Former Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) chief Yuval Diskin's remarks over the weekend that the prime minister and defense minister are "unfit" to tackle the Iranian nuclear program were "irresponsible and stemmed from personal frustration," a senior official from the Prime Minister's Office said on Saturday.
On Friday, the former spymaster accused the country's two top political leaders of being "messianic" and exaggerating the effectiveness of a possible military attack on Iran, in a striking indication of Israel's turmoil over how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program.
His remarks were also the strongest criticism from a security veteran of threats to launch a pre-emptive war on Iran, and come after Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz also seemed to disagree with the country's leadership on the likelihood that Iran will pursue a nuclear weapon. Gantz told The Associated Press last week that Iran is seeking to develop its "military nuclear capability," but that the Islamic Republic was "rational" and would ultimately bow to international pressure and decide against building a weapon. The key to that pressure, he said, were sanctions and the threat of a military strike.
"They're creating a false impression about the Iranian issue," Diskin told the Majdi Forum in Kfar Saba on Friday, where the comments were recorded and then uploaded onto YouTube. "They're appealing to the idiotic public, if you'll pardon me for the phrasing, and telling them that if Israel acts, there won't be an (Iranian) nuclear bomb."
He said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak — who have been warning of an Israeli military attack on Iran — have their judgment clouded by "messianic feelings" and should not be trusted to lead policy on Iran. Diskin, who headed the Shin Bet until last year, said a strike might actually accelerate the Iranian program and give it the legitimacy it does not currently have.
Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Israel, like the West, believes that Tehran is developing weapons technology, but there is intense debate over whether international economic sanctions accompanying the current round of negotiations might prevent Iran from developing a bomb, or whether at some point a military strike should be launched.
Cabinet Secretary Zvika Hauser, responding to Diskin's comments, said Sunday that the former spymaster's comments "harmed Israel's efforts to form a coalition against Iran."
In Israel, security figures carry clout well into retirement. Although they frequently pursue political careers, Diskin had been seen as relatively apolitical, perhaps lending his words even greater weight.
"I'm asking you, do you really see these two as our messiahs?," Diskin asked the audience at the forum. "One from the Akirov towers and from the Assuta project [two luxurious residential complexes in Tel Aviv], and the other from Gaza Street and Caesaria [the two locations of Netanyahu's private homes] - are they really messiahs?"
"I don't have faith in the current leadership of Israel to lead us to an event of this magnitude, of war with Iran," Diskin said. "I do not believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings," he continued. "I have seen them up close. They are not messiahs, these two, and they are not the people that I personally trust to lead Israel into such an event."
Diskin said it was possible that "one of the results of an Israel attack on Iran could be a dramatic acceleration of the Iran program. ... They will have legitimacy to do it more quickly and in a shorter time frame."
Diskin also blamed the current leadership for not doing enough to advance peace talks with the Palestinians. "Forget all of the stories that they try to sell us in the media, stories saying, 'We want to talk with the Palestinians but [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas doesn't.' The prime minister knows that if takes even one small step in this direction, his government and strong coalition will fall apart. It's very simple."
In response to Diskin's comments, the PMO said, "Diskin calls the Israeli public stupid, but citizens of Israel are much more clever than he thinks."
"Why did Diskin extend his leadership of the ISA by a year under Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu? Why did he want to be head of the Mossad under Prime Minister Netanyahu? His words are irresponsible and motivated by his personal frustration; personal frustration from his not being elected head of the Mossad and from the prime minister not choosing [Diskin's] preferred successor as a candidate to replace him as head of the ISA," the PMO official said.
Barak's office also slammed Diskin, accusing him of "acting in a petty and irresponsible manner based on personal frustration" and of "damaging the tradition of generations of Shin Bet leaders and the organization's values."
The defense minister's office sarcastically congratulated Diskin "for his entry into political life," saying, "It is embarrassing and sad to see weak judgment and irresponsibility and the use of poor language dragging down a man who served the public for years."
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman dismissed Diskin's comments as "irresponsible speculation," telling Israel's Channel Two TV that such big decisions would be made at cabinet level rather than by the prime minister and defence minister exclusively.
"Diskin was an excellent leader of the ISA, but if you do not trust the prime minister and not the defense minister, you should have resigned and not waited for the end of your term," he said.
Lieberman said Diskin, who was considered as a potential successor to former Mossad head Meir Dagan but was passed over, might be angry at not being appointed to head Israel's vaunted foreign intelligence service.
Diskin's remarks also provoked critical reactions from Likud and Independence party ministers.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said that Diskin's criticism of Netanyahu and Barak was undemocratic, Army Radio reported Sunday. "It is implausible that heads of the security establishment will speak out against the political echelon," which makes the decisions Steinitz said, adding that Diskin's remarks damage the joint efforts of the Israeli government and foreign governments to stop Iran's nuclear drive.
Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Shalom Simhon (Independence) said "Diskin's callowness and lewdness reflect on the man himself," and questioned why the former ISA head had not resigned from his position earlier. Simhon added, "Diskin failed with his defective judgment, due to which [former Hamas captive] Gilad Schalit rotted for years in prison and Israel had to pay a high price for his release. He who did not know how to advise the government on the release of hostages should not glorify his ability to advise the people of Israel on the existential issue of a nuclear Iran."
Agriculture Minister Orit Noked, also of Independence, echoed other political leaders, saying Diskin's comments were "irresponsible."
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) criticized Diskin's "rude and inappropriate" behavior, and added that "if these are his opinions, he should have expressed them in the appropriate forums when he was still ISA head," while Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat (Likud) said that, "The timing and manner in which Diskin chose to attack the prime minister raise concern that he is motivated by irrelevant and extraneous issues, in a manner that is unbecoming of his former standing and role."
Likud MK Carmel Shama Hacohen, echoed his colleagues' remarks, saying, "We would expect that if these are the former ISA chief's true opinions of the prime minister and defense minister, that he would say and do something in real time and not wait for an election year to remind people that the current leadership is unfit and is a danger to the country's security."
Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said Diskin erred when he made his remarks. "There can be a dispute on attacking Iran, but these things should be said in a discreet and orderly manner," he said.
Shalom noted that decision makers do not have a unified position on an Iran attack, and that even though the prime minister and defense minister carry a great deal of clout, they cannot make the decision to attack Iran on their own.
In contrast to the Likud's line, Meretz MK Ilan Gilon said that, "Diskin is not the only one who is having trouble sleeping at night. Unlike the nonsensical and empty declarations that Netanyahu and Barak are trying to sell us, the real threat to us is not coming from the Palestinians or Iran, but from the incompetence of Israel's faulty leadership and the poor judgment it displays."
Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz told Army Radio on Sunday that Diskin's comments "came from a place of deep concern. The heavy criticism against him indicates that someone is afraid to confront the things he speaks of." Diskin's remarks should be treated seriously, Mofaz said.
Kadima MK Israel Hasson, a former deputy head of Shin Bet, told Israel Radio that the trust between the defense establishment and the prime minister should not be broken. He said Netanyahu should be concerned over comments made by heads of security organizations who have finished their terms.
Diskin meanwhile said he would not retract his comments and that he was aware his remarks were being recorded on Friday, Israel Radio reported Sunday.
He told confidants that he will choose the time and place to react to the criticism of his remarks.
Israeli security officials have taken issue with the political leadership on several issues: whether sanctions on Iran will make a strike unnecessary, whether a strike will be militarily effective, and whether Israel should strike unilaterally if it cannot gain American approval.
One of the first criticisms voiced by a security figure came last summer from Israel's recently retired spy chief, Meir Dagan. He called a strike against Iran's nuclear program "stupid." Dagan said an effective attack on Iran would be difficult because Iranian nuclear facilities are scattered and mobile, and warned it could trigger war.
Other senior figures with security backgrounds have questioned whether Israel should act alone, as Netanyahu insists the country has a right to do.
Last month, Shaul Mofaz — a former military chief and defense minister who has since been elected head of the opposition Kadima Party — said the threats of an imminent military strike are actually weakening Israel. Mofaz said Israel "is not a ghetto" and that despite its military might it must fully coordinate with the U.S. on any plan to strike Iran.
Dan Halutz, who led the military from 2005 to 2007, also criticized Netanyahu last month for invoking Holocaust imagery in describing the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. "We are not kings of the world," Halutz said. "We should remember who we are."
A recent poll suggested the public agrees. The survey, conducted by the Israeli Dahaf agency for the University of Maryland, said 81 percent of Israelis oppose a solo attack on Iran. At the same time, it said two-thirds of Israelis would support military action if coordinated with Washington. The poll, released last week, questioned 500 Israelis and had a margin of error of 4.3%.
In a recent report, the U.N. nuclear agency found Iran continues to enrich uranium — a key step toward developing a bomb. Although few in Israel would dispute that a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat, debate has revolved around the cost-benefit analysis of an attack.
On the cost side is the possible retaliation, in the form of Iranian missiles as well as rocket attacks by Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas on its northern and southern borders. Especially daunting is the prospect of sustained missile strikes on Tel Aviv, a bustling business and entertainment capital whose populous is psychologically ill-prepared for a homefront war.
An attack on Iran also would likely cause oil prices to skyrocket at a time when the global economy is already struggling — risking a new recession for which Israel would absorb much if not most of the blame. Some also fear that Iran might attack American targets in response to any Israeli strike — a scenario that could directly influence the outcome of this fall's U.S. presidential election.