Former Shin Bet Chief’s Criticism of Netanyahu, Barak Must Not Be Ignored

Former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin was right to voice his negative impressions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in his interview with Dror Moreh, which was published Friday in Yehioth Aharonoth. It is important to hold a public debate on matters of war and peace, especially during elections in which Netanyahu is running for another term and Barak is a candidate to maintain his post. Diskin’s account of the duo’s conduct contributes to the freedom of information and discussion.

In the interview, Diskin provides little detail, focusing instead on one event: a confined meeting at the Mossad headquarters in 2010, during which the prime minister and defense minister ordered the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for an attack on Iran. The instruction was opposed by then-Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and the Mossad chief at the time, Meir Dagan, and, at the end of the day, was not carried out. That story is nothing new; it was revealed two months ago in an article on the Channel 2 program Uvda(“Fact”). What Diskin adds to the story is primarily color: the cigars that Netanyahu and Barak smoked before their subordinates, the glasses of drink that that the defense minister poured himself from time to time, the Mossad’s chefs in their white hats. Diskin describes feeling insulted, and speaks of his small, personal rebellion: “At one stage I said I would stop sitting in meetings where cigars are smoked.”

Diskin’s conclusion from the behavior of Netanyahu and Barak at that meeting, which appeared to him as “total disrespect for the people there”, was that they are not worthy of leading Israel to war against Iran. Diskin estimates that a war with Iran is on its way, but, unlike his friend Dagan, who opposed the very idea of striking Iran’s nuclear reactors, Diskin does not oppose carrying out such an attack. He is only concerned that Netanyahu and Barak will go to war out of improper considerations, which he calls “messianic”, and will fail to manage the ensuing crisis.

From Diskin’s words one can understand that sound leadership in war requires abstaining from cigars and alcohol. He should really take things into proportion. Winston Churchill was a heavy drinker who enjoyed smoking cigars and during World War II held nightly feasts at his abode that were abundant in champagne, and diligently prepared by a team of chefs, waiters and servants at the Kingdom’s expense. He retired every day for siestas, worked from the bathroom, suffered from bouts of depression and rage, and treated his subordinates with disdain. His generals – like Ashkenazi and Diskin – felt he had no faith in them (according to the biography “Churchill: A Study in Greatness” by Geoffrey Best). Measured by Diskin’s behavioral index, Churchill would not have been worthy of leading the Battle of Britain or the Invasion of Normandy.

But why look so far away for comparisons? Such phenomena are familiar in our own military history. From the days of the Yom Kippur War, to the decisive and bloody battles of all of Israel’s wars, Southern Front commander Haim Bar-Lev smoked cigars, division commander Ariel Sharon and his staff enjoyed choice cheese, and the generals wrangled over the military communication net about who was accountable for failure and who deserved credit for success while their soldiers were burning to death in tanks that had gone up in flames, and being butchered at the battle of the Chinese Farm (according to the book, “Tzliha”, or “The Crossing”, by Amiram Azov). Sharon’s officers in 1973 were sure he was only acting out of political and opportunistic considerations; Diskin, unlike them, sees in him a leader that put the state first. It’s all a question of geography and timing.

Back to our day: Diskin joins Dagan in claiming that Netanyahu and Barak tried to “steal” the decision to go to war with Iran when they issued an instruction to put the army on-call – which could have turned into action – without a preliminary discussion with, or the approval of, an authorized forum like the cabinet. He ignores the other – and no less convincing – explanation to the dispute that took place in the fateful debate: Ashkenazi failed to prepare the army for a war against Iran, and tried to cover up his failure with procedural and bureaucratic claims. The comptroller’s report on the Harpaz affair, which is due to be published on Sunday, describes the former chief of general staff as an honor-pursuing officer, who, together with his bureau, got over his head in attempting to preserve his “status”, and engaged in intrigues against the defense minister and his associates. Even Diskin harshly criticizes his friend Ashkenazi for the army’s “serious failures” in preparing for taking over the Gaza flotilla from Turkey. Maybe it was a good thing that this chief of general staff was not put to the test with Iran.

In any case, we must not ignore Diskin’s criticism of Netanyahu and Barak. It is worth listening to him especially because he does not oppose the war, and describes himself as hawkish. He describes a harsh feeling of lacking support and escaping responsibility.  He has no doubt that if a war with Iran fails, Netanyahu and Barak will blame the army and the intelligence community (as their predecessors did in 1973 and as they themselves did in the aftermath of the flotilla). Diskin is not alone; other senior officials, who were present during the consultations on a possible attack on Iranian apparently feel the same.

The prime minister and defense minister may have spoken a lot about Iran, according to Barak, but they completely failed to earn the trust of their subordinates, who they are to lead into battle and stand at their side when the time comes. Netanyahu’s response to Diskin’s claims, which accuse the former Shin Bet chief of political opportunism and ignores his essential claims, only amplifies the suspicion that something went fundamentally wrong at the highest levels of government.

Three former security officials have bones to pick with Netanyahu: Diskin, Ashkenazi and Dagan.Credit: By Amos Biederman

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