Israeli Politics Blows Up, Part 1

April 30, 2012 § 4 Comments

Lots of big news happened over the weekend with far-reaching consequences, so let’s start with Friday’s Yuval Diskin speech. Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, slammed Netanyahu and Barak – and did so in a particularly insulting manner tinged with class-based resentment by referring to them as the “messiahs from Akirov [the expensive high end apartment building in Tel Aviv where Barak resides] and Caesaerea” – as being unfit to lead the government and for presenting Israelis with a false choice on Iran. Diskin said that he does not trust either of them, and that they are wrong to declare that striking Iran will set back its nuclear program when in fact it might accelerate it. He also warned about right wing extremists on both sides of the Green Line and said that something like the Rabin assassination could easily happen again, and charged Netanyahu with not wanting to conduct peace talks with the Palestinians because it would break apart his coalition. Diskin’s broadside launched a round of recriminations, with the pro-Bibi camp charging Diskin of petty score-settling¬†over the fact that he was not appointed head of the Mossad following his time as head of the Shin Bet, and ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan – himself a strident critic of Netanyahu and Barak over the Iran issue – and ex-IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi both publicly supporting Diskin.

Let’s sort this all out. What precisely is going on here? To begin with, there is no doubt that personality issues are part of this very public feud. Diskin’s strikingly sneering personal tone is unusual for a critique solely based on the merits, and he is clearly still upset about not getting the Mossad job. It is also well known that the trio of Diskin, Dagan, and Askenazi were all pushed aside and replaced by Netanyahu partially to clear the way for a strike on Iran since all three of them were opposed to such a move, and this is coming back to haunt Bibi as they are now getting their revenge. That does not mean, however, that they are wrong, although Diskin is the least qualified to register such a strong objection given that his portfolio had him dealing mainly with Palestinian issues and not with Iran.

It’s tough to say why Diskin decided to speak up now and do it so harshly, but it definitely fuels speculation that he wants to enter politics and that this was his opening salvo. I also wonder, given his area of expertise and the fact that he was critical on a host of topics, if he meant for the Iran issue to be front and center or if he instead expected his criticisms of Netanyahu’s stance toward the Palestinians to be the headline in the weekend papers. Diskin holding forth on Iran is unusual because it would be analogous to the FBI director attacking the White House over drone policy in Pakistan – he certainly knows more about it than most people, but it falls far outside his portfolio. More appropriately, Diskin went after Bibi pretty hard on the Palestinian front, essentially accusing him of negotiating in bad faith and insisting that Netanyahu rather than Abbas was the person responsible for the lack of progress due to his having no interest in altering the existing status quo. Diskin also stressed his bona fides on the topic by pointing out that he knows what is going on from being up close to the Palestinian issue and dealing with it personally, and that the West Bank is primed to explode in frustration over the lack of progress toward a Palestinian state. The news has a way of spiraling out of people’s control, and I’ll bet that Diskin did not necessarily expect his Iran comments to be the ones dominating the airwaves.

It is also interesting to see who spoke up in defense of Netanyahu and Barak and who did not. Likud ministers went after Diskin, including Yuval Steinitz (Finance), Limor Livnat (Culture and Sport), and Yisrael Katz (Transportation), but there were some mixed signals from people who actually matter when it comes to Iran. Avigdor Lieberman criticized Diskin for serving out his full Shin Bet term if he had such major issues with Netanyahu and Barak, but in the same sentence praised Diskin as an excellent Shin Bet head and stressed that the entire security cabinet and not just Bibi and Barak would be making decisions on Iran. Silvan Shalom, who is the vice PM, also praised Diskin’s tenure at the Shin Bet and stressed that the decision to strike Iran is not Netanyahu and Barak’s alone to make. Most importantly (and ominously for Netanyahu), the silence from Moshe Yaalon, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, and Eli Yishai was deafening. These four, as faithful readers of this blog may recall, are the members of the Shminiya believed to be opposed to attacking Iran, and they did not come out swinging in Netanyahu or Barak’s defense. Combined with the fact that current IDF head Benny Gantz is evidently bearish on the idea as well, and that Netanyahu is historically an extremely cautious political actor, it signals that Bibi is still fighting an uphill battle and confirms my longstanding belief that a strike is nowhere near imminent.

At the end of the day, no matter what Diskin’s motives or his credibility level, his speaking out is not a good development for Netanyahu and Barak’s freedom of action on Iran. Israel has great respect for its military, security, and intelligence leaders, many of whom later enter politics with great success, including current Cabinet members Barak and Yaalon and Kadima head Shaul Mofaz and Kadima MK Avi Dichter. The current and previous four IDF chiefs (Gantz, Ashkenazi, Dan Halutz, Yaalon, and Mofaz) are all on record as opposing a strike or are believed to oppose a strike at this point in time, and while Mofaz clearly has political reasons for being opposed given his status as opposition leader, the other four do not. All of this carries weight with Israelis, and it should carry weight with Netanyahu and Barak as well. This Yediot article¬†quotes a bunch of anonymous state and defense officials trashing Diskin, including one “senior minister who has a close relationship with Netanyahu” saying that Diskin fits into a legacy of “moronic Shin Bet chiefs,” but it cannot escape notice that not one of the people questioning Diskin’s intelligence or abilities was willing to go on record. The fact that the security and military officials who matter primarily appear to view attacking Iran right now as a bad idea is not a small problem that Netanyahu and Barak can wave away. In the grand scheme of things, Yuval Diskin’s opinion might not matter, but he stands as a proxy for a larger group of people whose opinion does.

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