Israel seems to be suffering a total breakdown of responsibility among its security chiefs, whether they seek to create a sense of emergency or for self-aggrandizement
Was the decision to launch the two recent attacks on Iran, last week’s strike on the spy ship Saviz in the Red Sea and Sunday’s sabotage of the uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, influenced by Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire to wreck the powers’ nuclear talks with Iran and create a better situation for him to finally form a government?
No one can provide a reliable answer. Not even Netanyahu, who is famously capable of convincing himself that any move advantageous to his political and personal fortunes is also in Israel’s interest, can honestly answer that question.
One thing we can say for sure is that because the complex planning, intelligence gathering and preparations for such operations takes months, sometimes years, they were in the works long before Iran and the United States agreed to hold “proximity talks” in Vienna and before the Israeli voters yet again failed to deliver Netanyahu his coveted majority.
As for the timing of the go ahead for the operations, the Israeli prime minister isn’t a commander in chief who can give the green light on his own. In theory at least, he would need the consent of the security cabinet. And at the very least, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, now a bitter rival of Netanyahu’s, would have to approve as well. But aspects of these operations beyond the timing can be much more easily tainted by political considerations, and this almost certainly seems to be the case.
The last open war between Israel and Iran or one of its proxies was the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 in which Israel and Hezbollah, with Iranian guidance, fought to a standstill. Since then, the war across the Middle East, on land and sea, has continued, but Israeli policy, first under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then Netanyahu, has been to acknowledge nothing.
The “opacity doctrine” that has applied since the 1960s to Israel’s nuclear capabilities was adopted for the secret war with Iran, whether it was the destruction of a North Korean-designed nuclear reactor, the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and Hezbollah chieftains, the Stuxnet cybersabotage of the uranium centrifuges, airstrikes on Iranian assets in Syria and other mysterious explosions, and disappearances of ships at sea.
Opacity, even though there was usually little doubt that Israel was behind the more obvious operations, was there to give the other side, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, a way out of escalating immediately. This was especially the case when the targets were assets they didn’t want to admit having, such as the Syrian nuclear reactor destroyed in 2007. The area of deniability worked for both sides.
Launching the lax approach
Netanyahu broke that code of silence in April 2018 when in a televised presentation he discussed the findings on the Iranian nuclear archive that the Mossad had purloined in Tehran a few months earlier. At the time the show was intended to help prepare the ground for then-President Donald Trump’s imminent announcement that the United States was withdrawing from the nuclear agreement. But it also signaled the gradual relaxing of opacity.
Over the next three years, senior Israeli officials, from the prime minister downward, adopted a more lax approach, hinting in the open about operations and openly admitting to them in private conversations with journalists. In January 2019, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Gadi Eisenkot, spoke in an interview upon his retirement about “thousands” of IDF strikes against Iranian assets in the previous two years. The discreet briefings became more frequent and closer to the events, and seem to have reached a climax in recent days with the Saviz and Natanz operations, both followed within hours by semi-acknowledgements to the media.
There hasn’t been a decision to suddenly lower the opacity level, and many defense officials are concerned. Even Gantz on Monday criticized “the serious blabbing that’s harming our forces and the state’s security.” He even asked the attorney general to direct the Shin Bet security service to investigate the leaks and hinted that “it’s irresponsible behavior. If it’s caused by personal or political interests, it’s very serious in my eyes.”
But Gantz himself is a major part of what’s increasingly looking like a total breakdown of mutual responsibility in the highest echelons of Israel’s security leadership.
It starts of course with Netanyahu, who is struggling to form a government as the prosecution witnesses start to take the stand in his bribery and fraud trial. He would have to be an angel, and he isn’t one, to be capable of fully separating his political and legal predicaments from the decisions he needs to make on operational matters. But it doesn’t end with him.
Gantz gets it
Gantz has to sign off on any operation involving the IDF and should at least be in the loop regarding any major operations by the Mossad and Shin Bet, which answer directly to the prime minister. He’s aware of how the normal decision-making process with its checks and balances has gone awry.
But he won’t go into any of this in public and certainly has no intention of resigning when there’s a chance that if the political deadlock continues until November, he could replace Netanyahu under the law passed for their previous coalition government.
If Netanyahu somehow forms a new cabinet, Gantz will be gone from the Defense Ministry. If someone else forms a government, Gantz might have to go anyway, and he’s trying to make every day he has remaining count. The security cabinet hasn’t formally gathered in months, and since the swearing-in of the new Knesset last week, there has been no subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to provide even the minimum of parliamentary oversight.
Prime ministers have often been at loggerheads with their defense ministers, and political turmoil in Israel is of course not very rare to say the least, but usually the security chiefs are in a position to ensure that operational responsibility is maintained. That doesn’t seem to be the case right now.
Mossad chief Yossi Cohen doubles as Netanyahu’s closest adviser, having served him directly for over eight years as head of the National Security Council and now in the Mossad. Netanyahu has said he sees Cohen as a potential successor one day, and Cohen, to shore up his own political ambitions, isn’t above regularly briefing journalists. For other Mossad chiefs, this would have been unthinkable.
Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi is the sixth IDF chief of staff to serve under a Netanyahu government, and unlike his predecessors, he seems incapable of presenting dissenting views, certainly not in public.
It’s not that Kochavi lacks the bravery or intelligence, but he’s deeply sensitive to any criticism. And in a period where any public official even perceived as not being 100 percent behind the prime minister is slimed online by Netanyahu’s troll army, Kochavi has kept his head well beneath the parapet. He’s now in his third year as chief of staff and is anxiously awaiting the government’s decision to award him the traditional fourth year. He won’t risk that.
Still, there may have been a sign of Kochavi’s inner turmoil in his Memorial Day speech Tuesday night when he spoke of the “commitment to a generation of soldiers and their families that we will do everything to send them only on the right missions.”
The other senior security figures have also been emasculated. Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman was supposed to have already retired, but his term was extended last week by a few months because the caretaker government can’t agree on his successor. Netanayhu’s favored candidate is the current head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat, a Shin Bet veteran, but Ben-Shabbat’s appointment is facing stiff opposition, partly because he too has carried out political missions on Netanyahu’s behalf.
Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, the head of Military Intelligence, essentially Israel’s largest intelligence service, has in theory the authority to bypass the command structure and go directly to the cabinet, the prime minister and the Knesset subcommittee (when it exists), but he’s not a forceful character and is anyway about to retire.
In an unprecedented twilight period for the top of Israel’s political and security establishment, when the man who has sat at the pinnacle for so long is fighting for survival and the others are trying to dodge the crossfire or planning how to get to the top themselves, operational responsibility goes out the window. National security be damned. Information is power and can be used at a time like this to create a sense of emergency or for self-aggrandizement in the hope of swaying politicians and saving careers.