Opinion

The Shin Bet Will Do Whatever Netanyahu Says

The hands of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 8, 2020.
Oded Balilty,AP

You wouldn’t believe how quickly our Shin Bet could turn into the Stasi. The speed at which this happens is on a par with the speed at which a democracy turns into a dictatorship. Not all at once. More like the way you lick an ice cream cone. Around the edges at first and then you gradually reach the main part.

First you take care of television – plant the right people, those who will praise the appointment of collaborators to be state comptroller and police chief, and blame the coronavirus for shutting down the courts and the Knesset. Meanwhile, quietly, on the side, you go about collecting material on rivals who will soon become enemies.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 71: A tale of two crises: Coronavirus vs. Constitution

People tell me: You should be ashamed! Stasi? You’re comparing our excellent fellows to the Stasi? You really think they’ll wiretap you? And follow you? I hope not, but it’s certainly possible. The Shin Bet is not yet like the Stasi but it could become like it. Give it some emergency regulations, lift all oversight, give it instructions and it will carry out orders. Within 24 hours, it will be the Stasi.

Every democratic country has an internal security service. In these countries, there is also oversight of this secret service. Not here. Now the Shin Bet is being sent into the streets without any restrictions. It is a powerful and loyal pit bull. It is trained to identify Israel’s enemies, not people infected with the coronavirus. It doesn’t ask you to explain why an enemy is an enemy. Coronavirus or terror-supporter are all the same to it. Give it the order to “fetch” and it will do so.

Do you think the Shin Bet chiefs will refuse? Don’t count on it. They might express some qualms but ultimately they will obey. They serve him and not you. They have sworn fealty to him and his wife, not to you. “In a democratic country, the Shin Bet head mustn’t tell the prime minister ‘what to do,’” Jacob Perry told Dror Moreh in the series “Gatekeepers.”

And who will guard us when our civil rights are infringed? No one, I’m sorry to say. Go complain to the police, contact the Movement for Quality Government, write all the social media posts you want. The Shin Bet isn’t responsible for guarding your civil rights. There are countries in which the court and the parliament protect you, but not in a country where the state of emergency is never-ending and its attorney general has disappeared. (Alive? Kidnapped? Maybe the coronavirus got him?)

The Shin Bet promised that the information it is collecting is only about coronavirus patients. Okay, so it promised. Don’t believe an organization that considers morality a dirty word and views the law merely as a recommendation. “The Shin Bet is permitted to do things that are a bit on the boundary of the law,” said former chief Avraham Shalom. “It’s power is unlimited and may be directed toward anyone,” said former Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch.

Who is “anyone”? It could be Benny Gantz or Yair Lapid. It could me or you. Who decides who is an enemy? The prime minister who seeks to effect a coup. The Shin Bet is going to guard our democracy? No, that is not its job. What is its job? “Thwarting domestic terror.” Who decides what domestic terror is? The same prime minister. And who exercises oversight of him? Nobody.

“The Shin Bet is an organization that has a lot of muscles but a brain that isn’t sufficiently developed,” said another former chief, Yuval Diskin. When the brain is small and the muscles are big, it can be sent on “black flag” missions. At the behest of Mapai, the Shin Bet monitored and wiretapped and even beat up journalist Uri Avnery and also tracked the party’s political rivals. At the behest of other prime ministers, it has tracked politicians, settlers and Arabs. Who knows whom it is tracking today?

Okay, you’ll say, but that was a different time. True, but the present is even worse. In every period, Shin Bet chiefs have disdained those who were supposed to oversee them. Their party is more important to them than the state, said Shalom, and that was long before he knew what Benjamin Netanyahu was capable of.

Did any Shin Bet chief ever resign because he didn’t agree with the prime minister’s path? All the Shin Bet chiefs interviewed in “The Gatekeepers” harshly criticized the government. Only two resigned, and in both case that was due to personal failures.

In “The Gatekeepers,” the Shin Bet chiefs were not asked a question that would have seemed farfetched at the time but is now more timely than ever: How should a Shin Bet chief respond to a government that breaks laws and hurts democracy? Let me guess – he would say it’s not his business. He would say that Shin Bet agents are public functionaries and not elected public officials. That’s good for democracy but not for a country that is ceasing to be one. Today if they’re asked to track us – they’ll track us. And if asked to hurt us? Then they’ll hurt us.