Yuval Diskin's Six Good Years

The outgoing head of the Shin Bet enjoyed some notable successes during his stint in charge of the security services, but one glaring failure.

The media coverage of Yuval Diskin's farewell briefing to journalists did a certain injustice to the outgoing chief of the Shin Bet security services. The headlines focused on Diskin's admission of responsibility for the Shin Bet's failure to locate the site where captive soldier Gilad Shalit is being held. The newspapers, and even more so the television networks, devoted hardly any space to the considerable achievements of the organization that Diskin has led since May 2005.

In a week when the assassination of Osama bin Laden grabbed most of the attention, the media had almost no time for the thoughts of the man who held one of the most vital security positions in Israel. Even though, during the course of the briefing, Diskin implied criticism of the behavior of the political leadership and the views of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at least three times.

Yuval Diskin
Emil Salman / Jini

To a great extent Diskin may prefer it that way. At this stage he has yet to decide if he will be giving media interviews on his departure from the Shin Bet. Meanwhile he has made do with an on-the-record meeting with journalists, without microphones and cameras. His two predecessors, Ami Ayalon and Avi Dichter, used their successful terms as launching pads for political careers that, to this day, have not fulfilled their potential promise.

Lots of ideas

On the other hand, it won't be surprising if Diskin prefers to disappear from the stage, at least for a while. It certainly looks as though he is not planning to enter politics. "I have lots of ideas, but I decided that I'll discuss them only on May 16, a day after my retirement," he said at the briefing. When asked where he sees himself 20 years from now, he immediately replied, "In Kiryat Shaul [cemetery], like everyone else."

The communication interface between the Shin Bet and the press is too narrow. In the past two decades, Shin Bet chiefs have been holding periodical background briefings for the media. During the terms of Dichter and Diskin, there were also more updates with heads of branches and units. The last two heads of the service also permitted themselves to deliver public speeches occasionally, mainly at the meetings of political or business forums.

And yet, the amount of information that leaks from the organization, unmonitored, is very limited - and that's not just because of the clandestine nature of Shin Bet work. The service is a relatively small organization - certainly when compared to the IDF - and the level of its employees' commitment is high. Anyway, periodical polygraph tests to locate those who leak information are usually a successful deterrent. Unlike the situation in the IDF, there is almost no involvement of former senior officials and reservists, whose level of exposure to the civilian environment is much greater. And there has yet to be a mother of a Shin Bet coordinator who will contact military correspondent Carmela Menashe.

Nevertheless, as far as can be understood from conversations with a long series of senior officials who worked with, above and parallel to him, the impression is that Diskin is leaving his successor Yoram Cohen a healthy and effective organization. There is something very practical in the basic conduct of the outgoing Shin Bet chief: direct, not trying to outsmart anyone. He seems to be one of the last in the leadership of the security-political system who still sees himself as a genuine civil servant, no more and no less.

Like Dichter before him, Diskin began his review by presenting his failures. After the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi in October 2001, Dichter issued a report taking responsibility for the failure, although it later transpired that the late minister had done everything possible to evade his security guards. Two years later, Dichter began a speech by presenting the number of victims of terror attacks and admitted: "We didn't succeed in providing the Jewish people with the protective safety suit it deserves."

Dichter was the chief of the Shin Bet during the most chaotic period the organization has ever known, when suicide bombers operated in the heart of Israeli cities. The Shin Bet, which at first was slow to react to the breakdown of security arrangements that had been adopted on the ground in the wake of the Oslo Accords, gradually improved the holding action with the help of the IDF and the police.

Starting in 2003, the defense forces succeeded in drastically reducing the scope of the attacks. The chain of prevention - arrest and assassination operations, interrogations and occasionally striking at suicide bombers who had already set out on their mission - began to produce results. The Shin Bet has a huge role in this success.

The job for Diskin, who assumed the position in on the eve of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, was somewhat different: To preserve the achievement and prevent a renewed escalation of terror; to continue the preventive operations (work that was done on a daily basis, although the threat of terror had declined compared to the peak years of the intifada ); and to reintroduce order and organization into the work of the service.

He met these goals, although he was also quick to outline the failures. The Shin Bet, said Diskin, failed by not preventing attacks in which over 160 Israelis were killed during the six years of his term. "The Shin Bet is responsible for preventing attacks and there were some that we failed to prevent," he said. But, he added, "together with the other security arms, we reduced terror to a level with which the State of Israel is able to live and function. I believe that most of the time there is a sense of security in most parts of the country."

The outgoing Shin Bet chief added that the phenomenon of suicide attacks has been checked for the most part, although there is still motivation among Palestinians to carry out such attacks. The last suicide attack, as of now, took place in 2008. "In many cases since then, we prevented suicide attacks just before they were [due to be] carried out," Diskin said.

Compared to this impressive achievement, the stalemate in negotiations to release Gilad Shalit stood out, both in terms of intelligence and the fact that, in almost five years, Israel and Hamas have not agreed a deal for the soldier's release. During the years of negotiations, Diskin greatly modified his organization's stance.

The traditional perspective of the Shin Bet as a preventive organization emphasizes the threats and the risks. For the Shin Bet, which is responsible for preventing terror (and not, for example, the overall security situation on the ground ), it is easier to reject any concession that involves risk. In the first years of the intifada, the General Staff used to complain that the Shin Bet saw everything only through "the straw of prevention"; its world was as narrow as that of an ant and it was interested only in arresting terrorists.

Creative formulas

A moment before giving up his seat to Netanyahu, Ehud Olmert made a last-ditch effort to conclude the Shalit affair. Alongside Ofer Dekel, his envoy to the negotiations, he also sent Diskin to Cairo for indirect talks with Hamas. Under these circumstances Diskin agreed to creative formulas designed to enable the release of a larger number of Palestinian murderers from prison, provided they were kept out of the territories.

"Unfortunately we didn't succeed in the negotiations either, although I took a big step forward," Diskin reflected. "We have arrived, more or less, at the place where we can manage the risk. I recently saw the criticism by several former Shin Bet heads, who called for additional concessions. I disagree with them. They aren't familiar with the data and don't know what they're talking about."

Based on his declarations on various issues, it is almost impossible to attach any political label to Diskin. He seems to be just as enthusiastic and committed as his predecessors when it comes to pursuing terrorists. But the approach that guides him - for example, regarding continued security coordination with the PA - reflects a sober perspective and restraint in the use of force.

On important strategic questions he is usually considered an ally of former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan (the three were dubbed "the moderate axis" ), even if this sometimes involved profound debates with the political leadership.

Several important organizational processes in the Shin Bet can be chalked up to Diskin's credit. The service's pool of recruits is of a high quality, and the organization greatly improved its capabilities - mainly in the area of technology. The Shin Bet has an orderly multi-year plan, and its budget is arranged with the Finance Ministry.

In the past two years, Diskin decided to reduce manpower in the service by over three percent. Cooperation with other security arms - the IDF, the Mossad and the police - improved, first in immediate prevention and today in many other aspects as well. But his critics in the leadership of the organization claimed that his management style was too dictatorial. They claim that he did not attribute sufficient importance to the opinions of department and district heads, and didn't allow for enough freedom of thought and expression within the ranks.

The outgoing Shin Bet chief was not successful when it came to senior appointments. Although he doesn't admit it openly, Diskin preferred his present deputy, Y. (his name cannot be publicized ), as his successor. Netanyahu's decision to appoint Yoram Cohen, who served as a deputy at the beginning of Diskin's term, was a total surprise.

Behind the scenes another struggle took place: G., former head of the southern district, saw himself as a suitable candidate for the service leadership. Diskin, whose relations with G. were tense, opposed the idea; instead he proposed three possible successors to Netanyahu - the three senior officials who had been his deputies throughout his term. G. was finally granted an interview, but his candidacy never took off.

At the moment it seems that G., who is abroad for study and research, is likely to remain in the organization and may be appointed Cohen's deputy. It remains a particularly loaded question - among the Shin Bet leadership and between Diskin and Netanyahu - with power struggles surrounding it still unresolved.