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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Israeli political parties used to like to decorate their Knesset slates with the most illustrious IDF generals.
Most of the generals went to Labor and its forerunner, Mapai, so the Likud and its forerunner, Herut, celebrated whenever they drafted a top general, from Gorodish and Ezer Weizmann to Yitzhak Mordechai and Shaul Mofaz.
But nowadays, when Israel's greatest threat arguably comes from Palestinian terrorism and not from a foreign army, the former heads of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) have become the stars of the Israeli political scene.
The Shin Bet heads grant the political parties the stamp of approval of experts in fighting everything from terrorism to organized crime. They come equipped with essential experience in running tactical campaigns; they are not afraid to work hard; and best of all, they know how to be discrete - a rare quality in Israeli politics.
Avi Dichter, who retired from a 34-year career in the agency seven months ago, became the latest former Shin Bet head to enter politics when he joined Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima Party on Wednesday. Sharon reportedly wanted Dichter on his list so badly that he even insisted on the election being held in March and not in February, so Dichter's cooling-off period after retiring from the Shin Bet would be completed in time.
Dichter joined a long list of former top Shin Bet officials in politics that includes Dichter's predecessor at the helm of the Shin Bet - Labor's Ami Ayalon; former agency deputy heads Gideon Ezra in Kadima and Israel Hason in Israel Beitenu; and Shin Bet department head Ehud Yatom in the Likud, whose rank in the agency was the equivalent of major-general.
THE KATYUSHA rockets in the North and Kassams in the South have made security and fighting terrorism the main issues of the election, much to the chagrin of socioeconomic affairs-obsessed Labor chairman Amir Peretz. This has further reinforced the popularity of the former Shin Bet leaders, who have begun debating each other regularly on radio talk shows in the morning and television gabfests in the evening.
The Jerusalem Post talked about the rocket attacks with four of the Shin Bet leaders - one each from Kadima, Likud, Israel Beitenu and Labor - to try to get a sense of how their parties would handle the attacks if, after the March 28 election, they form the next government or join a coalition and receive the defense or internal security portfolios.
Dichter, who headed the agency from 2000-2005 and was its deputy head from 1997-2000, told the Post at his Tel Aviv press conference on Wednesday that the IDF and security agencies are taking the right steps to stop the rocket attacks.
As part of Operation Blue Skies, Israel responded to the Kassams emerging from the northern Gaza Strip on Wednesday by establishing a no-go zone where the settlements of Elei Sinai, Nisanit and Dugit were located. The IDF shelled the area with artillery fire.
On the northern front, the army responded to Katyushas fired at Kiryat Shmona on Tuesday by attacking a Lebanese base belonging to Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command on Wednesday morning.
"I live in Ashkelon and I hear the sounds of the Palestinian rockets and those of our return fire," Dichter said. "I know the security officials and I am sure they are dealing with the attacks in the right way."
Dichter downplayed the threat of the rocket attacks, saying that Palestinian artillery fire had not become more advanced over the past few years. He said that Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip significantly decreased the number of terrorist attacks and left the terrorists with no option other than artillery fire.
Yatom disagreed with Dichter's optimistic outlook. He said that Israel was responding with too much restraint in the South and the North, but for different reasons.
"In the South, we are purposely showing weakness, because we think it could help Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas," Yatom said. "This has allowed the Palestinians to dictate the depth of the terror and reach southern Ashkelon with their rockets. They know they got us out of Gaza with terrorism, and it gives them an incentive to continue chasing us."
He said the rocket attacks have proven that it was foolish to give up the settlements in the northern Gaza Strip, and that now Israel will have no choice but to go back into the Strip with ground forces and Shin Bet intelligence operatives to strike at the people who have ordered the rocket attacks and "make the terrorists hide."
Yatom said that Israel is acting with restraint in the North because it does not want to reignite a battle against terrorist organizations in Lebanon that might spur them to use long-range missiles.
"Leaving Lebanon the way we did left us exposed to missiles that can reach all the way to Haifa and even Hadera," Yatom warned. "We are reacting with the most restrained approach possible. This way, we will still be attacked by the terrorists. But we are afraid that if we attack for real, their reaction will be harsh. That's why we still have our foot on the brakes."
Hason served in the Shin Bet for 25 years, culminating with five years as deputy head of the agency from 1997 to 2002. He said that strategically, it must be made clear that there is a price to be paid for every rocket fired at Israel. He said that the IDF must respond by land, air and sea to deal a serious blow to the terrorist organizations that fired the rockets.
"Anyone connected to the Kassam, hit them on the head," Hason said bluntly. "They need to know that for every Kassam, they are hurting themselves. Right now we are giving them the impression that they can hit us as long as they don't hit us too hard, and we are allowing them to hold us hostage."
Hason criticized Dichter for saying that he is confident that Fatah had the power to act against terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip. He said that it has been proven enough times that the Palestinians will never act to help Israel's security.
"We asked Fatah to help us many times during Oslo and after disengagement, so after how many times of not getting the supply, will we still expect to get it?" he asked. "I don't believe in miracles and I stopped understanding Israel's strategy a long time ago. After we left Gaza, we had to make it clear that we would no longer show restraint."
Ayalon was appointed to head the agency after the 1995 Rabin assassination, and served until Dichter took over in 2000. Unlike his three former colleagues, he suggested using a diplomatic approach to stop both the Katyushas and the Kassams.
He said that Israel made a mistake by not withdrawing from the disputed Shaba Farms area when the IDF evacuated southern Lebanon. He said that the IDF's continued presence there gives Hizbullah an excuse to continue their attacks and to portray themselves as freedom fighters.
"You have to deal with the root cause of the Katyushas," Ayalon said. "Hizbullah is acting freely in Lebanon because we are still in Shaba farms. We need to make clear to the Lebanese government that we will not tolerate attacks from Lebanese territory."
Asked about the Gaza Strip, which Israel has already evacuated, Ayalon said that the way for Israel to stop the Kassams is to withdraw from the West Bank and allow a Palestinian state to be created. He said he agreed with the IDF's strategy of establishing a security zone in the northern Gaza Strip, but that the key to stability is diplomacy.
"We need to say that we didn't leave the Gaza Strip to give Hamas a victory, but because we want two states for two peoples. We won't have deterrence until the Palestinians have something to lose. We left the Gaza Strip as part of a diplomatic initiative, not to turn it into a jail for a million Palestinians."