Top Israeli Security Officials Resign as National Security Council Deals With COVID Strain

Sources in agency describe excessive workload as its head of security policy and official in charge of handling coronavirus crisis step down

Amos Harel
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Pedestrians wearing masks walk in Jerusalem, December 7, 2020.
Pedestrians wearing masks walk in Jerusalem, December 7, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel

Two senior National Security Council officials have announced their intention to leave their posts, with sources in the NSC citing an excessive workload as the council fulfills a main role in battling the country's coronavirus crisis. 

NSC deputy head Big. Gen. (res.) Yigal Slovik, the council's official in charge of handling the coronavirus crisis, and the head of security policy, Brig. Gen. (res.) Mordechai Kahana, notified National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat of plans to resign in the past few days. Both have served in their posts for two years.

In addition to being in charge of the council's coronavirus response, Slovik has also kept his post as director of the National Security Council for Counter-Terrorism, Public Security and the Home Front. Both Slovik and Kahana are longtime army veterans.

Slovik, an Armored Corps officer, served as the head of the personnel division in Israel's Ground Forces before retiring from military service. Kahana, who began his military career in the Golani Brigade, also served as chief Combat Intelligence Collection officer. As of now, no decision has been made as to when the two will step down nor who will replace them.

The NSC pins their desire to resign on the extremely unusual workload the council has been dealing with since the outbreak of the coronavirus, which many describe as almost impossible. A senior NSC official told Haaretz that Slovik and Kahana "are concluding a long and challenging tenure, and they have fulfilled their position in an admirable manner," adding that Ben-Shabbat and the Prime Minister's Office "cherish their contribution to the country."  

In a move that is still viewed as controversial by the government and Israel's health and security establishments, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had decided to designate the NSC as overseeing the coordination between government ministries.

Ben-Shabbat also played a major role in the talks with the Gulf states, which preceded Israel's normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. He was also involved in promoting Israel's relations with Egypt and Jordan on Netanyahu's behalf and leading Israel's policy on Gaza. The council also fulfilled central roles in the close relationship between Netanyahu and Donald Trump's administration.  

Ben-Shabbat is expected to face more obstacles soon. On Tuesday, journalist Roee Sharon reported that several senior Shin Bet officials intend to leave their posts in protest if Ben-Shabbat succeeds Nadav Argaman as head of the Shin Bet security agency. Argaman is due to finish his tenure in May of 2021.

According to several estimates, Netanyahu intends to appoint Ben-Shabbat for the job, as he is very close to him and in the past has filled a number of senior roles in the Shin Bet, including southern district chief, head of the Counter-Terrorism Division and head of the Cyber Unit.

Sharon's report suggests there is relatively broad internal opposition to Ben-Shabbat's appointment as Shin Bet head. Some of the opponents believe that despite his seniority, Ben-Shabbat does not have the necessary qualifications for the job. Others worry about what they see as too close a tie between him and Netanyahu and fear he will not be independent enough. At least four senior Shin Bet officials have expressed these concerns and have considered leaving the security agency if Ben-Shabbat is gets the job.

Two other senior Shin Bet officials who are also interested in succeeding Argaman, are expected to resign if they fail to get the promotion.

Some of the turnover would be natural under any change in leadership but the stark opposition to Bent-Shabbat and the number of senior officials threatening to resign is unusual.

This reflects, in addition to the controversy over Ben-Shabbat, that Israel' defense establishment is going through a rough patch. It also expresses the stance held by many senior security officials that the country is not being run properly, against the backdrop of a political deadlock and Netanyahu's fight for survival.

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