In the past two weeks, MK and coalition chairman David Bitan spoke out against the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), using language portraying Shin Bet staff as cowards. In both instances, his remarks related to the agency’s involvement in the decision-making process regarding the placement or removal of metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount.
“They’re cowards. They just want to get back to their homes,” he said.
According to Bitan, this is how Shin Bet employees think and feel. Here’s another wise statement by the learned MK: “There’s a problem in the leadership positions of the Shin Bet and the Mossad. Something there changes them to Leftists during their tenures, something happens to them there.”
Even Minister Miri Regev isn’t shying away from the matter, giving the Shin Bet the nickname “Bizarre” following its supposed recommendations to the prime minister.
It’s important to make clear that criticism of the political ranks of the Shin Bet and other security services in the country is legitimate and even necessary. The Shin Bet is an intelligence gathering agency working within a democratic country, and its purpose is to serve the country’s goals and protect its security from terrorist threats, spying and political subversion. The Shin Bet is not a political body and doesn’t serve anybody’s political interests. It is directly subordinate to the prime minister and acts within the framework of the law and under the limitations and guidelines of the Shin Bet Law.
The question remains, however, to what extent is it reasonable for politicians to make statements directly against the security agencies, just to appease their supporters, increase their ratings, and create an air of cheap populism?
The author of this column sat for many years in all kinds of government, cabinet, “kitchen cabinet” and situational meetings set up by a number of prime ministers, and also served many years in the Shin Bet, and miraculously didn’t come out a Leftist. The Israeli public is not involved in these discussions and is only fed by newspaper headlines or political spinmeisters blowing smoke up some MKs’ and the leadership’s asses. Entire discussions unfold in the public sphere on social media and other media platforms, based on unverified “facts,” most of which aren’t true.
In this matter it’s important to stick to the facts. At the cabinet meeting that the prime minister convened after the lethal attack at the Temple Mount, someone suggested placing security measures at the entrance to the Mount, in order to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. It seems this discussion came rather late, considering that security measures were supposed to be installed at the Temple Mount years ago. However, the point is that the Shin Bet participated in these discussions by virtue of the intelligence at its disposal, intelligence that it is required to provide to the decision- makers. Based on this information, the agency expected that riots would break out if metal detectors were installed at the entrance to the Temple Mount. That’s what the Shin Bet told them, and that’s what happened. The intelligence provided to the prime minister was accurate and good.
The manner in which security is ensured on the Temple Mount is subject to the consideration of the Israel Police. And in this matter, the prime minister was right to leave the decision to the police, which made the right decision to increase security protocols at the entrance to the Mount and to install metal detectors and cameras there as well.
The riots and demonstrations were to be expected, according to the intelligence provided by the Shin Bet. But the strength of a leader is measured by his ability to make brave decisions in times of crisis. That should have happened here. We shouldn’t have allowed ourselves to be deterred by threats from the Islamist Movement, Hamas, Arab MKs and their supporters and donors in Turkey. Israel must safeguard its security and put security interests above all others.
The Shin Bet mentioned one other thing of note in these discussions. Based on its professional opinion and expertise in the security field, the Shin Bet pointed out that it wasn’t really necessary to install metal detectors at the Mount, and that it was possible to perform inspections and have increased security by other means.
The point is correct. Indeed there are many ways that inspections can be performed at a similar level of effectiveness as that provided by the metal detectors. But it is important to note two facts: First, it wouldn’t matter which methods of inspection we applied, the response of the Palestinians and the other radical Islamic extremists would have been exactly the same. The second fact is that the question of how and with what method inspections should occur is the decision of the police, and not the Shin Bet. So it was, and so it should be.
From here everything went wrong. The attack on the Israeli Embassy security officer in Jordan, and the negotiations for his return and that of the diplomatic staff, created a situation in which it seems that the prime minister was compelled to give his guarantee to the king that the inspection equipment would be removed from the Mount. The Israelis returned home, and that’s a good thing, but the way the government acted on the Temple Mount was completely wrong.
The immediate removal of the security measures and the total surrender to the demands of extremist Islamists were immediately and rightly perceived as helplessness on the part of the Israeli government, conceding our national honor and neglecting Israel’s deterrent capabilities.
At this point, the problem started to snowball. The Jordanians rushed to take advantage of the situation and demanded the return of the security guard to Amman to stand trial. Turkey continued to incite the Muslim world against Israel. And the Muslim extremists on the Temple Mount weren’t settling for just the removal of the inspection equipment, and continued to demand the complete end of Israeli sovereignty on the Temple Mount.
All this was to be expected, that’s obvious to everybody. And the elected officials still made the wrong decisions, those same elected officials who later went out to the media, and in their frustration over their inability to properly manage the crisis, instead blamed the Shin Bet for being cowards.
The people who work for the Shin Bet and their administrators work tirelessly, day and night, for the security of the country. In Israel proper, in the occupied territories, in dangerous areas against hostile agents and enraged terrorists. They take part in secretive and dangerous operations every day and put their lives on the line to prevent hundreds of deadly attacks every year. Only since January, they prevented more than 200 planned terrorist attacks. Last year, the Shin Bet prevented 400 attacks. It was the Shin Bet that twice in the last two years thwarted Hamas’s attempts to carry out a coup against Mahmoud Abbas. It’s the Shin Bet that prevents foreign spies from gathering sensitive information on Israel’s interests. It’s the Shin Bet that enables the democratic system of government in Israel to continue functioning undisturbed.This includes those politicians who throw around off-the-cuff, unbridled and crude statements.
The head of the Shin Bet cannot and has no need to reach out to the media or to get into fiery discussions with these political players.That’s unreasonable, undignified and beneath his office. The prime minister acted correctly in this case when he expressed serious doubts as to what his ministers were saying about the Shin Bet. But this is a very slippery slope and it makes sense to stop it right now.
Lior Ackerman is a former deputy head of the Shin Bet and an expert on intelligence and terrorism.Translated by Daniel Kra.