Israel’s prime minister is fighting hard to weaken the most important moderate force in his country. Which is why he’s going to be a big problem for the next U.S. president.
The prime minister, however, was already working on fixing that problem, even before the elections. In 2011, when the three combative security chiefs left their posts, Netanyahu was determined to replace them with people he would find easier to work with: less independent, less charismatic, and if possible, closer to his worldview.
In the Shin Bet, Netanyahu ignored Diskin's recommendation to promote his own deputy, and instead appointed Yoram Cohen, the first chief in the history of the agency to come from Israel’s national-religious sector, which is mostly right wing and supportive of Netanyahu’s policies. Cohen, who recently completed his term, was indeed much better for Netanyahu than his predecessor, but even under his leadership, disagreements between the prime minister and the agency surfaced from time to time. On a number of occasions, Cohen publicly contradicted Netanyahu's statements against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, saying that contrary to the prime minister's portrayal of Abbas as a terror supporter, the Palestinian president was in fact opposed to violence and committed to security cooperation with Israel.
In the Mossad, Netanyahu appointed Tamir Pardo, a man who was, on paper, the complete antithesis of Dagan and as a Netanyahu family friend someone the prime minister thought he could depend on as an ally. But during the years 2011 and 2012, Pardo made clear in Israel's most secretive security forums that he thought an Israeli strike on Iran would be a mistake. "He basically inherited Dagan's position," says one former Israeli official who participated in dozens of discussions on Iran together with Pardo. Pardo advocated for a tough line of action against Iran, involving covert operations and economic pressures. But when it came to Netanyahu's desire to send Israeli warplanes to Iran, he was very skeptical—and so was the new IDF chief of staff, Lt. General Benny Gantz, who told Netanyahu that if he gets an order to attack Iran, he will fulfill it, but not before officially telling the government that it was a dangerous mistake.
Thanks to their opposition, the year 2012 went by without a strike on Iran. In June 2013, the prospects of a strike all but vanished after Hassan Rouhani won the presidential elections in the Islamic Republic. The White House greeted the results by expressing hope that under Rouhani's supposedly moderate leadership, a nuclear deal could be reached. Netanyahu's reaction offered a clear contrast: "Nothing changed in Iran last night," the prime minister announced. He insisted that Iran was still intent on building a nuclear bomb and then wiping Israel off the map.
The Israeli security establishment didn't share the American administration's full-throated optimism, but it also didn't accept Netanyahu's “all is dark” analysis. The commander of the military's Intelligence Corps, Major General Aviv Kochavi, sent the prime minister a special assessment (approved by Gantz) claiming that Rouhani's rise to power signaled “a major strategic shift” in Iranian politics. The Mossad also considered the election results a major turning point for Iran, which was still a dangerous enemy to Israel, but not necessarily one headed for the possession of nuclear weapons in the near future.
Perhaps it was this reading of events that led Pardo, in the summer of 2014, to spurn Netanyahu once again, by saying that “the greatest risk to Israel's national security isn't Iran—it’s the conflict with the Palestinians.” This one sentence, uttered at a briefing Pardo gave to senior Israeli business executives and leaked to Ha'aretz newspaper, contradicted everything Netanyahu had been saying for almost two decades: that Iran is Israel's greatest challenge, and that the Palestinian issue was being over-hyped because of the media's “childish obsession,” as Netanyahu's confidant Ron Dermer once said.
Pardo's comment was bad for the prime minister not only because of its content, but also because it so closely echoed a statement made a few months earlier by Diskin. Speaking at a pro-peace rally in Tel Aviv, the former Shin Bet chief declared that "the implications of not finding a solution to our conflict with the Palestinians are much more dangerous than Iran." When his words hit the headlines, Netanyahu's office quickly shot back, stating that "anyone who believes the Palestinian issue is more dangerous than Iran is clearly delusional.”
Netanyahu personally approved the nasty reaction; now, when Pardo repeated Diskin's position, it came back to haunt him. “Does the prime minister think Pardo is also delusional?” journalists were quick to ask. Trying to save face, Netanyahu's office forced Pardo to issue a clarification.
It wasn't the last time such a dictation would be necessary: Half a year later, in January 2015, Pardo met with a group of American senators visiting Israel, and surprised them by warning about the dangers of approving new sanctions legislation against Iran. The very same legislation was enjoying the active support of Dermer—Israel's ambassador to Washington—yet here was the head of Mossad, telling lawmakers it was akin to “throwing a hand grenade” into the nuclear negotiations, all but ensuring a new war in the Middle East.
Unlike some commentators in Israel who assumed Pardo's words came out as a result of unintended sloppiness, Netanyahu suspected that the Mossad chief knew exactly what he was doing (Time magazine reported that he had tried to block Pardo from meeting the group). And the timing couldn't have been worse: Pardo's words were leaked less than 24 hours after it was announced that Netanyahu had been invited by the Republican leadership to speak before Congress against the impending nuclear deal.
The security establishment almost unanimously believed Netanyahu’s speech before Congress was a mistake. But while the current security chiefs could only express their opposition to it behind closed doors, their retired predecessors were free to speak about it publicly, and quite harshly. "Bibi, I taught you how to navigate," said Major General (res.) Amiram Levin, who was Netanyahu's commander during his mandatory military service in an elite commando unit in the 1970s. "It seems like you've lost your compass. Our enemy is Iran, not the United States.”
A few months later, as the prime minister was desperately fighting to stop Obama from reaching a veto-proof majority for the Iran deal in Congress, dozens of former Israeli generals and spymasters spoke out against his decision to go head-to-head against the U.S. president. A smaller group of former security chiefs, including one former head of Israel's Nuclear Energy Commission, even made their way to Washington to brief members of Congress in support of the deal.
The Obama administration used the former generals’ statements to sell the deal to skeptical lawmakers. Major General (ret.) Ya'akov Amidror, Netanyahu's former national security adviser and one of the few former generals who have consistently backed the prime minister, says this had an important effect on the final outcome in Congress: "The average congressman, especially a Democrat, wants to side with Israel, but siding with Israel is very different than siding with Likud", he explains. "The fact that these former security officials contradicted the prime minister helped present this as a controversial issue not just in America, but also in Israel.”
Watching from the sidelines, Pardo and the new military chief of staff, Lt. General Gadi Eizenkot (who replaced Gantz in early 2015), carefully stayed out of harm’s way. They didn't join the former security chiefs in supporting the deal, but also didn't join Netanyahu's public fight against it.
Netanyahu's loss on the Iran deal marked a low point in his career. And yet, his future biographers will most likely describe the year 2015 as one of great success for the prime minister, mainly for his impressive victory in the elections that were held in Israel on March 17 of that year.
Beating his main competitor in those elections, Isaac Herzog, a lawyer-turned-politician with zero security credentials, wasn’t hard for Netanyahu to do. Still, in many ways, his real fight wasn't against Herzog—but instead, against his old rivals, the veterans of the security establishment.
The first shot was fired by Meir Dagan, who despite his deteriorating health, appeared at an event commemorating his old friend, Sharon, two months before Election Day, and lashed out at Netanyahu. “His policies are leading Israel towards becoming a bi-national state. It's a disaster,” Dagan warned. Next came Diskin, who threw his support behind Herzog. In a post he published on his Facebook page, the former Shin Bet chief—who had refused requests by hundreds of citizens, and also by Dagan, to enter politics himself—explained that “no one can be worse than Netanyahu. He represents six years of constant failures."
Four days before Election Day, Netanyahu received the hardest blow, when dozens of former generals, Mossad and Shin Bet officers, and even senior veterans of the police, published a joint appeal to the public to throw him out of office. The unprecedented onslaught was led by Major General (res.) Amnon Reshef, famous in Israel for his crucial role in pushing back the Egyptian Army in the 1973 war. “Israel deserves a better leadership,” he announced at a news conference in Tel Aviv, warning that Netanyahu's behavior toward President Obama was a threat to Israel's strategic alliance with the United States.
And yet, facing the strongest resistance any Israeli prime minister had ever encountered from the country's powerful security establishment, Netanyahu managed to prevail. Likud beat Labor by six Knesset seats, Netanyahu won another term, and for the first time in his career, he had clearly overcome his former uniform-wearing rivals.
His decision to appoint Lieberman as defense minister in May, a year and two months after the elections, was a second straight victory. And the long-term demographic trends in Israel as a whole, and in the military in particular, are also working in his benefit, as the national-religious sector in Israel, known for its overwhelming support of Netanyahu's right-wing policies, is slowly becoming more prominent inside the midlevel ranks of the IDF.
Isaac Herzog’s disappointing loss in the last elections has convinced many Israelis in the center-left bloc that only a glorified war hero—someone like Barak in 1999, or Sharon in 2002—can beat Netanyahu. There isn't a lack of candidates for the job. Perhaps it will be Ya'alon, the disgruntled former defense minister, who for the past decade was one of the very few former generals to publicly support Netanyahu, but now has joined the ranks of the prime minister's enemies. Or maybe it will be Ashkenazi, who has finally put the legal ordeals behind him, and still enjoys great popularity. Gantz, who will have to wait until 2018 before entering politics, and Diskin, who has gone quiet for the past few months, are also considered strong potential candidates.
In the past eight years, as Netanyahu endlessly fought with President Obama, the U.S. administration managed to maintain excellent ties with Israel's security system, despite the political tensions. Israel's top-rated investigative television program, "Uvda," even revealed recently that Meir Dagan for years had a direct communication channel with Obama's first-term CIA director, Leon Panetta, over the head of Netanyahu. Such a scenario seems very unlikely to repeat itself in the future. The inconvenient truth is that unless one of these former generals beats Netanyahu in the next elections, the next U.S. administration will have to get used to a new reality in the Jewish state: one in which the most right-wing elements in the political system are gaining more and more power and influence at the expense of the "old guard" of Israel's security establishment.
What will be the policy implications of these developments?
On the Iranian front, Netanyahu's options are very limited at the moment. The security chiefs currently in office, such as IDF chief of staff Eizenkot, have made it clear that they believe the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic has decreased the level of threat to Israel in the near future. Netanyahu probably won't be able to carry out a strike against the professional advice of his own military leaders, especially after their objections have become public. If, however, the nuclear deal looks shaky a year from today, an Israeli strike could definitely be once again put on the table—and it's not clear at all if this time there will be someone strong enough in Israel to block it.
When it comes to the Palestinians, things are even more complicated. Despite his hawkish opinions, Moshe Ya'alon routinely accepted the advice of the IDF senior command to do as much as possible to distinguish between Palestinian terrorists and the general Palestinian population—or, in the words of one senior general still in service, "to convince the average Palestinian that he doesn’t have to become a terrorist."
Lieberman, however, has advocated in the past for collective punishments, and started his term in the defense ministry by vowing to take down Hamas' rule in Gaza the next time a conflict erupts on Israel's southern border. Peace negotiations don't seem like an even remote option at the moment. This new reality creates a daunting challenge for Israel's security chiefs. A few months from now, it will probably create a similar headache for the next U.S. administration.