Netanyahu Is Head and Shoulders Below the Rest

The highest-ranking members of Israel's security forces are united in their anxiety over Benjamin Netanyahu, his actions, his mistakes and the slope down which he is liable to take Israel.

The guards are against Netanyahu. No, not the members of the state VIP protection unit, whose compliance with the General Security Service Law means they only whisper about the prime minister's behavior. We mean the guards of the State of Israel, the highest-ranking members of the nation's security forces. They are united in their anxiety over Benjamin Netanyahu, his actions, his mistakes and the slope down which he is liable to take Israel.

The heads of the security branches, restrained and officious as they are, don't name names but it isn't hard to figure out who bears supreme responsibility for the difficult situation behind the dire warnings. They also punctiliously observe the principle of separation of powers, and give the political leadership its due. But the image created by the aggregation of remarks by former or about-to-be-former holders of the most sensitive positions - army chief of staff and the leaders of the Mossad, of Military Intelligence and of the Shin Bet security service - is a terrifying one of a lack of confidence in this prime minister. In stark contrast to all his predecessors, this prime minister does not have their trust.

It happened during Netanyahu's first term, too. On more than one occasion the icy countenances of the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff (Amnon Lipkin-Shahak ), the Shin Bet chief (Ami Ayalon ) and the police commissioner (Assaf Hefetz ) headed off some adventure in the territories or beyond. This time around it is the former chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi; former Mossad head Meir Dagan and the outgoing Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin; and, halfheartedly, also the former head of MI, Amos Yadlin, who have spoken out against him.

The issues are diverse: Iran, the stalled peace process, the neglect of Israel's Arabs and Netanyahu's role, either active or passive - in concert with Defense Minister Ehud Barak - in appointing their successors.

No one questions the legality of his actions. The issue is not one of authority, but rather of authoritativeness, which is a function of the respect an officeholder commands from their subordinates, without which their authority is hollow. In this respect Netanyahu has failed again, as he did from 1996-1999. People do not believe him. People do not believe in him, in his sincerity, in his judgment.

In his testimony to the Turkel committee - which in three weeks' time will celebrate the anniversary of Israel's raid of the Turkish flotilla bound for Gaza that has provided its members with a comfortable living - Barak dissembled when it came to the proverbial issue of the "what" as opposed to the "how": the presumed dividing line between the political leadership, which makes the decision to act, and the military, which executes that decision. That is the line behind which politicians barricade themselves when they want the officers to remain on the battlefield - that is, in the event of defeat. In practice, during the secret deliberations over Muslim nuclear development, from Syria to Iran, it is also important to determine what one wants to achieve via the "how" that the army is commanded to prepare, and how a handful of cabinet ministers takes the "what" decision.

None of the above is grounds for turning the criticism of Netanyahu on the part of newly retired holders of high office, and a few of their still-serving colleagues, into a military-intelligence coup in the making. These figures know the rules of the democracy game: The electorate chooses its representatives, who appoint or remove the officers. It's a good thing it's this way and not the reverse. Also, the officers, successful or not, popular or dismissed from service, can enter politics and do to the next generation as they would not want done to themselves.

In times of crisis public opinion influences the army and paramilitary branches, whose leaders are more attentive to the moods of their organizations than their counterparts in elite units. Dan Halutz resigned as chief of staff when he sensed he had lost the backing of his officers, while Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz deployed entire corps of political force in their battles for survival.

The late Maj. Gen. Israel Tal used to divide leaders into three levels: "head and shoulders above the rest" (David Ben-Gurion as prime minister. Yitzhak Rabin as chief of staff ); "first among equals;" and "head and shoulders below the rest." Those who knew Tal well knew where Netanyahu belongs - in both his terms, going on five years now.

Prime ministers and defense minister often attempt to impress and awe the public, on the grounds that their activity is a function of the advantage their being privy to secrets affords them. That is applicable, if at all - and after all, it is the reality that is exposed that is genuinely important - to ordinary citizens, not the most senior state employees who are privy to the same secrets. The display window can fool the passersby, but the store knows the truth.