Bennett better than Netanyahu, still room to improve - ex-Mossad chiefs

Former spy directors Danny Yatom and Efraim Halevy offered praise for Bennett's handling of Iran and Palestinians and criticism for his handling of missing IAF veteran Ron Arad.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Mossad chief David Barnea meet at the Prime Minister’s Office last June. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Mossad chief David Barnea meet at the Prime Minister’s Office last June.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

With more than six months into his job, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is doing a better job handling the Iranian and Palestinian issues than his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, though there is still room for improvement, according to two former Mossad directors.

In conversations with The Jerusalem Post, ex-Mossad directors Danny Yatom and Efraim Halevy contrasted Bennett’s style of trying to get along with the Biden administration with Netanyahu’s style of leaning into public policy disagreements over Iran.

However, they were both asked if this was still true after multiple rounds of recent aggressive statements by Bennett and other top ministers and IDF officials about readiness to part ways with the US on Iran.

Yatom said, “Netanyahu had many more [public statements against US policy on Iran]. It is good that there aren’t as many.... I understand that basically the policy is similar to the previous government’s: Don’t let Iran get to a nuclear bomb, and try to convince other states like the US and others not to ease sanctions.”

The goal is still “to strengthen sanctions and to bring about a situation where there is continuous pressure on Iran which continues to harm its economy,” so as to get it to change its behavior.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in a press conference on January 11, 2022 (credit: NOAM RIVKIN-PANTON/FLASH90)Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in a press conference on January 11, 2022 (credit: NOAM RIVKIN-PANTON/FLASH90)

“We don’t have a common, agreed-upon language with the US, but the relations between Bennett and [President Joe] Biden are much better than the relations were between Netanyahu and [former president Barack] Obama,” said the former Mossad chief.

He said, “With Trump, it was something else. Relations were very close. Trump was convinced by Netanyahu that he needed to leave the 2015 [nuclear] deal and continue sanctions and pressure on Iran. My criticism on this: it was a mistake by Netanyahu to pressure Trump, and a mistake by Trump to take the US out of the deal, because... the situation with Iran was much better before Trump left the deal.”

Regarding current Iran negotiations, Yatom stated, “I hope the world powers start to understand the double game of Iran. On one hand, they talk as if they want peace and a deal, but then they keep making obstacles and dragging things out to exploit this time period and advance more of their nuclear program infrastructure.

“If it is not disrupted, Iran is in a situation where, [with] just a bit more [progress], it will be a nuclear threshold state. It has all of the components. It needs only the political decision of the ayatollah to put everything together... as one piece on a missile,” he said.

Qualifying Iranian progress, he added, “But to develop a [nuclear] weapon to put it on a missile takes another two to three years. A nuclear threshold state has all the components, but no bomb, but keeps working to get closer to” a deliverable nuclear weapon.

He warned, “Iran will enjoy the status of a threshold state soon.... A threshold state is not a nuclear state, so it cannot be punished for violating” nonnuclear proliferation conventions. “It gets the benefits of both worlds.”

Yatom noted that in the early months of Bennett’s term, Biden clearly wanted to give him support after he displaced Netanyahu, so “the only thing which was published” from their first meeting was “Iran will not get a nuclear bomb. [US Secretary of State Anthony] Blinken also said this, and England and Germany.”

But at the same time, he noted that months ago, “no one spoke about a military option. There were already hints of disagreements between us and the US about the [nuclear] deal. But some [recent] statements by England and especially by [French President Emmanuel] Macron made clear: if force needs to be used on Iran, then they will use force. You didn’t hear this before from the world powers.”

Despite disagreements with the US, he cautioned, “It is forbidden to blow up at the Americans.... We need the US. They are our best and strongest ally. We can debate and disagree behind closed doors, but there should be no public propaganda [about the disagreements]. I advise to speak with the Americans [privately], but not to leak anything. The Americans will appreciate our position a lot more if we keep our mouths shut.”

Regarding Bennett’s more recent aggressive statements on the US and Iran, he said Bennett “didn’t create a full crisis [“lishbor et hakelim,” in Hebrew], but it caused harm. All of the public statements caused harm and it was regrettable, but it can still be stopped.”

Still, he said that “Iran is still the biggest danger to Israel, and it [the IDF] needs to maintain the military option” – just without talking about it too much.

What if Israel views a new deal cut by Biden as a bad one?

“Israel needs to accept the deal even if it is bad. We should not fight with the US and other allies against the deal.

“But Israel must, behind closed doors, show the US the implications of any new deal.... What backing will we get from the US, if the Iranians don’t comply with the deal’s [nuclear] limitations? What happens if Iran violates the deal?... How will we make sure we get it to return to the limits of the deal? This needs to be the focus,” said Yatom.

He said there needed to be plans to “harm any Iranian weaponization progress toward a bomb.”

HALEVY SAID that “the difference between the policy of the previous and current governments is more in the area of style than of substance. In the Middle East... style is a very important element for relations.... I think that the clearer message of the new government after more than six months is that it is conducting its policies and negotiations with a congenial spirit to enable dialogue rather than confrontation.

“This is not to say that, regarding... the nuclear policies of Iran, Israel has changed its basic demands that Iran not be allowed to develop a nuclear military device. On that there is no change,” he said.

The goal is “to bring Iran to a situation where it begins to realize that a change of policy is not only something forced upon them, but is something which might benefit them.”

He continued, stating, “Although there were strong statements issued a few weeks ago from senior officials, when it comes to the present situation of the negotiations in Vienna with the Iranians – whatever concerns and reservations Israel might have about the outcome, even here I believe Israel might benefit from its not” broadcasting its position daily with a bullhorn.

Optimistically, Halevy said, “[In] the last few weeks, somehow the noise has died down. This is reflected in terms of regional relations: the meeting between Bennett and [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi – a public meeting of the kind which was rare under the previous administration.... They spent a relatively long time discussing issues.”

Further, he said, “There are different relations now with Jordan, with which we have the longest border, and there had been open enmity, which has given way to a totally different approach by the new administration. This is a very important development.”

Questioned about how Israel should respond to a deal with concessions to Iran that it disapproves of, he responded, “The discussions in Vienna have to be judged by the results.... I don’t see the US wanting to give in to the Iranians on all of the demands which they have.”

Asked about rumored concessions by the US on the advanced centrifuges issue, he said, “I don’t want to go into the nitty-gritty of the negotiations. I think the American negotiators... know what they are talking about.... It does not do any good to try to pick holes in the negotiations before the negotiations have ended.”

Pressed whether the US early February deadline for progress should be strictly adhered to, he replied “I don’t like using these terms of two months, six months, eight months. Let us be a little more patient and see how it works out.... The US and Israel have channels. Israel’s substantive requirements are being stated clearly to the Americans. They appreciate the fact that it is not on the front pages of Israeli newspapers every day.”

SHIFTING TO the Palestinian arena, Yatom said, “Because of the character of the government, nothing will happen between us and the Palestinians from the official government. I don’t see Bennett meeting with Abu Mazen, because the coalition would fall, though I think he definitely should meet with Abu Mazen.”

Still, he said, “It is good that the defense minister [Benny Gantz] filled the hole and met with Abu Mazen and also with [Jordan’s] King Abdullah, because we need to keep speaking to the Palestinians. We have security coordination with them. Also, the Palestinian economy depends on the Israeli economy. When there are many Palestinians working in Israel, things go well, and things go poorly when not enough Palestinians are working in Israel.

“Since we cannot speak about the long term, we need to talk about how to live better,” said Yatom.

Yatom warned that Israel needs to show greater determination not only in combating Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank, but also in combating “terror actions of settler extremist groups,” while emphasizing that most Jewish settlers are law-abiding citizens.

“This needs to be handled. The right wing in the government of Bennett doesn’t understand” how serious the Jewish extremist problem is, and they must give the IDF full backing “to bring order. We need to punish [violence from] Palestinians and Jews equally,” he noted.

“I worry about an explosion” from Jewish extremists, he said warily.

Regarding Gaza, he said, “So far we are very happy. There is quiet with Gaza, mostly I think for two reasons. First, Hamas is deterred. They know it is not good for them to start another conflict now. Second, the Egyptian mediation has been succeeding in its mission. They know how to pressure Hamas. The dialogue must continue to maintain the calm.

“We need to find a way to get money to Gaza for the families who need it,” and to try exploring other ideas to improve Gaza’s economic situation in order to discourage new rounds of conflict.

Halevy said that the Bennett government’s better style has also paid off “with the Palestinians.

“There is a division of labor in the government. You have a defense minister [Gantz] who also deals with foreign policy issues which also have a direct defense aspect. When you see the defense minister has invited the Palestinian Authority president, this resulted in a different atmosphere of relations with the Palestinians. It enables the cabinet to act in two different ways.”

First, this tactic serves “the needs and requirements of the public in Israel to see the Palestinians still as a foe. On the other hand, to have a different style in talking to the Palestinian Authority.... This enables within the cabinet different people to say different things.... This is sometimes effective and sometimes serves the interests of Israel and of the unique coalition that has been put together.

“How far this will take us is too early to say,” he remarked, when asked about longer-term predictions.

ADDRESSING THE handling of Mossad issues under Bennett as well as the first six months of Mossad Director David Barnea, Yatom was first asked about Bennett’s controversial decision to reveal an operation to learn more about the fate of decades-long lost Israeli pilot Ron Arad.

Yatom said, “He didn’t need to speak about this. Quiet is better.”

Along the same lines, he said, “The performance by Netanyahu at the big press conference [in 2018] was memorable, but was not worth it. The archives that the Mossad got from Iran” were good, but the press conference and other instances of taking credit for operations against Iran have been “unnecessarily harmful.”

“You don’t want to help the other side to react. When you say it’s us, the other side has no plausible deniability. He cannot act as if Israel didn’t do it, because it [Israel] took credit. This obligates him to respond. The harm is greater than the utility. We don’t need to be braggarts,” he said.

Regarding Barnea and Mossad operations disclosed during the most recent former chief, Yossi Cohen, Yatom said, “I don’t want to speak about my counterpart. The Mossad is a clandestine organization. Its operations are not publicized unless there is an error. It is forbidden to bring the Mossad to be more open to the media and to have media coverage and issue press releases. This harms the Mossad’s ability to act clandestinely.”

Barnea is “an excellent leader and definitely doing well,” he added.

However, regarding Barnea’s Hanukkah speech in which he warned Iran and rejected a US return to the JCPOA Iran deal, Yatom said, “I was there when he said it.... These declarations do not help and can even cause harm. I didn’t speak to Dadi [Barnea] about this, but I assume anyone who needs to see will see, and anyone who needs to read will read.”

Regarding Bennett’s disclosures about Arad and Barnea’s Hanukkah speech, Halevy said, “I have no comment on that. And I do not comment on that either,” saying others, especially an undefined person, had commented too much already on Mossad issues.

Asked about Barnea’s first six months as compared to Cohen, he said, “No, I don’t want to assess it. I think he is a good man and a good choice to head the organization. I am sure he is doing a good job. I don’t want to compare him to anyone. He stands on his own. Comparisons are odious.”

Neither the Prime Minister’s Office nor the Mossad responded to the interviews.