'The Palestinians Got Screwed. They Are Now a Non-issue Around the World'

Former Shin Bet chief Carmi Gillon talks to Haaretz about the occupation, Netanyahu's cowardice and why he laughs when people call him a leftist

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Gillon earlier this year. “Wherever he touches something, the sea burns. He’s inherently bad,” Gillon says about Netanyahu.Credit: Emil Salman
Gillon earlier this year. “Wherever he touches something, the sea burns. He’s inherently bad,” Gillon says about Netanyahu.Credit: Emil Salman
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Former Shin Bet security service chief Carmi Gillon doesn’t mince words when describing the destruction he believes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is wreaking in Israel.

But there’s a positive surprise, even though he thinks “Netanyahu is the reason for all the awful things happening here, in every sphere.”

“The fact that Bibi Netanyahu is a coward and doesn’t make critical decisions – in every situation, Hamas, Iran – is sometimes for the good; for example, his ability to absorb damage from Gaza,” says Gillon, who headed the Shin Bet in 1995 and 1996.

“He gets an onslaught of missiles and everybody pressures him to take Gaza apart, and he doesn’t allow it – not because he’s less of a populist than they are. He doesn’t allow it because he’s afraid to make tough decisions,” says Gillon, who was one of the interviewees in the acclaimed 2012 documentary “The Gatekeepers.”

So according to this approach he won’t do an annexation in the West Bank, either.

“In my view, no. It will end with some kind of connecting of Ma’aleh Adumim to Jerusalem.”

Gillon, who in the more distant past headed the Shin Bet’s so-called Jewish division, in the ‘80s arrested the members of the Jewish underground who attacked Palestinians and planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock. In recent years he served as chairman of cyber-risk-management company Cytegic, which in May was acquired by MasterCard.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 'The fact that Netanyahu is a coward and doesn’t make critical decisions – in every situation, Hamas, Iran – is sometimes for the good.'Credit: Emil Salman

Gillon has devoted his life to researching the Gush Emunim settler movement and the messianic right in Israel. This year he published the Hebrew-language thriller “Vicious Messiah,” co-written with journalist and author Yosef Shavit. In the novel’s dystopian scenario, a Jewish underground organization stokes terror and destruction in Israel.

The religious and ideological right has certainly inflicted a huge blow on him; the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin on his watch is a wound he doesn’t even try to show he has overcome.

“I didn’t think that someone from Gush Emumin would assassinate a Jew. I was wrong,” he says. “Maybe Yigal Amir wasn’t a card-carrying member of Gush Emunim, but Gush Emunim is a concept, it’s the ideological place.”

Like most former top security officials, Gillon has become a great opponent of the occupation and annexation. He says he always held that view, like most senior people in the Shin Bet. Still, it amuses him when he and his friends are called leftists.

“I’m the biggest Rabinist there could be,” he says. “Rabin was the hawk of hawks and wasn’t a coward, but he also did things that Bibi would never in his life authorize.”

After 53 years, it’s not an exaggeration to suppose that the struggle against the occupation hasn’t succeeded. Were there things that could have been done differently?

“I’ll tell you what should have been done. The occupation should have been ended. The occupation is the mother of all evils.”

Carmi, let me remind you that you’re the Shin Bet, which does the dirtiest work of the occupation. The Shin Bet wields the most rigorous pressure methods possible against the Palestinians. It exploits situations of illness, of closeted gay men.

“Absolutely. It’s all tactical. The Shin Bet fights terrorism, and against that it uses all means. You may think I’m a nice guy, but I’m the guy who put a cellphone to the head of the Engineer,” he says, referring to the 1996 assassination of Hamas’ chief bomb maker, Yahya Ayyash, via a booby-trapped cellphone.

“But all the Shin Bet directors down through history have opposed the occupation. They fought terrorism and opposed the occupation.”

Trump understands, Obama didn’t

Netanyahu’s annexation initiative is absurd and totally against the interests of all the parties, Gillon says. “The status quo is good for Israel because Israel gets all it wants without paying a price. I was a full partner as an intelligence officer to the Oslo Accords. No one talked in terms of peace outside the room.

Gillon. He says incitement on the right wing "is a problem that has never been dealt with."Credit: Emil Salman

“Peace is something that was sold to the masses, a kind of opium. In the room the talk was about vested interests, which, by the way, is exactly the method of Trump’s team. Israel came out of the Oslo Accords with a security agreement that served it extraordinarily well against terrorism, and with economic agreements.”

Gillon also notes the interests of the Palestinian side regarding the accords, both the economic ones and “the service of Israel against the political threat to Abu Mazen, namely Hamas,” he says, using the nickname of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

But he adds: “The Palestinians got screwed because the Palestinian question is a non-issue around the world. The Western world is now occupied with two subjects: migration and the coronavirus. Who is interested in this fakakta Palestinian issue?” Gillon asks, using a Yiddish word basically meaning screwed-up.

“In parallel, the same process occurred in the moderate Arab states, of which there were increasingly more. Who’s better as an ally against Iran than Israel? It’s true that no Arab state will sign an agreement with Israel without going through Ramallah. But in practice, a new axis is developing here that consists entirely of vested interests,” he says.

“That’s what Trump understood excellently and what Obama, who took a beating with the dumb Arab Spring, didn’t understand. Trump at least is reading reality, even if I don’t agree with the content of his plan, certainly not annexation and transfer,” he adds, referring to population transfer.

You deal a lot with the messianism of the right wing, but as a security person you can’t ignore the security risk that would be posed by the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank – certainly in light of the Gaza experience.

“We need to learn from the mistake we made in the Gaza Strip and not make it in the West Bank. The West Bank has maintained coexistence with us since the second intifada. There have always been terrorist attacks here and there. But there’s a status quo that serves both sides. The Palestinian Authority won’t fire missiles at Israel, because it has no interest in doing that. Just as it’s not doing so now.”

If the status quo is so successful, why establish a Palestinian state?

“Because there’s existing damage as a result of the occupation, and it will only go on and get worse.”

In the current situation, isn’t annexation and granting citizenship to the Palestinians a more feasible solution?

“Possibly, but then demographic questions arise, of course. It’s not worth it for Israel. Why do we need to make the Jews a minority in a state of all its citizens? There are people who support that, but they’re a minority of a minority. I think the absolute majority wants a Jewish democratic state.”

Gillon at a demonstration against Netanyahu in Tel Aviv in 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod

Can Jewish and democratic coexist?

“In my opinion, no. Fundamentally, they can’t cohabit. With time, Israel should have been a democratic state, but the process that started in 1948 with the Declaration of Independence simply stopped midway. No one could have expected an ideological and religious right wing to come to power.”

Which do you prefer: a Jewish or a democratic state?

“I prefer democratic. I want absolute freedom of religion here. Do I think that it should continue to be called a democratic Jewish state? Yes, because this country has another mission, namely the Jewish people in the Diaspora.”

Then how does the democratic preference show itself?

“In that I don’t withhold citizenship from anyone who wants to come here and be a citizen, but I encourage Jews to come and be citizens here. That means they’ll receive a different ‘absorption basket.’

“There’s a conflict here that the founders thought would straighten itself out over time. If Israel had remained within the borders in which it was established, there would be a democratic state here without the need to say that it’s Jewish, and in which an Arab minority lives. The occupation changed the demography. We took responsibility for people who don’t want us; we used tools and methods that corrupted us.”

Do the Arabs in Israel want us?

“Today, yes, because they enjoy the bonuses of democracy and are expressing themselves. They may be a deprived minority, but they’re not a persecuted one. The Joint List isn’t an underground organization, it’s competing using the legitimate and legal tools that Israel gave it, including to Balad, though I don’t understand how the High Court of Justice approved that party” to run in general elections as part of the Joint List. “But I have no problem with Ayman Odeh,” the Joint List leader.

Will the occupation ever end?

“I don’t see a constellation like that today, unless there’s a prime minister of the Arik Sharon type. Everyone talks about the disengagement from Gaza, but the more important thing that Arik Sharon did was the evacuation from northern Samaria. For the settlers, the settlement project in the Gaza Strip was a kind of excess baggage. It’s not part of the patrimony.”

Already in the ‘80s, Gillon talked about how the settlers were increasing their influence, how people he had kept under surveillance were turning up as welcome guests at the Prime Minister’s Office.

He says that then-Prime Minister “Yitzhak Shamir knew we were listening in on people he was meeting with in his office. He knew we were going to arrest them. He didn’t intervene in the least. Not only that, but after the arrest of the Jewish underground, Shamir called my unit the ‘jewel in the crown.’”

Wouldn’t that happen today?

“Today? Come on.”

Gillon describes the settlements as a “dizzying success both politically and practically.” As he puts it, “If you read my book, the messianic ideas still exist but there’s no need for them today, because the enterprise succeeded. They’re mainstream, we’re the opposition. At that time the Jewish underground wanted to stop the Camp David Accords. What do they need to stop today?”

Are the security forces afraid of the settlers?

“I think they’re very cautious with them – I don’t understand how certain things are ignored, like attacks on Israeli soldiers. But it’s not only the army that displays a lenient approach, so do the Shin Bet, the police and above all the judicial system. Nobody is brought to trial. Incitement is an offense that has never been dealt with. The police had 60 complaints about incitement against Rabin, and not one of them was addressed by the judicial system.”

Does the Shin Bet act in the same way toward Jewish and Arab terrorists?

“It started to act in the same way with the Dawabsheh murder” – the 2015 arson attack led by a settler that killed three members of the Dawabsheh family: an 18-month-old and his parents. “In my time there was no need for that, because Jews hadn’t yet been briefed like Hamasniks on how to withstand an interrogation.”

‘Whitewashed and not whitewashed’

Gillon, who declares himself a “veteran activist against Netanyahu,” got involved in the struggle against the prime minister even before the corruption cases against him. His enmity for a person he knows from his childhood in Jerusalem can be attributed to the Rabin assassination in 1995.

Gillon still says he “considers Netanyahu heavily responsible for the incitement that preceded the murder” and for other encounters along the way.

Already when he launched an offensive against Netanyahu in 2015, following the start of the work on the so-called nation-state law, Gillon called Netanyahu an “egomaniac.” Today, too, as a signatory to the High Court petitions against Netanyahu’s fitness to serve as prime minister, Gillon is very clear.

“I think Netanyahu is the reason for all the awful things happening here, in every sphere,” Gillon says. “Wherever he touches something, the sea burns. He’s inherently bad.”

Gillon notes that he’s currently watching the Danish television series “Borgen” and finds similarities to the situation in Israel. “Yesterday I watched an episode that’s the submarines affair from start to finish,” he says, referring to the suspected corruption in Israel’s purchase of naval vessels from a German company. “Only there, it was a stealth plane.”

Do you think the submarines affair was whitewashed?

“Whitewashed and not whitewashed. There are indictments, but in connection with Bibi it’s clear that it was totally whitewashed. It’s the most serious case and it’s also a case that could have toppled Bibi.”

Gillon at rally for abducted soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

He believes that the corruption indictments filed against Netanyahu by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit are marginal in comparison, but were filed so that Mendelblit “wouldn’t be able to be accused of letting him escape trial. That doesn’t stop Netanyahu from savaging him. In the end someone will shoot Mendelblit because of Netanyahu’s incitement.”

You say the submarines affair is the most serious case of all and could have toppled Bibi. That confirms to some extent the claim by the other camp that ‘you can’t beat him at the ballot box, so you try to topple him judicially.’

“First of all, sometimes there’s no choice. Netanyahu truly is corrupt and always has been. His stinginess has been a byword for years. He wouldn’t pay for falafel.

“Look, I’m not a mass psychologist, but I think Menachem Begin was the first to discern that the Mizrahim felt very discriminated against, and he rode that wave. But they didn’t feel deprived at a level where they thought they could be the rulers. ‘The Pole with the Jabotinsky-like decorum, he’s suited to be prime minister; we, the riffraff, have no one suitable among us.’ And Bibi is continuing that line.”

According to Gillon, the wave Netanyahu rides is “the hatred of Mapai,” the forerunner of the Labor Party. He says this hatred “trickles down from one generation to the next.”

He adds that in the upscale Jerusalem suburb where he lives, Mevasseret Zion, “two-thirds of the population are Ashkenazim or Mizrahim from a high socioeconomic class, and a third are [Jewish] Kurds and Moroccans who have lived there since the days of the transit camps. I’ve lived in the Kastel section for 44 years, not in the new part. Most of my neighbors are Kurds. But when I ran for office there, it was immediately: The Ashkenazi guy is coming to rule us.”

Maybe Netanyahu’s supporters notice a blind spot in you and people like you? Maybe they understand what you don’t, so they back him so religiously.

“They understand something – and this might sound racist – that has always existed in the cultures of the east, which is ‘what’s coming to me’ or ‘what’s coming to him,’ the ruler. In other words, the ruler sacrifices, as Sara says, his time and energy for the sake of his people, because if he wanted, he could do a thousand and one other things because he’s so smart and talented. So he’s allowed.”

Gillon adds that former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “walked around with that same feeling. ‘It’s coming to me, I gave up a career as a lawyer.’”

Then why did the constituency that espouses that culture not think as highly of Olmert as it does of Netanyahu?

“Because Olmert can’t hold a candle to Bibi, he doesn’t have his rhetorical abilities. Bibi is tremendously photogenic – even though lately I can’t bring myself to watch him on television. My wife turns off the TV whenever he comes on.”

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