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The political debate in Israel triggers a secret war between intelligence agencies

Commentary: In a small country like Israel in which politics, institutions and society are strongly integrated, the irreconcilable stances of Netanyahu and Gantz have had direct consequences within the intelligence community

Since the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, the young democracy – imported by force of arms into what Lord Balfour had defined in 1917 as the “Jewish national home” in Palestine – has distinguished itself for being permanently characterized by a lively, heated and polemical political debate.

Since its foundation the old Socialist Mapam Party of David Ben Gurion, the first Israeli Head of State, has clashed with the political-religious soul of fundamentalist Hebraism, that of the “Chassidim” who even denied that a State of Israel should be established, without waiting for the “coming of the Messiah”.

Over the decades, the Socialist spirit of the founders of the State of Israel has gradually faded and today two groups are in power, a right-wing one and a centrist one, the Likud and the Blue and White Party respectively. They are headed by two leading figures: the Likud is led by the historical and longstanding leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the “Blue and White Party” by the former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Benny Gantz.

They have been in power together since March last year, but their coexistence in the coalition government has evidently proved more difficult than expected, to the point that on December 22, 2020 a government crisis broke out and was declared officially. Israel’s Parliament, namely the Knesset was dissolved and a new election was called for next March, i.d. less than a year before the scheduled one.

Netanyahu is facing an investigation on corruption charges and has always maintained he is the victim of a politicized judiciary. He claimed: “the Likud Party does not want elections. We have always voted against these elections. Unfortunately, Benny Gantz has reneged on the agreements”.

Gantz, for his part, replied that the Prime Minister’s statements were “just lies” and that Netanyahu was aiming for early elections “to avoid being prosecuted”.

Hard and irreconcilable stances which – in a small country like Israel in which politics, institutions and society are strongly integrated – have had direct consequences also within the powerful Intelligence Community, which is so intrinsically connected to the other institutions, that it immediately feels the echoes of the political debate.

The Israeli “Intelligence Community” is based on three pillars of proven and acknowledged efficiency: Mossad, the National Intelligence Agency operating abroad with tasks of espionage and counter-terrorism; Shin Bet, the Internal Security Service in charge of counter-espionage and counter-terrorism within the national borders; Aman, the Military Intelligence Service.

The simple and pragmatic system entrusts to the two “civilian” Services geographically differentiated tasks, while Aman performs not only specific military intelligence tasks, but also strategic analysis ones and operates in close coordination with the two civilian Services.

In other words, Mossad and Shin Bet have not their own analysis departments and rely on their Aman colleagues, who are responsible for providing the government with reliable evaluation frameworks on all issues of strategic importance.

With a view to understanding how the system has functioned over the years, it suffices to go back to the 1973 Yom Kippur War when, in early October, Israel was attacked simultaneously and suddenly by Egypt and Syria, and for about ten days it had its back to the wall before regaining the initiative and succeeding in turning the tide of the conflict.

During those days all observers, at home and abroad, wondered why the renowned Israeli Intelligence Services had not been able to anticipate the enemy’s moves, despite having extensive and deep intelligence networks in the adversary’s camp.

The answer came from the “Agranat” Inquiry Commission, established by the then Head of State, Golda Meir, which ascertained that intelligence on the Egyptian and Syrian intentions and preparatory moves had actually been gathered, but that the Aman analysts deemed it not sufficient to declare a general alert and warn the government of the imminent danger.

The fiasco cost the Military Service Director his job.

Since then, the liaison and cooperation between the three Services has become closer and more efficient, with excellent results in terms of coordination between intelligence and government and Israel’s ability to effectively respond to internal threats or to those coming from foreign enemies.

All this until to date.

In recent weeks, in fact, reliable Israeli sources have reported that the Israeli Intelligence Services have got involved in the debate opposing Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Ganz on the vital strategic issue of Iran, not only on the decisions to be taken at economic and health levels, but also on the attitude to have towards Iran’s nuclear policy and Iranian interests in the Middle East, in general, and in the Lebanon and Syria, in particular.

While both the Mossad and Aman are waiting to see the first actions the new Biden Administration will take with regard to the Iranian nuclear program, the Head of the Research Division of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, Dror Shalom, with the support of his Chief, Tamir Hayman – very close to Benny Ganz – has indicated to the government it would be desirable to have  a “softer” attitude towards Iran, even suggesting Israel’s direct participation, alongside the United States, in the possible resumption of negotiations with Iran on limiting the nuclear ambitions of the Ayatollah’s regime.

Benny Ganz, who was Chief of Staff until 2015, has maintained a close relationship with Aman and the entire military establishment and called for a more moderate attitude towards Iran, also during the election campaign.

Aman‘s move has deeply irritated the Mossad leadership that, in line with Netanyahu’s position, wants to maintain a hard line vis-à-vis Iran, which is still considered a strategic threat to the State of Israel.

Almost as if he wanted to respond to the moves of his political opponent, Netanyahu has extended until next June the appointment of Yossi Cohen as Director of Mossad, who planned and organized the sequence of murders of Iranian scientists involved in nuclear research (on November 27 last, Moshen Fakrizadeh, the Head of the nuclear program, was assassinated on the outskirts of Tehran).

Yossi Cohen will be replaced by another figure loyal to Netanyahu, the current Head of Mossad‘s Operations Department, currently known only as “Mr. D”, who is expected to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps in the strategy of extremely harsh opposition to the Iranian nuclear program, even in spite of the possible future moderate attitude of the new American President, Joseph Biden.

Therefore, while the Military Intelligence Service, which monopolizes the strategic analysis of the entire Israeli Intelligence Community, takes the field in support of the foreign policy of the centrist candidate in the upcoming elections, Benny Ganz, Mossad sides decisively with his opponent, the current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is an advocate of an increasingly harsh attitude towards Iran’s nuclear dream and its expansionist aims in Syria, the Lebanon and Iraq.

Therefore Mossad keeps on planning future eliminations of Iranian scientists and providing the Armed Forces with accurate data on the Iranian positions in Syria and on the targets to be attacked. In this regard, last December the Chief of Staff of Tsahal (Israel Defense Forces), Aviv Kochavi, stated that the Iranian military presence has been progressively reduced thanks to targeted bombings.

Aman “prefers” to continue cyberattacks on Iran with its “Unit 8200”, along the lines of the successful cyberattack on the control system of the Iranian nuclear centrifuges carried out years ago with the inoculation of the “Stuxnet” virus in the adversary system.

An all-Israeli paradox: aggressive civilians and moderate military.

It is unfortunate, however, that this paradox is not part of a confidential political dialectic, but has entered by force even the election campaign.

Giancarlo Elia Valori