A spy-vs.-spy flap has become the talk of Israel, thrusting two normally secretive security institutions into an unwelcome and unflattering public spotlight.
Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, known as the Shin Bet, has been trading barbs with the military over whether faulty army intelligence left Israel unprepared for war with the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The spat went high-profile this week when Israel’s Channel 2 aired a report featuring Shin Bet officials – rendered in pixilated, shadowed form – claiming the military had brushed aside the agency’s assessment, months before fighting erupted in July, that an armed conflict with Hamas was in the making.
The army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, fired back with a furious letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose office oversees the Shin Bet, accusing the agency of not only behaving in a self-serving manner but making dangerous disclosures about intelligence-gathering methods.
“I firmly assert the Shin Bet did not issue a warning that Hamas intended to launch a war in July,” Gantz wrote in the letter, which was swiftly leaked to the Israeli media.
Netanyahu summoned Gantz and Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen on Wednesday and ordered a halt to public chatter about the normally discreet machinations of the intelligence branches.
The Shin Bet was forced to back down, issuing a rare statement clarifying that while it had warned as early as January of this year that Hamas was engaged in training for possible conflict and was preparing a large-scale attack, it did not explicitly predict the war.
The public sniping, while prime fodder for gossip in a country where everyone seems to know everyone’s business, tapped into genuine anxiety over the security establishment’s ability to assess Hamas’ capabilities and planning.
Even before the August truce that followed 50 days of fighting in Gaza, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira had called an investigation into why more had not been done to counter cross-border “attack” tunnels dug from Gaza into Israel, together with an elaborate underground network inside the coastal strip that was used for storing and transporting weaponry and as a safe haven for Hamas fighters. Israel remains jittery at the prospect of a new outbreak of hostilities in Gaza.
Being caught unprepared for conflict has traumatic historical associations for many Israelis. The 1973 surprise attacks by the Egyptian and Syrian armies on Yom Kippur, Judaism’s most solemn holiday, had near-disastrous consequences for Israel, whose forces rallied after initial heavy losses.
In the current flap, the general media consensus seemed to be that neither the Shin Bet nor army intelligence did itself any favors. Columnist Yoav Limor, while faulting the Shin Bet for a “childish” attempt to burnish its own image, wrote in Israel Today that both sides were guilty of disservice to their profession.
Secrecy about intelligence matters is taken very seriously in Israel. The identities of the directors of Shin Bet and its more glamorous cousin, the storied Mossad international intelligence agency, were allowed to be made public only in 1996. The identities of other officials in both agencies remain obscured, as are those of air force pilots on active duty.
Columnist Nahum Barnea, writing in the Yediot Aharonot daily, observed sardonically that making public the inner workings of the Shin Bet could hardly be construed as an image-builder. He quoted Israeli Arab parliamentarian Ahmed Tibi as once quipping about the agency: “The moment the Arabs learn who they’re dealing with, they will stop being scared.”
Sobelman is a special correspondent.
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