by Dror Moreh -- [The author is the director of the documentary film "The Gatekeepers"]
Yuval Diskin, former chief of Israel's Shin Bet (Security Service), sat down for a very in-depth interview about his experiences with Israeli leaders and his perspective on the current political leadership.
Responses from the Prime Minister's Office and Defense Ministry Bureau come at the end.
(Excerpts from the Diskin Interview)
"We are sitting in an important meeting on the issue of Iran, in a sensitive forum that includes a group of ministers, top security officials and their aides, and three ministers sit before us: Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Lieberman, and smoke cigars in front of the whole forum. The defense minister gets up, walks over to the bar in the room, which is a hospitality room for one of the [security] organizations, and begins to pour himself a small glass of drink now and again from one of the bottles placed there. In the middle of such a sensitive and significant discussion he stands there with his glass of liquor, with his cigar in his hand, before IDF officers and intelligence officials--and that is the scene that the participants of this meeting see.
"I am telling you, a picture is worth more than a thousand words. In contrast to the depth and the importance of the discussion, a kind of total disregard for all the people. I can't even explain the feeling that we had at that moment. And Defense Minister Barak is not just someone off the street, he is a person who was a combatant, an army officer, the commander of Sayeret Matkal, a chief of staff. He is someone who should know the meaning of a personal example, command, people. What did he think that the people felt at the moment he did that? And you see everyone looking at it and beginning to write messages to each other.
"I don't know if I have succeeded in conveying to you the message of how surreal this whole story was.
"A cabinet minister sits in the room who has respiratory problems, a person who sits with them in many other meetings. I ask him: 'Tell me, doesn't this bother you?' and he answers, 'it bothers me very much.' I say to him, 'don't you tell them anything?' and he answers, 'I have said things, but they don't listen.'
"At a certain point I said that I would stop sitting in meetings where cigars where smoked, I would leave these meetings if they continued to smoke. The military secretary, Yohanan Locker, also joined me, and we insisted on this in a firm manner and it stopped in the forums we attended. Where does this contempt for your entire surroundings come from?"
Yuval Diskin, the former GSS director, has not calmed down to this day from that meeting in the Mossad's villa in Glilot. "Bibi holds this forum at the Mossad, because the Mossad has a hospitality room. He does it, of course, with the excuse of secrecy. But outside, in the patio, stand chefs with white bonnets and prepare a fancy lunch, while a highly sensitive discussion is being held inside on the matter of Iran. Now go and explain this to people. The man on the street can't even begin to understand how surreal this is. Perhaps it looks trivial to people. Just a meeting with cigars, and a few drinks that the defense minister has and a few waiters with white hats."
Yuval Diskin's tone is unmistakable. A cynical and bitter mixture of aversion, concern and shock characterize the man who is considered perhaps the most prominent and influential GSS director in the past decades. For 38 years Diskin served the security establishment with loyalty and devotion. He served and kept quiet. Now he feels that he can remain silent no longer. This is the first interview that he has given to the press since retiring from the GSS, and in fact, his first interview ever. [...]
"Since 1994, more or less, I worked with one degree of proximity or another to the most senior political echelon of the State of Israel--prime ministers, defense ministers--and saw all kinds of leaders. I saw Rabin, Peres, Bibi, Barak, Sharon, Olmert and again Bibi as prime minister and Barak as defense minister. When I take this spectrum of leaders that I have worked under, I can say that there were leaders with whom I always had the sense that at the moment of truth, when they had to weigh the interests of the state against their personal interests, they would prefer the national interests above all.
"I can say this about Rabin, about Peres, about Sharon, even about Olmert. This doesn't mean that they always made the right decision, but they came from this place, in which the interests of the state stand above all else. Unfortunately the feeling that I have, and that many senior security officials have, is that when we talk about Netanyahu and Barak, that with them the personal, opportunistic and current interests, are the thing that take precedence over anything else. And I emphasize that I am reflecting here something that not only I feel, but also many of the colleagues at my level with whom I spoke."
Q: Are there examples of why you have this feeling about Netanyahu and Barak?
"It is a sequence of a great many examples, many things that are related to the very intimate interaction that takes place between you and these people--in the role you fill, in discussions, in meetings, in one-on-one conversations, in decision-making processes, in their desire to take responsibility or not take responsibility for things, in the way of behavior and their personal example. It is a jigsaw puzzle of many little things, which together give you a sense of mistrust and lack of confidence in following these people.
"What motivated me to comment on this matter is the fact that during the time people were talking about the Iranian issue, they were mainly asking whether it was wise or unwise to attack Iran. Whether we had the operational capability or not. I also have an opinion on this matter, but I think that the more complex and essential matter that it is important for me to raise a public discussion on, is the question of whether those at the helm of the state are capable of managing an event on this scale.
"It is relatively easy to start such an event. All you have to do is decide: Let's attack Iran. But once we have started such an event, will they--these two, Bibi and Barak--be truly capable of getting us out of it with an outcome that is desirable to the State of Israel? Since I have seen these people in more than a few cases of approving plans and operations and in various events, in the current term and in the past, I and quite a few of my colleagues did not feel confidence in their ability to lead such a move. We did not feel confidence in the motives of these people.
"Many of us felt that with Barak, both in sensitive discussions held in Olmert's period and during Netanyahu's period, the question of credit--in other words, who would get the credit for certain things--could push him towards ridiculous decisions or recommendation sometimes. I can't give more details than this, but these recommendations left the participants of these restricted discussions openmouthed on more than one occasion."
Q: What do you feel as a person, not as a GSS director, when you encounter such recommendations, which in your view are motivated from thoughts about who will get the credit?
"As a person I feel a longing for different periods, and mainly I feel a longing for different leaders. Look, I'm not naive. I presume that every leader has his own weaknesses and strengths, but my impression is that for quite some time our leaders have not set a personal example, which in my eyes is one of the most important qualities of leadership, a quality that inspires people to follow the leader at the end of the day.
"When I look at Netanyahu, I don't see a shred of personal example as a leader in him, and when I look at Ehud Barak I don't see a shred of a personal example as a leader. I am also not naive about Sharon and about Olmert and others--each one made his mistakes and each has his weaknesses--but still the feeling that I and my colleagues have is that Rabin, Peres, Sharon and Olmert knew how to put the national interests above all else. I didn't feel this with Netanyahu and Barak, and I think the same is true for other people as well."
Q: What does motivate them, in your opinion?
"I don't know how to perform a professional psychological analysis, but I think it's a great deal of ego. I have a very deep sense that on the Iranian issue, Netanyahu is 'haunted' by Menahem Begin, who attacked the Iraqi reactor, and by Olmert, about whom it is claimed in all kinds of places that he attacked the reactor in Syria. Bibi wants to go down in history as someone who did something on this scale. I often heard him talk disparagingly about the things done by his predecessors, saying that his mission--Iran--is on a completely different scale.
Fortunately for us, Bibi is usually so caught up in his fears and worries, that I am a bit less afraid about him on his own--without someone next to him, to whom responsibility can be assigned if things go awry. Let's say that he will find it rather difficult to make significant decisions without a strong chief of staff and defense minister next to him." [...]
Sad and shameful
Yuval Diskin served for 38 years in the IDF and the GSS, and spent most of these years on the front of the war on terror. [...]
Q: Who are you, Yuval?
"First of all I define myself as an Israeli patriot, and I am one of those who believe wholeheartedly that 'I have no other country' is not just a song lyric. I am also a 'security hawk' based on the deep conviction that there is no place for weakness and weak people in the region in which we live. But after all the years in which I fought against terror, and saw so much death in the battlefield, on the streets of Israel's cities, in the alleyways of the refugee camps and the villages in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon--there is a moment in which you understand that we have to do everything, I mean everything possible, to find a different path, a path of dialogue and compromise, in order to try to ensure the chance of a better future for our children. And what I am saying does not come from a place of political right wing or left wing.
"As long as I was in the system and directed the GSS, or was in various senior roles, I was mainly busy with the endless daily responsibilities, of dealing with threats, warnings, terror attacks and operations, managing affairs, commanding them, making sure that they happened and succeeded. Despite the fact that I engaged a great deal of time in strategic thinking and complex policy issues, it was after I retired and began to spend a lot of time with my family that I began to think more and more about the question of what kind of country my children and grandchildren would have. Have I really contributed to making this country a place where they will want to live, a place that they will be proud of?
"Today, when I see the current leadership, I am worried about what we'll leave for them. As of this week I have two children in the army, and in a year I will probably have three children in the army simultaneously, so it's clear that I am very concerned."
Q: What is lacking in Netanyahu and Barak?
"They are very fond of using the phrase, 'we make the decisions,' but when it comes down to brass tacks you don't see them there. You can even take a look at the story of the takeover of the Mavi Marmara. In the Mavi Marmara incident the political echelon also had failures, and these were serious failures in my opinion--the planning of the takeover was botched--but with all due respect, we have two Sayeret Matkal veterans there, Netanyahu and Barak, that's how they like to portray themselves all the time and tell us heroic stories about their escapades in Sayeret Matkal. You expect that if they will hear about a botched military plan, they will know how to make comments about it or not approve it.
"But they approved this plan. And what was the response of Prime Minister Netanyahu to the state comptroller's report? There was no effort to take real responsibility. On the contrary, it was something along the lines of: 'very serious discussions are held by the current government on security and political issues...' but what about the discussions on the Mavi Marmara affair? Were they serious? What about the outcomes? And what is your share as prime minister in the failures?" [...]
"This is a leadership crisis, it is a crisis of value, it is total disregard for the public. People may think that I see this in an overly extreme manner. I am telling you that from up close, things look even worse."
Q: Are there more people in the [security] establishment at your level who feel this with the same intensity?
"You can come and say, listen, Yuval Diskin is out of his mind on this matter. But Yuval Diskin is out of his mind, and Meir Dagan is also out of his mind, and I am telling you that there are many more high-ranking people in the establishment who have retired and people who still serve, are they out of their minds too?
"My opinion is supported by dozens of conversations with many people at a more or less equivalent level as me, the level of organization directors and slightly below, let's say, major generals and division heads in various organizations. Most people have a sense of lack of confidence, mistrust and lack of esteem for these two people. My conclusion, and I think that of several of my colleagues, was that this requires us to show greater responsibility in order to verify that [the leaders] aren't pulling a fast one or engaging in all kinds of maneuvers that will get us into trouble as a state." [...]
Gasoline Fumes in the Air
While on the Iranian matter Diskin was caught in the line of fire unwillingly, when he joined the efforts of his two colleagues, Mossad Director Meir Dagan and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi in trying to restrain what appeared to them to be a light trigger finger of the state's leaders, in the Palestinian matter, his frustration is different. In this matter, which is the GSS's natural arena, his main concern was and remains the inaction, the deliberate impasse, which threatens to now lead us to a third Intifada. "I can't say whether the third Intifada will be like the second or the first, but the concentration of gasoline fumes in the air is high," he warns.
Q: But Olmert, as it is always claimed, was willing to give Abu Mazen almost everything and he too was given a negative answer.
"At that time we enjoyed very high quality quiet in Judea and Samaria. There was a very fertile security dialogue taking place with a diplomatic dialogue going in in the background between prime minister Olmert and Abu Mazen.
"I'm not about to get into the details of the negotiation, but I will try to explain why they did not succeed: the main reason was Olmert's political hourglass, which was quickly running out, and Abu Mazen did not feel confident that Olmert was in fact the person with whom he could close a deal--not because he did not personally trust Olmert, he saw that Olmert meant what he said--but I think he did not believe that Olmert had the ability and the time to complete the job, and when Abu Mazen had to make very important decisions in the Palestinian arena, and also had the impossible problem of the Gaza Strip, which he didn't even control, he decided to wait.
"And then a new government came along, the Netanyahu government, and while it's true that Netanyahu made the Bar Ilan speech, it very quickly turned out that this was meant to sound good for the international community. and 'two states for two peoples' is not exactly what we are hearing now in the Likud corridors.
"It's not that there was no attempt to open all sorts of channels for some sort of negotiations with the Palestinians, or to create the impression that we are trying, but this was not done seriously, persistently, and I would say, with actual intent. And now we are seeing how slowly and gradually this business is eroding and dissolving. At the same time, we are slowly elevating Hamas.
"Notice the following fact: the Netanyahu government's main power, since the day of its establishment and to this very day, is in maintaining the impasse. As long as there is an impasse in almost any sphere, the government and the coalition survive--and that is Netanyahu's main goal. But beyond that, Netanyahu fears ideologically taking a step toward the two-state solution, and furthermore--he is not built for this by nature, he cannot make decisions of the magnitude made by Begin or Rabin or Sharon.
"And worst of all: he is surrounded by people who are taking the Likud even farther to the right, and he has a coalition that is outflanking him. Unfortunately, even the Americans are not wielding their influence to get both sides to make progress and we have arrived at where we've arrived.
"But matters don't stop there. In the last few months we are beginning to see growing agitation of the Palestinian street in Judea and Samaria. And when the ground roils we will have to take steps to put down this unrest. Forceful actions by us will lead to forceful responses, and to more steps and more steps, and a process is thus created that will lead to an Intifada that is out of control.
"I've been in this game for most of my adult life. In the end, the security forces have to do the hard work, sometimes also the dirty and unpleasant work. But the job of the security forces is to create the conditions so that the political echelon can do something with it, and the quiet that was achieved in recent years was an opportunity that the political echelon should not have missed. So you can call Abu Mazen a peace rejectionist. I say that he is not a peace rejectionist. He is not an easy partner for peace, but let's admit the truth--are we easy partners?"
Q: So the security forces gave the political echelon the conditions for holding negotiations, and instead of doing this, we build in the settlements.
"Look, Abu Mazen and Fayyad and the heads of the Palestinian security organizations cannot, over time, be depicted as looking out for the interests of the State of Israel, while Israel, as they see it, steals more and more land in Judea and Samaria from them every day and builds more and more settlements, further distancing their dream for a state, parceling the land into areas that will be very hard to link, even in Naftali Bennett's interchange plan that is completely divorced from logic. I don't know if we can make peace, but these steps certainly make even the last chance left even smaller.
"I am very disturbed that we are creating a sort of 'death grip' in which both sides will be so intertwined with each other that it will be impossible to separate them, and in such a scenario, we will be fated to endless fighting, to growing extremism on both sides, with the gulf between the sides growing, and getting into a cycle of another clash and another clash that will not lead us anywhere." [...]
"We are simply creating a situation that will be insoluble, because it will be impossible to reach a decisive outcome. Impossible. This illusion that the State of Israel will be able to control so many people and suppress their aspirations and their freedom over time, is frightening. Believe me, I was there and I am intimately familiar with the situation. Even if we settle another 200,000 or 300,000 or 500,000 Jews in the territories, the problem will only increase, because the Palestinians are also multiplying at the same time.
"I believe that the solution to which the State of Israel must strive is an agreement with the Palestinians, which will create two states for two peoples. We must not remain in this situation of a deadlock, because there is really no such thing--things happen all the time. So there is a diplomatic deadlock but the settlements continue, the Palestinian frustration continues, the unrest grows, Fatah weakens, Hamas gains strength and the matter continues to become more complicated all the time. And under the surface, things continue to seethe and burn."
Q: Netanyahu declared that he was committed to a two-state solution in the Bar Ilan speech. When you were GSS director, did you discuss this issue at all?
"It came up in a lot of discussions, but I never had the sense that Bibi truly intended to do it. It's kalam fadi (empty words--DM). He paid a great deal of attention to the technical details of who would talk with whom, and who wouldn't talk with whom, and which track would be opened and which track would be closed, but in truth there was very little content to this [talk]. Until the end of my term, at the very least, I did not feel that there was an actual desire.
"There may have been a certain point when I thought that Bibi was waking up. He asked me after a work meeting between the two of us, in which I presented to him the need to initiate a diplomatic move with the Palestinians--to come to a meeting of the forum of eight and present my view on the subject. I came and presented and there were a great deal of questions and objections, and during the discussion I saw Bibi backing down and withdrawing into himself, and of course not backing up the things that we had discussed in our meeting, but sitting and mainly remaining silent. In the end it wound up with the usual summary of countless discussions held by Bibi--we'll hold another discussion on the matter. And what happened in the next discussion I can let you guess on your own."
Q: And what is happening today?
"We are making Abu Mazen weaker every day, and believe that this is a success. I think that we have to decide with whom we want to hold the discussion, with Hamas or with Abu Mazen. If we want to hold the discussion with Abu Mazen, then let's talk to him. But what is done in practice is that we are almost not talking to Abu Mazen, most of the time we humiliate him.
"And the most absurd thing: If we look at the situation over the years, one of the key people who contributed to the rise in Hamas's strength is Bibi Netanyahu, back from his first term as prime minister. One time because of the entanglement of the operation in Amman he freed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin [...]. After that he released all the prisoners in the Shalit deal, which was another push for Hamas, and in the end he permitted Khaled Mashal to enter the Gaza Strip like a king after Operation Pillar of Defense.
"If I look at where Hamas was before we assassinated Ahmed Jaabari and launched Operation Pillar of Defense and where it is today, then in political terms it is in a much better place.
"Hamas is in a state of euphoria, because the Palestinian public has a feeling that it managed to turn this into a victory for itself once again. Hamas fired at Tel Aviv, Rishon Lezion and Jerusalem, and came out of it at a relatively low cost. From the standpoint of the average Palestinian citizen on the street this is a huge achievement. No one dared to do such things in the past.
"From Hamas's standpoint, Israel negotiated with it; its leader Khaled Mashal, who was unable to enter the Gaza Strip before, entered it; the legitimacy that Hamas receives internationally has increased; and despite all the attacks by the State of Israel, it looks as if it were afraid to enter the Gaza Strip.
"Israel upgraded Hamas's status. It weakened Abu Mazen even further, because now Hamas has gained strength in Judea and Samaria as well. We saw the demonstrations staged by Hamas in Judea and Samaria, why is that? Because Abu Mazen understands that the energy of the public and of Hamas is strong, and he cannot come out against them at the moment, he has no choice but to sit quietly. When he sits quietly Fatah weakens and Hamas gains strength."
Q: So where will things go from here, in your assessment?
"I can tell you my opinion on the matter. There is a great lack of clarity in the media when people ask whether a third Intifada will break out. There is no clear definition for an Intifada, and those who started the previous Intifadas did not believe that they would last for years. There are events in which you can assess how they will start, but it is difficult to assess how and when they will end.
"The main thing that causes an Intifada, in my experience, is immense frustration in the public, with a sense of hopelessness and no way out. That is what gave rise to Intifadas in the past and that is what created the Arab Spring.
"When people on the Palestinian street begin to lose hope--when there is no peace process, when the economic situation deteriorates, there is no freedom of movement, and there are more and more settlements--it creates a sense of a dead end, and this is what generates the most pressure. Conversely, I will remind you that the Palestinians also see what happened in the Arab states in which the Arab Spring broke out, and they understand that an attempt can be made to emulate this model. For this reason, I believe that the concentration of gasoline fumes in the air is very high at the present time. And now there is the question of what will be the spark that will cause them to ignite. Sometimes it is one spark, and sometimes it is a series of sparks that causes an explosion.
"I speak to Palestinians and I feel that this process began long ago. I feel the frustration, their lack of hope that anything can be changed with our current government and coalition. I don't know how long the deterioration process will last, meaning when it will start to gain stronger momentum, and I don't want to say that it is irreversible, I actually think that it is still reversible. The question is what we will do to make it reversible.
"In the meantime, we have to understand what is happening to Fatah now. As it fails to implement its political agenda, two things will happen to it: Either it will have to change its political platform and say that Palestine has to be liberated only by force of arms, or else it will vanish and become a minority. In Judea and Samaria it appears that Hamas will not be able to take control of the area physically, but this doesn't mean that it won't capture people's hearts.
"As the sense of futility continues, as Hamas shows its staying power in the Gaza Strip against the ineffectuality that we demonstrate, the chance that the West Bank will remain an isle of Fatah in the heart of the Muslim Brotherhood is dropping. Now all it needs is a spark or an incident that spins out of control, so that this affair will gain very great momentum."
Q: Don't you think that Netanyahu sees this?
"Look, I haven't sat in security and political discussions in the past 18 months. I presume that the security officials understand and they also have more data before their eyes than I have now. I base myself on gut feelings and my long-standing experience. I have been in these situations too many times, and I also think that the elections in Israel could be an accelerator for this matter.
"The Palestinians told me on several occasions that they are waiting for the outcome of the elections. I said to them, 'what do you think you'll see in the elections?' they say, 'we'll see what coalition there will be, and from this we will understand where Israel is headed.' They're realistic and understand Israeli politics very well."
Q: What can and should be done?
"We must work for a solution of a lot of small successes, which in the first stage will create the right atmosphere, and not one big failure. From my experience, this is preferable. After this stage, we have to start addressing the core issues.
"We do not have a real territorial dispute with the Gaza Strip. The more complex territorial dispute is in Judea and Samaria. There we have a much easier partner than Hamas, and that's why I think that at the moment, it is preferable to work for security quiet in the Gaza Strip for as long a time as possible, and in the meantime, try to solve the complicated problem of the West Bank. First, we have to try and mitigate the tension, to release pressure from this pressure cooker which is filling up, but to do this is a gradual process, in stages.
"This cannot be done while building in the settlements at the same time. We will have to reach a situation in which we have the large settlement bloc, more or less, which everyone realizes will remain ours in the end, even if this means a land swap. Inside these blocs, construction will continue as needed, but all construction outside of the blocs must be frozen and anything that is an illegal outpost must be removed, and on this basis, we can begin to create an atmosphere that will make it possible to resume the peace process and the negotiations with Abu Mazen."
Q: And what about East Jerusalem or E1?
"Is E1 Jerusalem? An interesting question. I think that the majority of the governments that I remember, including Sharon's, promised not to build in E1. Obviously this decision was made on the eve of elections for election purposes. I am not sure that it will be implemented but even statements cause serious image damage to Israel, and in the end, will also lead to heavy international pressure on Israel.
Q: Netanyahu says he doesn't care what the Europeans think.
"Everyone is a hero before the elections and makes slogans up to the skies. I'm not impressed by these statements. Bibi, from my acquaintance with him, is a lot more vulnerable to pressure than he seems. I assume that at the end of the day if the Americans very much want, the president will know how to use the leverage he has and Bibi will fold."
Responses: "Diskin's Allegations are Groundless and Motivated by Personal Frustration"
The Prime Minister's Office responded to Diskin's allegations with the following statement: "Diskin's groundless statements, who until a year and a half ago wanted to be the Mossad director under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, are now being recycled for political reasons and are motivated by his personal frustration that he was not chosen to be Mossad director."
The Defense Minister's Bureau said: "Yuval Diskin's claims are groundless, recycled and astonishing, both in content and in their timing.
"There is no basis to Diskin's allegation that there was even the slightest flaw in the decision-making process on matters relating to Iran. There is no subject in the last generation, in either war of peace, that has had so many meetings devoted to it, which were attended by everyone who has anything to do with the matter, even indirectly. The entire process was conducted with the authority and responsibility of the government, of the person heading it, and the defense minister.
"It is odd that a man who as GSS director held so much responsibility for so many years finds himself dragged into making allegations that are not serious and not pertinent. We can hope that the saying of the sages 'calling the kettle black' is not what we are seeing here, insofar as the possibility that personal interests are taking precedence over national interests."