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Revolt of the Spy: Ex-Israeli Intelligence Chief Blasts Benjamin Netanyahu's March to War With Iran

Yuval Diskin, the former head of Israel’s General Security Service, has caused quite a stir with an interview that roasts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alive.
 
 
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Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the United Nations' 2012 General Assembly.
Photo Credit: Avi Ochayon/Israeli Government Press Office

 
 
 
 

The former head of Israel’s General Security Service, commonly known as the Shin Bet, has caused quite a stir with an interview that roasts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alive. Yuval Diskin paints a disturbing picture of Netanyahu as a leader who, far more than most, is motivated by personal political gain rather than by strategy. Cynically, and one might even say appropriately, most of us routinely ascribe such motives to most politicians, but Diskin’s point is that Netanyahu leans much more toward this motivation than most.


When one considers the amount of power an Israeli Prime Minister holds, and the impact Israeli actions have on world events, having someone like the man Diskin describes in that office is alarming even while it explains much about why, even for Middle East affairs, the current status quo is so bleak. But here in the United States, it should also give us pause as we consider who this man is that our Congress, led by the Israel Lobby, is so enthralled with.

Diskin describes all the other Prime Ministers he worked under since Menachem Begin as ultimately being driven by their view of Israel’s best interests. He does not suggest they were immune to personal interest, but that when it came to the really crucial security decisions, it was not their primary motivation. But Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak, are different, says Diskin: “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." Whether Diskin’s assessment of historical Israeli leadership is on target, the fact remains that he obviously sees a huge difference in the extent to which personal gain motivates the current government’s top decision-makers.

When it came to the push for war with Iran, Diskin’s words are even more chilling. “I have a very deep sense that on the Iranian issue, Netanyahu is 'haunted' by Menachem Begin, who attacked the Iraqi reactor (this refers to Israel’s 1981 attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Baghdad- MP), and by Olmert, about whom it is claimed in all kinds of places that he attacked the (nuclear) reactor in Syria (in a 2007 attack). 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.”

That’s just breathtaking. Netanyahu and Barak launched an unprecedented campaign to push the United States into either attacking Iran or helping to facilitate an Israeli attack. For years, as well, we also heard that the military and intelligence upper echelons in Israel were opposed to an attack, but Netanyahu and Barak cried to the heavens that Israel was facing imminent destruction, that a second holocaust, in the form of Iranian nuclear weapons, was in the offing. Now, based on Diskin’s words, we learn that not only was there a strategic disagreement within the Israeli leadership, but the pro-war side was motivated more by one-upping previous Israeli governments than by any fear that Israel would be under nuclear attack.

This needs to be understood in the context of Netanyahu being far and away more involved in US politics than any of his predecessors. The neoconservatives have always seen Bibi as their man and have worked closely with him for decades. And that ideology, directly and indirectly, is dominant in both AIPAC and the much larger Christian Zionist movement, spearheaded by Christians United for Israel (CUFI). It’s bad enough that we have such a powerful lobby, with very little to balance it out, that advocates for Israel’s interest above all else. But if that lobby is being bent to the personal, political ambitions of an individual leader, that is even worse.

Beyond that, Diskin’s revelations undermine the existential argument that Netanyahu and Barak have been making. Of course, this is not to suggest that Israel, as well as the US, Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and, indeed, the entire world, don’t have legitimate concerns about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. General concerns about nuclear proliferation, deepening the fear that drives the conflicts between Sunni and Shi’i states and groups in the region, the overall balance of power in the Middle East and the potential for an arms race being set off are all good reasons to try to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, if indeed that is what they’re trying to do (a point that, while evidence certainly supports it, has yet to be conclusively proven by a long shot). But those concerns are not sufficient to trigger an attack that could enflame the region beyond anything we have ever seen and even holds the potential for starting a new global conflict. Netanyahu is well aware of this and that’s precisely why he and many agents of his lobby in the US have raised such loud cries about the existential danger to Israel.

Diskin’s words now reveal that, while Israeli concerns may be real enough, the level of hysteria that Netanyahu and Barak generated both within Israel and among Israel supporters in the United States was self-serving. Of course, Netanyahu and Barak have both dismissed Diskin’s account, and so will their supporters. But consider the source.

Yuval Diskin has spent his entire career in the Israeli military and in intelligence. He has never sought political office. While Netanyahu accused him of political opportunism, that doesn’t fit well with a man who has retired from entirely non-political positions and has given no indication of any interest in getting involved in politics to date. Perhaps he does have such ambitions, but if so, he hasn’t shown it. Diskin is also a security hawk and supports military action to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon; he just wants it to be an operation which will achieve its goal, has an extra strategy and won’t do more harm than good.

He has never been much for publicity either, though he did speak out last spring against Netanyahu’s rush to war with Iran. According to his interviewer in Yediot Ahoronoth, “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.”

That doesn’t sound like someone inclined to strike out in public against his country’s commander-in-chief to score political points.

The issues Diskin raised go beyond Iran as well. He believes Netanyahu has given in to political pressures on the Palestinian issue and this has led to frustration, hopelessness and stalemate. He expressed the belief that Netanyahu has put Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a position where he cannot return to negotiations, and that this is precisely how Netanyahu wants it. He also hints at encouraging the United States to leverage its pressure on Netanyahu: “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.”

Perhaps, at the end of that same day, more people in the United States will recognize that the Israel Lobby is limiting the US’ options for the sake of preferred Israeli policies. And if, as Diskin suggests, they’re doing that in significant measure due to Netanyahu’s political ambitions, maybe that might finally be too much for US citizens to tolerate.

The full interview with Diskin appeared only in the print edition of Yediot Ahoronoth, and it was circulated and translated to English by Israel News Today. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the former director of the U.S. Office of B'Tselem and former co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

 
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