The Three Men Who Could Save Israel's Center-Left

Why Israel's next elections will be more important than this one


Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) hugs Meir Dagan on January 2, 2011 (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

In the lead-up to the 2009 Israeli elections, I mused to a high-ranking Israeli official that Israel seemed to be picking from the same pool of over-the-hill recycled politicians, and perhaps what they needed was a truly fresh face from outside the political or security class. "What Israel needs is a Barack Obama," I said. "It would never happen," he shot back to me. The stakes are too high in their part of the world, he argued. Israelis would never take a chance on a newcomer, only willing to trust someone with an established security record.

The surprising second-place finish of former newscaster Yair Lapid's centrist party is probably the closest Israel has come in recent years to an Obama-style newcomer. But it won't be enough to oust the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud-Beiteinu coalition received the most votes and will likely be asked to form the next government.

The center-left may get a rematch sooner rather than later: As Michael Koplow convincingly argued in The Atlantic yesterday, regardless of whether Netanyahu turns left or right to form his coalition, his government is unlikely to last very long. The problem is that the parties as they stand now have little chance of presenting a viable alternative to Netanyahu. Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich (the Labor party leader, also a former journalist) are not seen as realistic candidates to be prime minister; in this election, they largely coasted off of issues related to the 2011 economic protests in Israel, but had little, if anything, to say on broader issues of peace and security. "A TV anchor can't be prime minister; it just doesn't work in Israel," said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. "They have to sit in a cabinet meeting, hear what a general says."

The center and left are largely bereft of credible leaders on these issues. This explains the desperate buzz from many on the center-left surrounding former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's possible re-entry into politics, despite his severe mismanagement of the Lebanon war and an ongoing investigation into his alleged corruption. Their last hope, Tzipi Livni, massively underperformed in this week's contest. Lacking a leader with real gravitas and authority on these issues with proven leadership experience, the center-left may have hit its ceiling in this election.

But all that could change in the next election -- which could happen in the next year or two. By then, three of Israel's best-known security officials will likely be eligible to run for public office (after a legally mandated "cooling off" period of three years): Meir Dagan, Yuval Diskin, and Gabi Ashkenazi. All three, to different extents, have been public Netanyahu critics, and would likely join center or left-wing parties. Their presence on any ticket could finally provide the center-left with its Netanyahu alternative.

Dagan is the most recent head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, and its second longest-serving chief in Israel's history. He is no progressive; former Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon once said of him, "Dagan's specialty is separating an Arab from his head." Even Netanyahu lauded him at his retirement reception: "Some people have a knife between their teeth," he reportedly said. "Meir has a rocket-propelled grenade between his teeth." The lore of his exploits is so widespread that Israel's Channel 2 named him the country's "Man of the Year" in 2008.

But within Netanyahu's government, Dagan was one of the leading opponents of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran. Since leaving office, he has become of Netanyahu's most vocal critics -- and as described by The New Yorker's David Remnick, "arguably the most authoritative." In his first public comments since leaving office, he declared that "an aerial attack against Iran's nuclear reactors would be foolish," adding that "anyone attacking Iran needs to understand that it could start a regional war which will include missile fire from Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon." He has relentlessly continued to attack Netanyahu in interviews and public appearances.

Having retired in May 2010, Dagan is technically eligible to run later this year. He has not explicitly mentioned his intention to run for office, though he did hint to Remnick that "you always have to pay attention to your internal moral compass and ask the right questions." It is unlikely Dagan would join one of the left-wing parties -- as he himself told Remnick, "Don't be mistaken, I am not a liberal by point of view." But his role as Netanyahu's most prominent critic would make him a natural fit to lead or join one of the centrist parties or start his own. That said, his declining health ( he recently returned from a liver transplant in Belarus ) makes his political future uncertain.

Yuval Diskin, the recently retired head of the Israeli Shin Bet security service, has been even more blunt. He made quite a splash early last year soon after leaving office when he launched a much-publicized diatribe against Netanyahu, saying, "I have no trust in the current Israeli leadership." Diskin decried Netanyahu's "messianic leadership" and criticized him for "present[ing] the public with a mirage" regarding the choices over Iran. Diskin also slammed Netanyahu for lack of progress on the Palestinian front. "If we don't come to our senses soon, when [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas steps down in a year or two, we might be in a worse-off situation," he said.

Earlier this month, he gave a blockbuster interview to Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, continuing his highly personal assaults on Netanyahu. "When I look at Netanyahu, I don't see a shred of personal example as a leader in him," he said. "The personal, opportunistic, and current interests are the thing that take precedence over anything else." He dismissed Netanyahu's support for the two-state solution as "kalam fadi" ("empty words" in Arabic). "I never had the sense that Bibi truly intended to do it."

Similar to Dagan, Diskin describes himself as "a 'security hawk' based on the deep conviction that there is no place for weakness and weak people in the region in which we live." He has particular credibility on issues relating to Israel's security as the person in charge, as he recounts, of "the endless daily responsibilities, of dealing with threats, warnings, terror attacks and operations, managing affairs, commanding them, making sure that they happened and succeeded." His critiques of Netanyahu come from his own battle-hardened experience:

After all the years in which I fought against terror, and saw so much death in the battlefield, on the streets of Israel's cities, in the alleyways of the refugee camps and the villages in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Lebanon -- there is a moment in which you understand that we have to do everything, I mean everything possible, to find a different path, a path of dialogue and compromise, in order to try to ensure the chance of a better future for our children. And what I am saying does not come from a place of political right wing or left wing.

Diskin retired in May 2011, so would have to wait until next year to be eligible to run (though new elections are unlikely to happen before then). His critiques have been explicitly couched in political terms. "This is a leadership crisis, it is a crisis of value, it is total disregard for the public," he told Yediot. "As of this week I have two children in the army, and in a year I will probably have three children in the army simultaneously, so it's clear that I am very concerned. ... Today, when I see the current leadership, I am worried about what we'll leave for them."

Gabi Ashkenazi, the most recent head of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), has been subtler in his public critiques of Netanyahu. He has voiced 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 sources. Ashkenazi came out in support of Diskin when Diskin first began critiquing Netanyahu. Dagan also referred to Ashkenazi as his partner in "stop[ping] Bibi" from setting out on "any dangerous adventure."

Ashkenazi retired in February 2010, so could be eligible to run as early as next month. He is seen as the most even-keeled and leader-like of the three former security chiefs, but he also left office in a cloud of controversy, allegedly organizing a smear campaign against one of his potential successors. He has also been accused, along with his wife and aide, of spreading rumors about Defense Minister Ehud Barak, with whom he has had a famously rocky relationship. He spent a number of months after the army at the Brookings Institution in Washington, conveniently out of the limelight. The affair won't disqualify him from office, but it has certainly brought him down from his post-IDF pedestal.

There is no guarantee that Dagan, Diskin, and Ashkenazi will take the plunge into politics. It's also possible that Netanyahu could engineer the electoral calendar to prevent them from running, as happened to former IDF chief (and current head of the Kadima party) Shaul Mofaz when he left the army. And the center-left has fruitlessly pinned its hopes before on former security chiefs, such as with Mofaz (whose Kadima party barely made it into the Knesset this week) or former IDF chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak's defunct Center party. But if the center-left hopes one day to ride its renewed momentum from this week to the prime minister's office, these three men may be their best hope.