A Few Inconvenient Questions No One Is Asking Netanyahu

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Benjamin Netanyahu and Reuven Rivlin, right, in 2012. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The Prime Minister is often depicted as a weak leader who recoils from making decisions, making do with whiling the time away and placating the whims of his wife. The recent quest for candidates for the president’s job, in which Netanyahu failed to find a candidate to his liking and ended up “endorsing” Reuven (Rubi) Rivlin, has lent further support for this characterization: Here yet again is a confused, weak Netanyahu, buffeted by political waves.

This is the public persona of Netanyahu. However, in closed rooms where he can’t be observed, a new Netanyahu emerges, decisive and capable of waging bureaucratic battles. His decisions on funding for “special means” and intelligence agencies have much more impact on this country than the trivial question of whether Rivlin, Dan Shechtman or Dalia Itzik will be the next occupant of the presidential residence. Such decisions are made within a very small circle of confidants, with no public debate or oversight.

Let’s address the “special means” first. Dan Harel, the director general of the Defense Ministry, disclosed to journalists that these will total 4.5 billion shekels (1.3 billion dollars) this year, growing by 600 million next year, a 13 percent annual increase that the IDF and other civilian ministries can only dream of. Harel clarified that these are firm numbers that Netanyahu, who has exclusive control of these “special means,” does not allow any tampering with. This revelation was not a slip of the tongue but was meant to support the army’s claim that it is unjustly criticized for becoming bloated, while in fact the wastage takes place in other sectors of the defense establishment, burrowed deep within the defense budget.

The numbers disclosed by Harel lead to important conclusions. First of all, it appears that Netanyahu does not believe that Israel will be able to prevent, foil or destroy Iran’s nuclear program, which is why he is investing in “special means,” meant as deterrence against such threats. A simple calculation shows that this insurance premium amounts to 0.5 percent of Israel’s annual GDP, becoming costlier every year. Secondly, organizations that report directly to the Prime Minister enjoy an advantage in the inter-agency power struggle. This expresses itself as preferred budgets and immunity from public scrutiny. Thus, no one can argue that Israel has too many “special means” and the media does not probe into the salaries or pensions of the developers and operators of these means.

In a similar fashion, Netanyahu is pampering the secret services, the Mossad and Shin Bet, whose budgets have consistently grown since his return to power. Last year, the latest for which there are numbers, their budgets grew by 10 percent. One can venture a guess that the increase did not stop this year. The internal division between the agencies is unknown, so that it is unclear if most of the funding goes towards increasing surveillance and control of Palestinians by the Shin Bet security services, towards the shadow war against Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas (by the Mossad) or to both. What is certain is that Tamir Pardo, the head of the Mossad, and Yoram Cohen, the head of Shin Bet, do not have to fight for their budgets as do the defense minister and the army’s chief of staff. Someone at the top looks after them and the public and media do not bother them over their expenses and employment conditions.

The Mossad and Shin Bet cost us two-thirds of one percent of the GDP. Is that a lot or not much? Does Israel have sufficient intelligence and special operations or does it need more? Is it cheaper and more effective to combat Iran and its allies with hit squads and other special operations? Is it better to control Palestinians from behind the scenes rather than with deployment of large and cumbersome army units that are bound to become entangled? Maybe the opposite is true? These questions never come up for political, public or media debate.

Netanyahu loves his control over the secret agencies and his freedom to expand them or use them. This is why he insisted on placing his trustworthy lieutenants at the helm of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense committee, which approves secret budgets, and whose senior members know more than the average citizen about the “secret means,” the Mossad and the Shin Bet. Netanyahu doesn’t really care when people mock his presidential choices, but he does not want anyone to raise inconvenient questions in areas that are dear to his heart.

Netanyahu forced to 'swallow the frog' that is Rivlin's candidacy for president.Credit: Amos Biderman

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