Former Shin Bet chief thinks Israel may see another political murder

Former Shin Bet chief Carmi Gillon warns against Ben-Gvir and Smotrich and explains his stance on the protests against the current government.

President Isaac Herzog delivers a speech at the memorial ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin, October 18, 2021. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
President Isaac Herzog delivers a speech at the memorial ceremony for Yitzhak Rabin, October 18, 2021.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

It was the end of 1978, on the eve of Khomeini's revolution in Iran. Crowds were marching along Pahlavi Boulevard in the heart of Tehran, and beat themselves to the point of bleeding in an Ashura procession. They stormed the El Al office in the Iranian capital while shouting threats, causing the Israelis there to flee for their lives.

"We saw death before our eyes when the traditional Ashura procession turned into a demonstration of rage against the Shah's regime," Carmi Gillon, 73, remembers. He later served as the eighth head of the Shin Bet during Rabin's assassination but then, in 1978, he was the young security officer of the Israeli delegation in Tehran.

"When they smashed the reinforced glass of the office, it looked like a herd of maddened elephants charging at us. We, the security guards at the place, were terrified to death and realized that there was no point in protecting the property that was there and it was better to go up to the roof and run away."

At the publication at the Kinneret Zamora publishing house of his fifth book, Double Loyalty, which he wrote with thriller writer Yosef Shavit, Gillon looked back 45 years.

"Since the biblical story of the 12 spies, who were sent to scout the land, there have been spies in the world. The question is what 'goods' they bring," says Gillon, as our conversation unfolds against the background of the final sounds of Operation Shield and Arrow.

Former head of the Shabak Carmi Gillon from the protest tent against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on August 20, 2020. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Former head of the Shabak Carmi Gillon from the protest tent against Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on August 20, 2020. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

What should we learn from Shield and Arrow?

"That Hamas won. We hit the Islamic Jihad hard, but without taking anything away from the targeted killings during the operation, this is still an enemy that can be eliminated in an instant. This isn't true for Hamas, who allowed us to carry out the latest operation while promising not to join in. Israel now basically accepted, not for the first time, that Hamas de facto is sovereign in the Gaza Strip, which of course comes at the expense of the Palestinian Authority.

"Israel can say that it doesn't negotiate with Hamas all day long, but it's a fact that with the signing of a ceasefire with the Islamic Jihad, we opened the crossings like Hamas demanded and allowed the entry of goods into the Strip and the departure of Gazan workers to Israel."

In a sharp transition - should the demonstrations against the judicial reform continue in the current situation?

"Of course they should, and I am active around the edges of the protest movement. I made it a goal for myself to go to places where there are political disagreements and try to convince them, even if they boo me."

It seems you all fell in love with demonstrations.

"We didn't. There is a concrete threat against Israel's liberal democracy. Without the protest movement, the hi-tech people, the pilots, the doctors, finance people and all the rest would not have risen against this threat."

In your opinion, is the right-wing government a catastrophe for Israel?

"Absolutely, yes. In the current government, two messianic parties are dominant, and they want to create a halachic state together with the Haredi parties. This government behaves with a kind of 'me and nothing else' tyranny, creating a rebellion that has never been seen before. This brings about a terrible rift in the people, which wasn't like that at the beginning of the state when they were looking to unify, not divide.

"Netanyahu's political dependence on them is absolute, without them, he has no government. And not only them. He brought into the Likud Knesset faction people who wouldn't have set foot there under Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, who was an ideological rightist and gave up on a right-wing government and preferred unity just to not put [Meir] Kahana into the government.

"In contrast to Shamir, Bibi [Netanyahu] established a fascist-messianic-racist government and through it crushes Israeli society, out of concern for his personal affairs. Bibi sees only Bibi, as a person who says that he deserves everything. 'I volunteered to be prime minister, now do what I want and thank me.'"

In your book Cruel Messiah you and Yosef Shavit discussed the rise of Ben-Gvir.

"Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. We just didn't imagine how captive he [Netanyahu] would be in their hands. In the follow-up book, Cruel Secret, in the opening, we describe the State of Israel as a state of Halacha, which according to what is happening now is a scenario that is gradually being realized before our eyes. The two, and other ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox politicians, are the Jewish Jihad."

You called Ben-Gvir a pyromaniac.

"Of course! Ben-Gvir is a distinct product of the Kach movement, which did not shrink from any means to achieve its goals, including the expulsion of all Arabs from the State of Israel. Ben-Gvir is a fanatical racist and homophobe who does not respect others in any way.

When he returned from a security mission in Paris in 1982, Gillon was placed in charge of a small unit that dealt with attacks against West Bank mayors and formed the basis of the Jewish department of the Shin Bet.

"The peak was in February '83, with the capture of Yona Avroshemi, who killed Emil Greenzweig with a grenade he threw at him at a Peace Now protest," Gillon pointed out. "For me, it was a defining moment. The prime minister, Menachem Begin, demanded to capture the murderer at any cost. 'This incident could lead to the destruction of Israel," Begin warned, and I trembled at his words."

Is such an underground possible even now?

"Now, there is no need for such an underground, because they came to power. After all, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are the children, or grandchildren, of members of the Jewish underground. In my opinion, this underground won, what's more, it established facts on the ground through the settlements."

Could another political assassination occur?

"For sure! It will happen. When, where and who will carry it out, it's impossible to know. But in a society as divided as ours and when there is politicization in every matter and issue, it can happen again."

Are you afraid that a civil war will break out here?

"I do not know. It is true that such a possibility exists unless the politicians come to their senses when they'll realize that what is happening now may make our lives unbearable."

Are you worried about the future of the country?

"Definitely yes, unless there is a leadership that will understand that we are on the edge of the abyss. I am less anxious about the external threat, which at the end of the day is handled by professionals, and more about the internal threat, when the political rift becomes a social rift."