Ex-Israeli Security Chief Diskin: ’All the Conditions Are There for an Explosion’
Interview Conducted by Julia Amalia Heyer
In an interview with SPIEGEL, Yuval Diskin, former director of Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet, speaks of the current clash between Israel and the Palestinians, what must be done to achieve peace and the lack of leadership in the Middle East.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Diskin, following 10 days of airstrikes, the Israeli army launched a ground invasion in the Gaza Strip last week. Why now? And what is the goal of the operation?
Diskin: Israel didn’t have any other choice than to increase the pressure, which explains the deployment of ground troops. All attempts at negotiation have failed thus far. The army is now trying to destroy the tunnels between Israel and the Gaza Strip with a kind of mini-invasion, also so that the government can show that it is doing something. Its voters have been increasingly vehement in demanding an invasion. The army hopes the invasion will finally force Hamas into a cease-fire. It is in equal parts action for the sake of action and aggressive posturing. They are saying: We aren’t operating in residential areas; we are just destroying the tunnel entrances. But that won’t, of course, change much in the disastrous situation. Rockets are stored in residential areas and shot from there as well.
SPIEGEL: You are saying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pressured to act by the right?
Diskin: The good news for Israel is the fact that Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz are not very adventurous. None of them really wanted to go in. None of them is really enthusiastic about reoccupying the Gaza Strip. Israel didn’t plan this operation at all. Israel was dragged into this crisis. We can only hope that it doesn’t go beyond this limited invasion and we won’t be forced to expand into the populated areas.
SPIEGEL: So what happens next?
Diskin: Israel is now an instrument in the hands of Hamas, not the opposite. Hamas doesn’t care if its population suffers under the attacks or not, because the population is suffering anyway. Hamas doesn’t really care about their own casualties either. They want to achieve something that will change the situation in Gaza. This is a really complicated situation for Israel. It would take one to two years to take over the Gaza Strip and get rid of the tunnels, the weapons depots and the ammunition stashes step-by-step. It would take time, but from the military point of view, it is possible. But then we would have 2 million people, most of them refugees, under our control and would be faced with criticism from the international community.
SPIEGEL: How strong is Hamas? How long can it continue to fire rockets?
Diskin: Unfortunately, we have failed in the past to deliver a debilitating blow against Hamas. During Operation Cast Led, in the winter of 2008-2009, we were close. In the last days of the operation, Hamas was very close to collapsing; many of them were shaving their faces. Now, the situation has changed to the benefit of the Islamists. They deepened the tunnels; they are more complex and tens of kilometers long. They succeeded in hiding the rockets and the people who launch the rockets. They can launch rockets almost any time that they want, as you can see.
SPIEGEL: Is Israel not essentially driving Palestinians into the arms of Hamas?
Diskin: It looks that way, yes. The people in the Gaza Strip have nothing to lose right now, just like Hamas. And this is the problem. As long as Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was in power in Egypt, things were going great for Hamas. But then the Egyptian army took over and within just a few days, the new regime destroyed the tunnel economy between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, which was crucial for Hamas. Since then, Hamas has been under immense pressure; it can’t even pay the salaries of its public officials.
SPIEGEL: All mediation attempts have failed. Who can stop this war?
Diskin: We saw with the most recent attempt at a cease-fire that Egypt, which is the natural mediator in the Gaza Strip, is not the same Egypt as before. On the contrary, the Egyptians are using their importance as a negotiator to humiliate Hamas. You can’t tell Hamas right now: “Look, first you need to full-stop everything and then we will talk in another 48 hours.”
SPIEGEL: What about Israel talking directly with Hamas?
Diskin: That won’t be possible. Really, only the Egyptians can credibly mediate. But they have to put a more generous offer on the table: the opening of the border crossing from Rafah into Egypt, for example. Israel must also make concessions and allow more freedom of movement.
SPIEGEL: Are those the reasons why Hamas provoked the current escalation?
Diskin: Hamas didn’t want this war at first either. But as things often are in the Middle East, things happened differently. It began with the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. From what I read and from what I know about how Hamas operates, I think that the Hamas political bureau was taken by surprise. It seems as though it was not coordinated or directed by them.
SPIEGEL: Netanyahu, though, claimed that it was and used it as a justification for the harsh measures against Hamas in the West Bank, measures that also targeted the joint Hamas-Fatah government.
Diskin: Following the kidnapping of the teenagers, Hamas immediately understood that they had a problem. As the army operation in the West Bank expanded, radicals in the Gaza Strip started launching rockets into Israel and the air force flew raids into Gaza. Hamas didn’t try to stop the rockets as they had in the past. Then there was the kidnapping and murder of the Palestinian boy in Jerusalem and this gave them more legitimacy to attack Israel themselves.
SPIEGEL: How should the government have reacted instead?
Diskin: It was a mistake by Netanyahu to attack the unity government between Hamas and Fatah under the leadership of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel should have been more sophisticated in the way it reacted. We should have supported the Palestinians because we want to make peace with everybody, not with just two-thirds or half of the Palestinians. An agreement with the unity government would have been more sophisticated than saying Abbas is a terrorist. But this unity government must accept all the conditions of the Middle East Quartet. They have to recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and recognize all earlier agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.
SPIEGEL: The possibility of a third Intifada has been mentioned repeatedly in recent days, triggered by the ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip.
Diskin: Nobody can predict an Intifada because they aren’t something that is planned. But I would warn against believing that the Palestinians are peaceful due to exhaustion from the occupation. They will never accept the status quo of the Israeli occupation. When people lose hope for an improvement of their situation, they radicalize. That is the nature of human beings. The Gaza Strip is the best example of that. All the conditions are there for an explosion. So many times in my life I was at these junctions that I can feel it almost in my fingertips.
SPIEGEL: Three of your sons are currently serving in the Israeli army. Are you worried about them?
Diskin: And a fourth is in the reserves! I am a very worried father, but that is part of it. I defended my country and they will have to do so too. But because real security can only be achieved through peace, Israel, despite its military strength, has to do everything it can in order to reach peace with its neighbors.
SPIEGEL: Not long ago, the most recent negotiations failed — once again.
Diskin: Yes, and it’s no wonder. We have a problem today that we didn’t have back in 1993 when the first Oslo Agreement was negotiated. At that time we had real leaders, and we don’t right now. Yitzhak Rabin was one of them. He knew that he would pay a price, but he still decided to move forward with negotiations with the Palestinians. We also had a leader on the Palestinian side in Yasser Arafat. It will be very hard to make peace with Abbas, but not because he doesn’t want it.
Diskin: Abbas, who I know well, is not a real leader, and neither is Netanyahu. Abbas is a good person in many respects; he is against terror and is brave enough to say so. Still, two non-leaders cannot make peace. Plus, the two don’t like each other; there is no trust between them.
SPIEGEL: US Secretary of State John Kerry sought to mediate between the two.
Diskin: Yes, but from the beginning, the so-called Kerry initiative was a joke. The only way to solve this conflict is a regional solution with the participation of Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan and Egypt. Support from countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and maybe Turkey would also be necessary. That is the only way to consider all the demands and solve all problems. And we need more time, at least five years — and more to implement it step-by-step.
SPIEGEL: Why isn’t Netanyahu working toward such a compromise, preferring instead to focus on the dangers presented by an Iranian nuclear bomb?
Diskin: I have always claimed that Iran is not Israel’s real problem. It is this conflict with the Palestinians, which has lasted way too long and which has just intensified yet again. The conflict is, in combination with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the biggest security risk for the state of Israel. But Netanyahu has made the invocation of an existential threat from Iran into his mantra, it is almost messianic. And of course he has derived political profit from it. It is much easier to create consensus about the Iranian existential threat than about an agreement with the Palestinians. Because there, Netanyahu has a problem with his electorate.
SPIEGEL: You have warned that the settlements in the West Bank may soon become irreversible and that it will make the two-state solution impossible.
Diskin: We are currently very near this point of no return. The number of settlers is increasing and already a solution to this problem is almost impossible, from a purely logistical standpoint, even if the political will were there. And this government is building more than any government has built in the past.
SPIEGEL: Is a solution to the conflict even possible anymore?
Diskin: We have to go step-by-step; we need many small successes. We need commitment on the Palestinian side and the acceptance of the Middle East Quartet conditions. And Israel must freeze at once any settlement activity outside the big blocks of settlements. Otherwise, the only possibility is a single, shared state. And that is a very bad alternative.
SPIEGEL: Mohammed Abu Chidair, the teenager murdered by Israeli right-wing extremists, was recognized as being a victim of terror. Why hasn’t Israel’s security service Shin Bet been as forceful in addressing Israeli terror as it has with Arab terror?
Diskin: We invested lots of capabilities and means in order to take care of this issue, but we didn’t have much success. We don’t have the same tools for fighting Jewish extremism or even terrorists as we have when we are, for example, facing Palestinian extremists. For Palestinians in the occupied territories, military rule is applied whereas civilian law applies to settlers. The biggest problem, though, is bringing these people to trial and putting them in jail. Israeli courts are very strict with Shin Bet when the defendants are Jewish. Something really dramatic has to happen before officials are going to take on Jewish terror.
SPIEGEL: A lawmaker from the pro-settler party Jewish Home wrote that Israel’s enemy is “every single Palestinian.”
Diskin: The hate and this incitement were apparent even before this terrible murder. But then, the fact that it really happened, is unbelievable. It may sound like a paradox, but even in killing there are differences. You can shoot someone and hide his body under rocks, like the murderer of the three Jewish teenagers did. Or you can pour oil into the lungs and light him on fire, alive, as happened to Mohammed Abu Chidair.... I cannot even think of what these guys did. People like Naftali Bennett have created this atmosphere together with other extremist politicians and rabbis. They are acting irresponsibly; they are thinking only about their electorate and not in terms of the long-term effects on Israeli society — on the state as a whole.
SPIEGEL: Do you believe there is a danger of Israel becoming isolated?
Diskin: I am sorry to say it, but yes. I will never support sanctions on my country, but I think the government may bring this problem onto the country. We are losing legitimacy and the room to operate is no longer great, not even when danger looms.
SPIEGEL: Do you sometimes feel isolated with your view on the situation?
Diskin: There are plenty of people within Shin Bet, Mossad and the army who think like I do. But in another five years, we will be very lonely people. Because the number of religious Zionists in positions of political power and in the military is continually growing.
About Yuval Diskin
Yuval Diskin was the director of Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet between 2005 and 2011. In recent years, he has become an outspoken critic of the policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.