JUST DAYS before Israel celebrated its 68th Independence Day, Yoram Cohen, the head of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), retired after five years in office. He is being replaced by Nadav Argaman.
Cohen is shrewd and wily with a subtle sense of humor and a sharp eye for detail but doesn’t radiate charisma and leadership.
Until gaining the top spot, the rest of his 34- year professional career was spent as a case officer, recruiting and running Palestinian agents in the West Bank.
There was a smattering of controversy surrounding his appointment. Politicians on the left and center as well as pundits cast doubts about his suitability for the job. Critics wondered whether he was chosen by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu solely because he was a kippa- wearing yeshiva graduate. They conjectured that he would not demonstrate the necessary determination to combat settler violence and Jewish terrorism.
Indeed, during the first two years of his watch, Jewish terrorism and violence against Palestinians increased and it seemed that the agency was reluctant to put an end to the phenomenon. Time and again, questions were asked why the Shin Bet had succeeded in foiling and exposing Palestinian and Israeli-Arab terrorist cells, but time after time failed in its mission against Jewish terrorism.
True, there were extenuating circumstances.
The agency requested, but the right-wing government refused, to declare suspected individuals as being members of a “terrorist organization.” In the end, a compromise was reached to define the extremist groups as “unlawful associations.” The justice system was consistently reluctant to issue orders for administrative detention without trial against potential suspects.
The agency itself struggled to translate intelligence into legal evidence admissible in court, and when it did and suspects were indicted, judges handed down lenient nondeterrent sentences.
However, the Jewish counterterrorism situation appears to be improving. Since 2011, the year Cohen entered office, 16 Jews have been held in administrative detention (compared to one Israeli Arab in the same period). During his tenure, 141 restriction orders were issued removing Jewish suspects from the West Bank or banning them from traveling to certain areas. In the past three years, 302 indictments were submitted against Jewish suspects for direct or indirect involvement in terrorist acts that included burning down a mosque, churches, houses and cars, throwing gas grenades and firebombs, or other violent actions directed against Palestinians.
The turning point was the murderous arson attack on the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank village of Duma, in July 2015.
The cruel crime shocked Israelis, damaged Israel’s standing as a democratic country and raised questions about the determination of the Shin Bet to really combat Jewish terrorism. As a result, the Shin Bet, better late than never, decided to use the full intelligence and interrogation measures at its disposal. Now, as he leaves office, Cohen can take pride that he and the Shin Bet department, which deals with security and terrorism-related crimes by Israeli citizens, solved some of the most despicable terrorism and hate crimes, including the arrests of the murderers of the Dawabsheh family and those who committed the arson at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish in Tabgha, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The agency also managed to demolish the radical group known as “The Rebellion,” named after its manifesto calling for the destruction of Zionism and democracy in Israel to be replaced by a royal theocracy.
The group consisted of a few hundred young religious zealots, mostly from the settler community in the West Bank, who defied their parents and the religious and state authorities. Its leader, Meir Ettinger, the grandson of the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League and MK, who was murdered in New York in 1990 by a Palestinian assassin, is under administrative detention.
Those, including this writer, who doubted Cohen’s readiness to deal with the problem were proven wrong. Jewish terrorism is in decline, but could raise its head again just as is happening with Palestinian terrorism, which since 1967 has been the No. 1 priority of the Shin Bet.
The current wave of Palestinian violence in the West Bank, Jerusalem and in Israel within the pre-1967 borders, which started in September seven months ago, has so far claimed the lives of 30 Israelis and four foreign visitors and 200 Palestinian assailants and bystanders. Most of the incidents have been defined by the Shin Bet as “popular violence,” but at the same time there has been an increase in the number of serious terrorist attacks, including the use of firearms, stabbings and car rammings. But, above all, what really characterizes this wave – called by Palestinians a hawa, or outburst – is the fact that it’s unorganized and mostly spontaneous.
Individuals have decided on their own to perpetrate violent acts against Israeli soldiers, civilians and settlers. They are young and old, male and female, and come from all walks of Palestinian society. Quite often, they are motivated by desperate love, family quarrels or psychiatric problems. True, Hamas from its headquarters in Gaza and Turkey tries to incite and stir up a more militant and lethal form of terrorism. So far, it has failed mainly because it has been foiled by the Shin Bet, armed with accurate information.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), led by Mahmoud Abbas, uses doublespeak. It doesn’t denounce the acts, sometimes indirectly incites, but it doesn’t unleash its armed groups, police and security services to participate.
Had it done so, the scope, spread and number of casualties among Israelis and Palestinians would have multiplied.
Abbas and his colleagues have given up any hope that the right-wing Israeli government will agree to renew peace negotiations in good faith. In view of the continued expansion of Jewish settlements, they believe that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon have reversed their support for a two-state solution and pay only lip service to this notion. Yet, the PA’s security forces, despite threatening to stop, so far have continued to cooperate and coordinate with their Israeli counterparts.
Another factor that has helped restrain the spread of violence is Israel’s economic policy. In the past two intifadas, Israeli imposed collective punishment against the entire Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza. It imposed curfews, blockades and sieges on towns and villages and revoked work permits, thereby preventing Palestinians from working in Israel.
This time it is different. The seeming normalcy, at least from an economic perspective, continues. Some 100,000 Palestinians continue to work daily in Israel and the Jewish settlements and feed their families.
In the last two months, a decline in the number and gravity of terrorist incidents has been recorded, but Cohen is honest enough to admit that the situation in the West Bank is very fragile and that the vicious cycle of terrorism, violence and Israeli military responses can easily get out of hand and turn hawa into a third intifada.
The challenges Cohen leaves to his successor, Nadav Argaman, remain the same as the ones he inherited – Palestinian and Jewish terrorism, ISIS threats, protecting Israeli installations abroad and exposing spies.
On the other hand, Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation has never been better. The two security establishments see eye-to-eye regarding the need to fight Islamic State’s Sinai Province units in Sinai and its secret ties with the military wing of Hamas in Gaza. According to foreign reports, Israel is providing intelligence about what’s going on in Sinai to the Egyptian army, which is fighting the ISIS terrorists with determination. Though it has inflicted many casualties on the group, Cairo has so far failed to dislodge them.
Argaman, like Cohen, will have to devote time and resources to the potential threat of Israeli Arabs joining ISIS. So far the phenomenon is marginal; nine Israeli Muslims have been killed in Iraq and Syria, and 35 are on active duty there. Relative to the size of its Muslim community, Israel has been much less affected than Western countries with fewer Muslims, which have had more ISIS volunteers. This is because the majority of Israeli Arabs and their leaders reject the ISIS interpretation of Islam and because the Shin Bet has managed to monitor the radical elements among Israeli Arabs.
Another Shin Bet purview is counter espionage.
Hezbollah and Iran continue their efforts to recruits spies and plant them inside Israel ‒ so far with little success. The biggest challenges in this field are the efforts of China and Russia to utilize cyber warfare to gather information and steal technological secrets.
The agency is, by law, responsible for the defense of Israel’s civilian infrastructure – banks, hospitals, power stations, water supplies and roads from being jeopardized via computer attacks. In this regard, Cohen can be satisfied that, under his watch, no infrastructure damage occurred, despite endless attacks by Iranian and other hackers.
The Shin Bet Cohen has bequeathed to Argaman is not perfect, but it is more technologically and operationally capable than the one he inherited. ■ Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman