can be likened to an all-inclusive motel. The role of its chief is incomparably sensitive and important, even more than that of the head of Mossad. This is because Shin Bet operations constantly rub shoulders with Israel’s democracy. This is evident in Argaman’s decision to allow the Shin Bet to handle the tracing and location of mobile phones in the fight against the coronavirus. The decision, presented as the least of all evils, the default option, remained controversial.

Beyond that, the Shin Bet deals with aspects that could impinge on individual rights and privacy, in restricting the freedom of movement, in surveillance of citizens, in detaining suspects and interrogating them. In other words, the organization and its members crawl through all the drainpipes of the fragile Israeli democracy. This position requires a fearless leader with a spine of steel, with an internal compass and moral values, a conscience, someone with impeccable integrity.

Such qualities are even more essential in the era of Netanyahu, who constantly and consistently gnaws away at the foundations of democracy while neutralizing gatekeepers, harming the judiciary and enfeebling the media, and who makes appointments that he believes will serve his personal interests. Will Ben-Shabbat be capable of confronting a prime minister who appointed him?

In any case, it’s important to make sure that in the future, after the next Shin Bet chief is chosen – the terms of the three most ultra-sensitive defense establishment posts must be capped. Following their terms, their holders must retire and be unable to hold other positions in the defense establishment.

One is the head of the National Security Council (Ben-Shabbat and his predecessor Yossi Cohen are considered to be too close to Netanyahu); the second and third are the military secretaries to the prime minister and to the defense minister.

These positions put the people holding them in an impossible situation of divided loyalties – to the politician they serve and to their military duty, which according to the law requires loyalty to the chief of staff.

We have already seen how Brig. Gen. Avi Blut, Netanyahu’s military secretary, was made a few weeks ago to participate in a Netanyahu plot which excluded Kochavi and Defense Minister Gantz from learning about his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin-Salman.

Daily friction with the prime minister and defense minister is not healthy for people in uniform, but some of them use it to elbow their way upwards. The post of head of the National Security Council should also not serve as a springboard for desirable senior posts in the defense establishment, which needs an iron wall against such machinations.