Remarks by Former Official Fuel Israeli Discord on Iran
JERUSALEM — The recently retired chief of Israel’s internal security agency accused the government of “misleading the public” about the likely effectiveness of an aerial strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, ratcheting up the criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak from the country’s security establishment.
Yuval Diskin, who retired last year as the director of Shin Bet, the Israeli equivalent of the F.B.I., said at a public forum on Friday night that he had “no faith” in the ability of the current leadership to handle the Iranian nuclear threat.
“I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings,” he told a gathering in Kfar Saba, a central Israeli city of 80,000. “I have observed them from up close,” he added, broadening his critique to include the handling of the Palestinian conflict as well. “I fear very much that these are not the people I’d want at the wheel.”
Analysts here say there has long been a rift between the elected leaders and the defense and intelligence professionals over the urgency of the Iran threat, the efficacy of an independent Israeli strike and its likely repercussions. But while the substance of Mr. Diskin’s case echoed that made in recent months by Meir Dagan, the former chief of the Mossad spy agency, the tone was far more blunt, biting and personal.
Coming on the heels of interviews in which the current head of the Israeli Defense Force, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, appeared to put some distance between himself and his superiors about the effectiveness of sanctions and the rationality of the Iranian government, Mr. Diskin’s remarks triggered a response equally harsh and personal from Mr. Netanyahu’s allies. The swift response appeared to be a sign that the growing volume of an internal debate that has been simmering for months was causing concern.
Officials from the minister of transportation to the one in charge of sports — though, notably, not key members of the security cabinet — decried Mr. Diskin’s comments and questioned his motives, with some saying he was upset not to have been tapped to replace Mr. Dagan at Mossad.
“The brusque and reckless statements made by Diskin attest mainly to the man himself,” said Shalom Simhon, minister of industry, labor and trade.
“His attack on the prime minister is liable to damage the State of Israel among people wishing it ill in the international arena,” added Limor Livnat, minister of culture and sports.
The timing of the critiques of the policy on Iran was largely coincidental: Mr. Gantz spoke during the chief of staff’s traditional Independence Day round of interviews, and Mr. Diskin, having promised to stay silent for a year after his retirement, spoke as the anniversary approached.
But they came as diplomatic and economic pressures on Iran are intensifying, and some analysts said they could feed into increasing doubts among the Israeli public about the advisability of an independent strike on Iran.
Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at Hebrew University and former director general of the Foreign Ministry, said, “This is bringing the latent disagreement, which has been there for months, into the open, and it gives steam to the public debate.”
“This all fits into the fact that there is now a serious diplomatic effort to stop the Iranians, and obviously things are moving,” he said. “Four or five months ago, an Israeli leadership could say, look, nobody’s doing anything. You can’t say that anymore.”
At the same time, there is a growing sense that Israeli elections will be called this fall rather than next year. And while Mr. Netanyahu’s popularity remains all but impenetrable, coalition politics means a robust campaign filled with charged language nonetheless.
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli who runs the blog Middle East Analyst, said criticism of Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak’s approach was growing because they were “ignoring or downplaying” their own achievements in terms of winning support from the Obama administration and the international community, and instead “obsessing with the military option.”
“Netanyahu and Barak are becoming more isolated,” Mr. Javedanfar wrote in an e-mail interview. “The avalanche of public criticism of their Iran narrative is getting bigger and gathering more momentum.”
Though the Iranian government insists that its nuclear intentions are for civilian purposes, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak have made it clear for months that they believe urgent action is needed to stop it from building a nuclear bomb. The two men are widely considered to be the key, if not lone, decision makers on the issue, but on Saturday, even as Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom expressed “faith in Barak and Netanyahu that they are handling the matter in an appropriate manner,” he made sure to reassure the public that “decisions are made by a broader forum.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a crucial member of Mr. Netanhyahu’s coalition, joined the chorus of criticism of Mr. Diskin, saying that if he did not trust the leadership, he should have quit, and that on the matter of Iran, “all the chattering needs to stop.” But Mr. Lieberman also told Channel Two that his Yisrael Beiteinu party’s “commitment to the coalition” is over, and that a decision about elections should be made within weeks.
Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the leading Israeli daily Yediot Aharanot, said he did not believe that the attacks would do significant damage to Mr. Netanyahu politically, “but he sweats.”
“I don’t underestimate the importance of it,” Mr. Barnea said. “It is exported right away to every prime minister in the world. The Iranians read it. The Americans read it.”
Many here saw Mr. Diskin’s comments on the government’s dealings with the Palestinians, which was in his direct purview, as even more significant than those on Iran. While Mr. Netanyahu has insisted that the peace process is stalled because he does not have a willing partner, Mr. Diskin declared: “This government has no interest in talking with the Palestinians, period. It certainly has no interest in resolving anything with the Palestinians, period.”
Ronen Bergman, the Israeli author of the 2008 book “The Secret War With Iran,” said that Mr. Diskin’s words carried weight because he left the government in good standing with Mr. Netanyahu — unlike Mr. Dagan, who was forced out — and because he was widely respected “for being professional and honest and completely disconnected from politics.”
Yossi Shain, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University, said he had “no doubt it erodes Netanyahu and Barak’s standing,” but noted that “it’s always a question of alternatives” and that “the center is too fragmented at this stage” to pose any real threat.