Netanyahu's Bad Weekend

Israel's governing coalition -- until recently rock-solid -- is under assault. The country's political landscape could be about to change dramatically.

netanyahu april30 p.jpg
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Reuters

Over the past few months, the conventional wisdom about Israeli politics was that current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads one of the most stable governments in Israel's history, and that even if he managed to be the first prime minister to serve out a full term since 1988 and cruise to a scheduled elections in 2013, he would easily win another term.

What a difference a weekend makes. The storm began on Friday, when Yuval Diskin, who just retired as head of the Israeli Shin Bet security service, launched a much-publicized diatribe against Netanyahu, saying, "I have no trust in the current Israeli leadership." Decrying the "messianic leadership" of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, he criticized them for "present[ing] the public with a mirage" regarding the choices for dealing with Iranian nuclearization. Diskin's comments, particularly newsworthy coming from someone with unimpeachable security credentials, and who worked directly with Netanyahu for three years, hit the prime minister in his supposed strong spot -- his hawkish handling of Iran.

Diskin's critique is part of a growing chorus of recently departed security chiefs who worked under Netanyahu and are slamming the prime minister with unusual directness. "An aerial attack against Iran's nuclear reactors would be foolish," declared the most recent Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, in his first public comments since leaving office. "Anyone attacking Iran needs to understand that it could start a regional war which will include missile fire from Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon."

Gabi Ashkenazi, the most recent head of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), made more subtle comments about his preference for sanctions over an attack on Iran as the best way to address the nuclear issue -- seen by many as a quiet rebuke to his former boss, about whom Ashkenazi is much more vocal behind closed doors, according to many sourced. Ashkenazi and Dagan both came out in support of Diskin over the weekend. Dagan also referred to Diskin and Ashkenazi as his partners in "stop[ping] Bibi and Barak" from setting out on "any dangerous adventure."

Perhaps the most significant comment came from current IDF chief Benny Gantz, who told Israeli newspaper Haaretz last week, "Clearly, the more the Iranians progress the worse the situation is. This is a critical year, but not necessarily 'go, no-go.'" His comments are a stark contrast to Netanyahu's timeline. He also told Haaretz that international diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran is beginning to bear fruit, that he didn't think Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would develop a nuclear weapon, and and that the Iranian leadership is "very rational" -- all claims that are in direct conflict with Netanyahu's line on these issues.

The convergence of these comments is a serious threat to Netanyahu. As David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, opined:

When one of your trio of ex-security chiefs goes public to undermine your declared assessments and strategies regarding Iran, you might reasonably challenge the credibility of his argument by claiming that he carries some kind of personal grudge against you, or is about to enter the political battlefield in a party other than yours.

When two of them do it, your questioning of their motives starts to look a little more wobbly. When all three weigh in, with varying degrees of stridency, it is the credibility of your positions, not theirs, that can start to become the issue.

The upheaval caused by these comments was on full display at the Jerusalem Post conference I attended in New York yesterday, where Dagan and Ashkenazi shared the stage with former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Likud minister Gilad Erdan. A tense verbal battle erupted when Dagan defended Diskin as "a very serious man, a very talented man, he has a lot of experience in countering terrorism." Erdan yelled, "If Diskin thinks things are so dangerous, he should not have stayed in his post for five years and agree to a sixth year." Dagan jumped out of his chair and exclaimed, "I may be impolite, but I prefer the truth be told." Erdan countered that he would prefer if "Mossad chiefs do not sabotage Netanyahu's efforts to garner the world's support against Iran."

Olmert defended Dagan and Diskin by saying that they have "contributed much more to the safety of Israel than those who are criticizing them." He ended the battle on a sober note, staying, "These people are not necessarily enemies of Israel. And we have to ask -- what has happened that all the leaders of Israel's security services suddenly think in the same way? Until they expressed their opinion in public they were brave and admired fighters -- and suddenly they are enemies of Israel, suddenly they don't care about Israel's security?" Clearly their criticisms have struck a chord.

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Zvika Krieger is a former editor and writer at The New Republic and a former correspondent for Newsweek based in Egypt and Lebanon, covering most of the Arab world. More

Krieger has received fellowships to study topics including the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the Kifaya reform movement in Egypt, public health in Bombay slums, religious identity in Kashmir, historical memory in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, and the role of religion in Lebanese politics. He has also reported from such places as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Libya, North Ireland, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Korea. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Slate, New York, Arab Reform Bulletin, New Stateman, Chronicle of Higher Education, Daily Star (Lebanon), Cairo Magazine, Jerusalem Post, Christian Science Monitor, and various other publications, and he has appeared as a Middle East analyst on NBC News, CNN, Fox News, and Air America. His writings have earned him awards from the Overseas Press Club, the Scripps Howard Foundation, and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. He is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He has a bachelor's degree in Middle East Studies from Yale University and studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo.

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