The Shin Bet Needs a Chief Who'll Clean the Place Up

Current head Yoram Cohen is squabbling with the army chief and crafting a religious-Zionist Shin Bet. Israel needs someone better.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Former heads of the Shin Bet in 'The Gatekeepers.' Clockwise from top left: Jacob Perry, Avraham Shalom, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin.
Former heads of the Shin Bet in 'The Gatekeepers.' Clockwise from top left: Jacob Perry, Avraham Shalom, Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin.Credit: Screenshot
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

An Israeli general has recycled a story he heard but can’t completely vouch for. Yoram ran into a work colleague on the street, Benny, and spat in his face. He later had doubts about his propriety and asked a mutual friend what he should do.

“Apologize,” recommended the friend. Yoram hesitated; he didn’t really want to. “Can I do it over the phone?” he asked. His friend began to lose patience. “Orally, in writing, over the phone, what does it matter? Important is that you show remorse.”

And so Yoram summoned up his courage and called Benny. “Hello,” said Gantz. “Shvantz?” asked Cohen. “No, wrong number,” said Gantz.

The pretend apology didn’t solve the conflict between the heads of the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service, which isn’t a personal matter. The mutual doubts over expertise are tolerable — that’s a professional matter. Rational disagreements are fine, even if covered with a thin layer of emotion.

But the undermining of the Shin Bet’s credibility is something else. Without trustworthiness, the security service has no right to exist, because the political and military leaders who require its input must know it’s not deceiving them or hiding anything.

Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

This is a national problem far beyond personal insults. IDF chief Benny Gantz and Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen can’t end the affair with a handshake, the method that failed for Pinhas Lavon and Binyamin Gibli back during the “Unfortunate Affair” of 1954. Those guys couldn’t sweep the problem under the rug by finding a formula to satisfy them both. The Shin Bet clearly needs to change its way of thinking.

The Shin Bet was political in the era of Mapai, the Labor Party’s successor, and spymaster Isser Harel, who in the end was elected to the Knesset and returned to politics even more forcefully after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. Over the last decade four former top security officials became cabinet members, one of them Gideon Ezra, the other three former Shin Bet chiefs Avi Dichter, Ami Ayalon and Jacob Perry.

Former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin can become a cabinet member too if he wants. The direction is clear: Like the IDF chief, the Shin Bet head is a politician in the making, even if the thought never crossed his mind before the appointment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still has nightmares about the collision of three key people during his first term: the attorney general, the head of the police’s investigations branch and the head of the Shin Bet. Of the three, the prime minister only directly controls the head of the Shin Bet.

In his first term, Netanyahu suffered bitterly from Ayalon, whom he inherited form Shimon Peres. For his second term, Netanyahu returned after a decade of Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert as prime minister. He wanted a loyal Shin Bet chief, one acceptable to moderate religious-Zionist Rabbi Haim Druckman and Netanyahu confidant Natan Eshel.

This is important when the future of the settlements is in the balance and the Shin Bet chief is expected to staff the royal guard with people who won’t talk about embarrassing occurrences at the Netanyahu residence.

And even more so because Yitzhak Ilan, the clear candidate to be the next Shin Bet head, was suspected of being too close to Diskin and Meir Dagan, a Mossad chief appointed by Sharon and a favorite of Olmert’s.

Cohen, who was appointed in May 2011 for five years, is crafting a religious-Zionist Shin Bet. At its headquarters he built a synagogue that’s called — and the Shin Bet doesn’t deny this — The Heroism of Masada.

It’s time to prepare a deputy to learn the organization’s secrets before he takes over; someone who will shake up the Shin Bet as Ayalon rehabilitated it after Rabin’s assassination. There are plenty of good candidates; two are named Yoav: the former head of the police’s investigations and intelligence branch — Segalovich – and the coordinator of government activities in the territories — Mordechai, formerly of the IDF’s 504 intelligence unit and a great expert on the Palestinians.

There are others, too. The great tragedy is that the head that appoints the head is Netanyahu.

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