My Word: Talking heads

For someone of Yuval Diskin’s stature and background it should be obvious that there are many problems that can be fixed, but silence – once broken – remains broken.

Yuval Diskin (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Yuval Diskin
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
For someone whose career was based on being able to keep a secret, Yuval Diskin is creating a lot of noise.
Diskin, who was head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) from 2005 to 2011, is now grabbing attention and headlines following the interview he gave to filmmaker Dror Moreh in last weekend’s Yediot Aharonot.
One of Diskin’s main allegations is that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak put their own personal and political interests before national security. In his opinion, Netanyahu is obsessed by Menachem Begin’s 1981 attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor and the desire to do something on an even grander scale in Iran. And, to ensure the public understands what he feels is their lack of seriousness combined with their pretentious nature, Diskin describes Netanyahu, Barak and then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman smoking cigars, drinking alcohol and being served gourmet meals by chefs during sensitive and important meetings on Iran.
“Since 1994, more or less, I have worked at different levels of proximity with the most senior political levels in Israel – prime ministers and defense ministers – and I’ve seen all sorts of leaders. I saw [Yitzhak] Rabin, [Shimon] Peres, Bibi [Netanyahu], [Ehud] Barak, [Ariel] Sharon and [Ehud] Olmert, and Bibi once more as prime minister with Barak as defense minister,” Diskin points out.
“When I look at this spectrum of leaders under whom I worked, I can say that there were leaders who I always felt that in the moment of truth, when the interests of the country stood in conflict with their personal interests, would place the national interest above all.”
Yediot has not bothered to hide its anti-Netanyahu line. But the choice of Moreh, rather than one of its own journalists, was not coincidental. Moreh’s well-acclaimed documentary The Gatekeepers is a Oscar nominee, noteworthy for the way the filmmaker manages to get the six surviving heads of the Shin Bet to talk, on camera.
The result is interesting not only for the security subject matter, but also for portraying the former service chiefs as very real human beings.
It’s tempting to dismiss the interview as a publicity stunt for the movie. It would be easy, too, to simply accept the rebuttal issued by the Prime Minister’s Office that Diskin was motivated by frustration at having been turned down for the position of Mossad chief.
If he was so disturbed by what he saw working as Shin Bet head under Netanyahu, officials close to the premier asked, why did he want to continue serving under him at the top of the country’s foreign intelligence agency? The second obvious question – why now? – is both easier and more difficult to answer. The fact that Diskin didn’t run to the press with his complaints while he was still on the job is actually a relief.
It’s hard to escape the impression, however, that the timing has something to do with the upcoming elections. When asked by Moreh, he says he does not know who he’ll be voting for – although it’s clear it won’t be Likud Beytenu led by Netanyahu.
“I am trying to tell the public – exercise the greatest possible care and consideration,” he says. Elections, he notes, shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Further on he adds: “I’m not against the sane Right or sane Left, but extremism of any type is a disaster.” Most rational people would agree with him.
Follow-up to the interview focused on Bibi and Barak having a good time as they decide matters of life and death. It was an almost irresistible image, particularly at a time of election campaigns. But among Diskin’s very real fears – and even more obvious personal digs – there were some telling statements that were not picked up on. For example, the former Shin Bet head professes “a measure of envy for the energy and passion of the young people in Cairo’s Tahrir Square....
“I think the time has come for us to have an ‘Israeli Spring,’ albeit via democratic and legal means, but with perseverance and willingness on the part of the public to sacrifice personal comfort to create a state with strength and real power, but which doesn’t live by the sword alone.”
As someone who served the country for 38 years, 34 of them in the Shin Bet, and who is clearly a thinking and intelligent person, Diskin should know to be more careful what he wishes for. What he interprets as general apathy, others see as a sign that life in Israel, while not perfect, is not as bad as life in any of the surrounding Mediterranean or Arab states. And while Egyptians might be driven to “sacrifice and fight” – Diskin’s words, not mine – for a revolution, the majority of Israeli youth serves in the army, and many volunteer each year for service in elite combat units, which does not exactly signal a lack of commitment. Sadly, Diskin knows as well as anyone that Israel can’t just give up on its defense and hope its neighbors don’t devour it. How to achieve peace has beaten many politicians and security chiefs before him.
As a cause of his despondency, Diskin cites a survey published in Haaretz according to which 37 percent of the Israeli public is considering leaving the country sometime in the future. I hope that when he served as Shin Bet head he had better sources of information than a newspaper renown for its left-wing slant. Among those I know planning to go abroad, the majority are people temporarily going to study and there are many more people – including the children of emigrants – who are planning to come and make their lives in Israel.
Having a strong opposition is healthy and being able to speak out and contradict commanding officers is something Israel prides itself on. I don’t doubt Diskin’s patriotism or his contribution to state security during his term in office, it’s what comes after that bothers me.
What Diskin revealed, above all, is what Yediot’s Yoaz Hendel has called “Retired General Syndrome.”
For Diskin is not alone, other former Shin Bet heads, Yaakov Peri and Ami Ayalon, have also had their say – before joining the world of politics. And the previous head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, spoke out after retiring.
Diskin, like the others before him, has the right – even the duty – to express his concerns, but there’s an appropriate time, place, and manner.
As Shin Bet head, Diskin did voice his fears. In 2008, he told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israeli deterrence had “suffered substantially” because of the disengagement from Gaza and the subsequent Hamas takeover, as well as the Second Lebanon War.
Which makes it all the stranger that he should suddenly be hit by something approaching nostalgia for the prime ministers on whose watch these events occurred.
It makes it seem likelier that his current desire to speak out is fueled by something more personal. As Moreh shows, security chiefs are people, too.
I am disturbed by Diskin’s assessments – there can’t be many people in this country who don’t think that mistakes have been made in recent years. I’m also very disquieted by the huge problems of trust and ego that have come to light in the so-called Harpaz Affair, especially the relationship between former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Barak, particularly as I can foresee a situation in which Barak seeks the Defense portfolio again in the future.
But I can’t help feeling that the fact that the country has somehow survived even without Diskin in the top spot is also a good sign. And I am assuming that Diskin, who does, after all, know a thing or two about the need for discretion, is equally aware of acts and decisions that he can’t publish but that do help ensure a future for us all.
For someone of Diskin’s stature and background it should be obvious that there are many problems that can be fixed, but silence – once broken – remains broken.
The writer is the editor of the International Jerusalem Post.