In the summer of 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government was still motivated and fresh, and its marathon meetings on the Iranian threat were still free of leaks. Everyone in the loop was very vigilant to keep things secret.
Until August 12, four years ago, when ministers, senior military officers and security officials were summoned to an additional secret meeting at the Kirya Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu was in shock. Journalists Ben Caspit and Tzach Yoked had published an exposé in Maariv that revealed all the inner workings, including the disagreements, of Israel's strategy on Iran.
The meeting was set for 9:30 a.m., and everyone was waiting, but Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak were no-shows. Long after the meeting was supposed to begin, a side door opened and the two entered the room. Netanyahu looked distressed.
In Netanyahu's view, the leak was gravely serious. On the spot he turned to then-Shin Bet security agency chief Yuval Diskin and demanded an investigation into who was responsible for having stripped Israel naked. Diskin surveyed the faces of the 20 or so people in attendance and remarked that the investigation might as well begin immediately. Netanyahu agreed. "Go ahead," he instructed Diskin. Netanyahu was also the first person that Diskin interviewed, answering "no" to the question whether he had briefed Caspit.
In the history of Israel's government, there has never been such a strange scene at the Kirya. The head of the Shin Bet was sitting there, publicly interrogating ministers and senior military officials. No one dared object, for fear of being suspected as the leak. (Forty years prior, then-Prime Minister Golda Meir was furious about a leak of confidential information and she ordered the Shin Bet to question absolutely everyone who had access to it. Under her orders, the Shin Bet sought to question then-Minister Without Portfolio Menachem Begin, who no one suspected of actually leaking the information. Begin politely told the investigators that if a prime minister suspects a minister of leaking secrets, that minister should be fired. In an enlightened democracy, the Shin Bet must not interrogate sitting ministers over leaks.)
The suspects were questioned one by one, by order of their seats, and everyone denied leaking the information. The tension continued to rise until the question was posed to then-Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, who said, "This investigation is unnecessary. I briefed Ben Caspit."
The confession was doubly stinging. How is that it was him, of all people, who exposed the core of Israeli strategy? And why did he not spare his colleagues the embarrassment of the interrogation and just announce that it was him right from the start? But everyone restrained themselves, because Yadlin had an explanation: "I was asked by the IDF Spokesperson [Avi Benayahu] to brief Caspit." Benayahu was operating on the orders of then-IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.
Netanyahu said that the investigation would have to continue, but it was never completed. Last week, I wrote Diskin and asked him: "Is that where the investigation ended? Did you ever talk about it with Ashkenazi? Did the chief of staff claim (as I was told) that he approved the order, but that he never imagined that it would be so detailed?" After 24 hours, Diskin replied that he was abroad and does not want to answer by text message.
Last week, I also sought Ashkenazi's and Benayahu's responses. Ashkenazi wrote me that "the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, like any other IDF major-general, held dozens of background briefings with journalists, both in Israel and abroad. According to IDF protocol, any background briefing with a major-general, including the head of Military Intelligence, must be approved by the chief of staff and the IDF Spokesperson's Unit -- the briefing [in question] was also approved in this manner. Obviously, every exchange, including the one with this writer, undergoes a similar authorization, and any insinuation of wrongdoing is misleading."
Fine. But during those first months of the Netanyahu government, there were no briefings that led to such detailed publication of Israel's biggest secrets.
And Benayahu? According to him, the briefing was a routine conversation. It focused on general Middle East issues and "was authorized by the chief of staff by way of the IDF Spokesperson's Unit, as is customary." The authorization, he said, was routine.
If the situation, as described by Ashkenazi and Yadlin, was so simple, then why was Netanyahu so worked up? Why was there a need for such an unprecedented group interrogation of the prime minister and his senior staff? Such a thing had never happened before, or since.