By a tradition established in Israel’s short history, the Mossad (external intelligence) and the Shin Bet (domestic security) are answerable to the prime minister. Military Intelligence (AMAN) falls within the province of the defense minister.
In the rare case of an intelligence minister joining the cabinet, like Dan Meridor in Binyamin Netanyahu’s first government (2009-2012), his job is largely nominal. Top-secret materials don’t cross his desk on their way to the prime minister’s office. Indeed, the most confidential materials and briefings regularly put before the prime minister are not even shared with the foreign minister. The incumbent Avigdor Lieberman is therefore outside this arcane loop.
But last year, former finance minister Yuval Steinitz was given the Strategic Affairs and Intelligence portfolio. He is currently in charge of countering the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign. But most of all, he determined the time had come to crack the hallowed mold dictating the traditional channel of state secrets to recipients. New guidelines were needed for rerouting incoming confidential data through his own hands as minister of intelligence before it passed to the prime minister.
Steinitz was confident that he stood firmly enough in the prime minister’s good graces to achieve his objective.
Steinitz faces a solid wall against change
He soon found he had put his hand in a vipers’ nest.
All the heads of the national intelligence and security community were ranged against him as one man. Suddenly, his own standing in government looked shaky.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources, he reacted by warning Netanyahu that the spy chiefs had gone off the rails.
What was more reasonable Steinitz asked than relieving the prime minister of the burden of overseeing the minutiae of intelligence work?
Because of his preoccupations with policy on Iran’s nuclear program and decisions in the ongoing tripartite talks with the US and Palestinians, Netanyahu was too busy to keep a close eye on what the Mossad and Shin Bet were up to, the intelligence minister argued. He only gets to see their directors, Mossad chief Tamir Pardo and Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen, in as far as strategic decisions call for special briefings. Otherwise, the prime minister can’t keep up with their day-to-day work.
Therefore, Steinitz offered to be first recipient to intercept the two intelligence chiefs’ reports before they are relayed to the prime minister.
In theory, this procedure makes a certain amount of sense. Under the American system, a senior official at cabinet level is appointed director of national intelligence. James Clapper, for instance – not the president – is in charge of the oversight and coordination among the 17 US intelligence bodies.
Ya’alon could live without two ministers and their departments
Furthermore, this innovation was first recommended 40 years ago after Israel’s intelligence failures in the early stages of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. One state probe after another has since urged the appointment of a single official to pull all the intelligence bodies together. The last to offer this advice was the Wigoder commission, which criticized Israel’s military and diplomatic performance in the Second Lebanon War of 2006.
But this recommendation has been gathering dust in official files, as one head of government after another chose to avoid butting heads with the spy chiefs on procedures – that is until Steinitz decided to try his hand.
But the intelligence minister is also under fire on a second front. With the intelligence community up in arms against him, he is also beginning to be ostracized by the defense and military establishments. This is largely due to a certain lack of simpatico on the part of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Home Security Minister Gilad Erdan is in the same boat as Steinitz – although his quarrel with the defense minister is not personal. Ya’alon thinks Erdan’s ministry is redundant and a waste of public funds. The Defense Ministry under his control already encompasses its own Home Front Command unit and any number of small bodies, like the Pessach Authority for emergency evacuation, aid and casualties; the Melach Authority for organizing food, water and electricity in a war emergency; and Rahal, for keeping the government administration functioning in times of national crisis.
Spy chiefs on the ramparts
No one ventures to raise the Steinitz issue before Ya’alon because of its sensitive personal nature. But Israel’s national security is undoubtedly suffering from the feud.
High-ranking Israeli Defense Forces officers decline invitations to working meetings when the intelligence minister is known to be present. Steinitz is kept strictly out of touch with the AMAN military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who is responsible for producing the annual National Intelligence Assessment.
The Ya’alon-Steinitz controversy has moreover trickled down to government appointments.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report that the defense minister tried to lure Yossi Kuperwasser, director general of the intelligence ministry and a former chief of AMAN’s research department, with a tempting offer: the high-prestige position of head of the Defense Ministry’s Foreign Relations department.
That position is about to be vacated by Maj. Gen. (ret) Amos Gilad, whom Netanyahu has pegged as Israel’s next ambassador to Ankara – that is, if Washington ever manages to persuade Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to bury his quarrel with Jerusalem.
Steinitz accuses Ya’alon of poaching on his turf as part of a scheme to separate his ministry as far as he can from the defense and military establishments.
Meanwhile, the Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs have raised their ramparts against his plans. Pardo and Cohen have informed the prime minister that they will on no account go along with Steinitz’s changes. They stand by the time-hallowed procedure which grants them direct access to the prime minister with no intermediaries.