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May 17, 2011

Israel's future

J.J. Goldberg

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It probably won't surprise you to hear that the leaders of Israel's security establishment, the people who’ve led the fight against the state's enemies for decades, are more frightened now than they've been in a long time. You might be shocked, though, to hear what's got them in a panic.

It’s not the Iranian nuclear project they’re scared of, nor Hamas, nor the unrest that’s rocking the Arab world. Israel has always faced dangers, and it’s always come out on top. What scares them most is their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

How do I know? Because they’re saying so, right out in public, some in broad hints, others in just so many words.

I’m not speaking of some random ex-generals, but of the former heads of Israel’s main security services: the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad intelligence agency and the Shin Bet internal security service. There are 18 living ex-chiefs: seven Mossad, six IDF and five Shin Bet. No fewer than eight of them are actively working against Netanyahu in one way or another. Another four have made their alarm publicly clear, though they aren’t aggressively campaigning right now. That’s 12, if you’re keeping score. Two of them have openly called Netanyahu’s policies and leadership a threat to Israel’s future — just in the past few weeks.

Of the remaining six ex-chiefs, four retired years ago and keep their views to themselves. And two support Netanyahu. Both of them, ex-IDF chiefs Ehud Barak and Moshe Yaalon, are ministers in Netanyahu’s government.

What do the critics want?

Some want to dial back the rhetoric on Iran and stop the Netanyahu-led talk of military action. Some are pushing for a two-state agreement with the Palestinian Authority based on the 1967 borders and the 2002 Arab peace initiative. Some favour both.

Nothing like this has ever happened before in Israel’s history. Retired service heads have a longstanding, deeply ingrained tradition of respecting the voters and respectfully deferring to the elected government leadership. When they want their views known, they traditionally join a political party and try their luck. Now and then they give a speech or interview, usually in moderate, understated tones. Only in isolated cases have individual ex-chiefs openly denounced a sitting prime minister.

So what’s different now?

First, the looming United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood. If and when it passes, most of the world will see Israel as occupying and settling the territory of a sovereign U.N. member.

Diplomatic, economic and legal woes are sure to follow, no matter what technicalities Israel tries to raise. Israel can head it off by offering a plausible statehood plan right now. As for Iran, it’s a dangerous distraction from the business at hand. Smart security strategies are built on reality, not bogeymen, they say.

Three separate cases of outright opposition made headlines just in the past few weeks. Most notorious was a speech by Meir Dagan, the hawks’ hawk who retired from the Mossad in January as one of its most storied directors. Addressing a conference at Hebrew University on May 6, he called the notion of attacking Iran’s nuclear sites “one of the stupidest ideas I’ve ever heard.” He claimed an attack would have near-zero chance of success and would likely start a war with "unpredictable" (read “terrible”) consequences.

Dagan’s views aren’t new; he went on record in January, the day he retired, saying Iran couldn’t have a bomb before 2015 at the earliest, thanks to the successful combination of Western sanctions and, um, mysterious accidents. Netanyahu went ballistic at the time. Maintaining a military option against Iran is one of his top priorities. Dagan sheepishly backtracked, and that was that, supposedly.

The latest Dagan speech caused an even bigger stir. Two Netanyahu ministers, Barak and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, denounced the legendary spymaster as dangerously irresponsible. So did a string of media pundits. Defending him were two Mossad predecessors, the left-leaning Danny Yatom and right-leaning Ephraim Halevy. Both said Dagan was right on the substance and right to say it.

A more unexpected defense of Dagan came from the chairman of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee, Shaul Mofaz. An Ariel Sharon protégé, former IDF chief and ex-defense minister, he ran for Likud chairman after Sharon bolted to form Kadima in 2005, but later followed Sharon. He’s considered the leader of Kadima’s hawk faction. Even he thinks Dagan is right.

Mofaz made headlines in early May with his own original peace plan. It calls for immediate Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state, followed by negotiations between the two states over borders, security arrangements and the like. In a May 6 interview in Yediot Ahronot, he hailed the Palestinian unity pact between Fatah and Hamas as an “opportunity” for Israel, predicting that if Israel seized the initiative now, it might well push Hamas into accepting Israel and swearing off terrorism. If not, “we haven’t lost anything.” Israel’s greatest threat, Mofaz said, is failing to take the initiative and letting others dictate events — as Netanyahu is doing.

Less splashy but potentially more significant is the so-called Israel Peace Initiative launched April 1 by a string of former security officials, ex-diplomats, academics and business figures, led by ex-IDF chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former Shin Bet chiefs Yaakov Perry and Ami Ayalon and Yatom of the Mossad, along with Yitzhak Rabin’s children, Yuval and Dalia. It calls for a Palestinian state “based on” the 1967 border and urges Israel to seek negotiations based on the 2002 Arab peace plan.

The details aren’t important, Lipkin-Shahak told Yediot Ahronot’s weekend magazine in April. What’s urgent is that Israel take the initiative. To let others dictate events, as Netanyahu is doing, endangers Israel’s future, he said.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at and follow his blog at

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