The New Shin Bet Chief's Take on Hamas

Has Yoram Cohen underestimated the organization?

After the appointment of Yoram Cohen as chief of the Shin Bet security services, the media heaped praise on his personality, his experience and his abilities. Some of the descriptions were exaggerated, or not at least not quite precise.

One example is the claim that he is an expert on Iran. It's true that he served for a certain period as the head of a small unit that was engaged in preventing Arab and Iranian espionage, but that does not make him an authority on Iran. It is even more important, however, to examine his opinions on the main challenge confronting the Shin Bet in the coming years: Hamas.

Yoram Cohen
Emil Salman

Cohen demonstrates disdain for Hamas and believes that it is a militarily weak organization that failed abysmally in the 2008-2009 war in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead ). This was the view he expressed a year and a half ago, in the article "Hamas in Combat: The Military Performance of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement," which he published with Jeffrey White, a former American intelligence analyst, for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In the article the two enumerate a long series of Hamas' failures, from not deterring Israel from attacking, to suffering losses but failing to inflict losses on the Israel Defense Forces or the Israeli civilian population. According to the new Shin Bet chief, Hamas' leaders and military commanders "lack personal courage," and the organization's performance in Operation Cast Lead was below what Israeli military analysts - and even what Hamas itself - expected.

If Hamas performed so poorly how is it that two years later the organization is not afraid to bombard Israel with almost 100 rockets in two weeks? The recent renewal of fire between Israel and Hamas and the other small organizations that operate in Gaza proves that Cohen's assessment does not stand up to the test of reality. In any case, the weaknesses and failures that he ascribes to Hamas could easily be said of Israel as well.

Channel 1's conspiracy

Last week Israel TV's Channel 1 aired a film about Col. Yosef (Joe ) Alon, an Israel Air Force attache in the United States who was murdered outside his Washington suburb home in July 1973, three months before the Yom Kippur War. The mystery of the professionally executed murder has remained unsolved to this day. All those who should have investigated the case were negligent: the local police, the FBI, the Shin Bet and the Mossad. The combination of the negligence of the security services, insensitive behavior of bureacracies towards the family and the unsolved mystery created fertile ground for rumors and conspiracy theories. They were nurtured by the widow Dvora Alon, who bequeathed them to her daughters.

The daughters turned to me a few years ago and asked for my advice and assistance. I explained to them that I don't believe in conspiracy theories, but I published several articles in Haaretz about their father's murder, which restored the subject to the public agenda. As a result IBA film producer Liora Amir-Barmatz began a thorough investigation that ripened into a film. The film, like my articles, raised several theories about the background of the murder, including romantic, criminal or political motives.

The prevailing assumption at the time was that Alon was killed by a jealous husband. In my opinion, a Palestinian terror organization might have committed the murder for political reasons. The film, in which I appear for a few seconds, devoted extensive screen time to conspiracy theories, attributing the murder to a hidden secret that Alon discovered. Alon's daughters and those who favor the conspiracy theory believe that the secret could have been something related to the Soviet Union, the U.S. or Israel. The daughters raised the theory that their father discovered that U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had cooperated with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to enable the Egyptian army to embark on the Yom Kippur War and then start the peace process afterwards, thereby increasing U.S. influence in the region. The film included interviews with several speakers who favored the conspiracy theory, including controversial historian Dr. Uri Milstein, a shell-shocked soldier, former air force pilot Col. Yaakov Agassi, author Naomi Frankel (who passed away after the recording of the interview ), and Maj.Gen. Shmuel "Gorodish" Gonen, GOC Southern Command during the Yom Kippur War.

In an investigation conducted after the screening of the film it turned out that there is no source that will confirm that Gorodish, who died in 1991, really said the things attributed to him. For confirmation of the conspiracy theory, the other speakers on the program relied on circumstantial evidence, things they ostensibly heard from people who have since died. But neither the speakers nor the program provided an iota of proof to confirm the thesis.

The problem with conspiracy theories is that they cannot be confirmed. In that sense, the claim that Dayan was in collusion before the war with Kissinger and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is no different than claiming that there are aliens that land on planet Earth or that Elvis Presley is still alive. Nobody disputes that Dayan and Prime Minister Golda Meir decided, contrary to the view of the chief of staff and the IDF commanders, not to embark on a preemptive attack, even when they knew on the morning of October 6, 1973, that within hours the Egyptian and Syrian armies would begin a war.

These points have already appeared in many serious studies based on original documents from the IDF archive. These studies have proven that the mistaken decision by the leaders stemmed from a fear that Israel would be blamed for the outbreak of the war. They made a terrible mistake in failing to take the initiative. Incidentally, it is very doubtful that a preemptive attack would have prevented the achievements of the Egyptian and Syrian armies during the first days of the war. But in any case, what is the connection between Dayan's mistaken judgment and Alon's murder?

It is regrettable that the state-owned television station, and particularly the documentaries department and the weekly investigative magazine Mabat Sheni (Second Look ), is promoting a bizarre conspiracy theory about one of the most traumatic events in the history of the State of Israel. The Israel Broadcasting Authority should not behave like an irresponsible, scandal-mongering tabloid.

In response, Itay Landsberg-Nevo, the head of the documentaries department and Mabat Sheni, said that he believes that all the possibilities, including the ostensible connection between Dayan and Kissinger, merit a public discussion. "I think that it's a realistic possibility," said Landsberg, adding that "the conspiracy that we discussed on the program is totally different from the conspiracy theory about the murder of [Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin, which really doesn't merit a public discussion."