Opinion

Time for the Shin Bet Chief to Step Up and Defend Democracy

Head of the Shin Bet Nadav Argaman with Iraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, January 20, 2020
Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO

Nadav Argaman, the director of the Shin Bet security service, is emerging as the most important person in the State of Israel. He is the one who is tasked with protecting the fragile democracy of the Jewish state and preventing a civil war. To meet the challenge for which he has been destined at this time, he must demonstrate courage and determination.

Israel is facing a moment of truth in its history. Its society has never been as split and polarized as it is at present. The atmosphere is poisonous. The discourse on social media among “Bibi-ists” – supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – is dripping with hatred.

It’s enough to read the post uploaded Saturday night by far-right rapper Yoav Eliasi, aka The Shadow, who has 300,000 followers, to grasp just how close we are to the edge of the abyss of serious violence. Eliasi wrote in terms of “we” and “them,” mentioning a civil war and accusing “them” – i.e., the center and left, led by Benny Gantz – of efforts to steal the elections.

There is a short distance between incitement against anyone who doesn’t agree with Netanyahu, and actions. And it is becoming shorter with every post on Facebook, every tweet on Twitter and every story on Instagram by fans of the “cult” founded by Netanyahu, his son Yair and their yes-men, who are devoid of inhibition or conscience – people like his mouthpieces Jonathan Urich and Topaz Luk, his former chief of staff Natan Eshel and a few others. They will resort to any dirty trick or filthy declaration in order to scare and threaten, as long as the prime minister continues to serve in his position and tries to avoid his expected trial.

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Netanyahu may not want a civil war – but he is doing nothing to stop it. He remains silent, and by his silence is allowing his disciples to impose fear, to incite, to spread hatred and to provoke dissension and infighting. His cabinet ministers also remain silent. They have become cowards who are afraid of their own shadow, and especially of tough guys like The Shadow; they have become ostriches who bury their head in the sand.

Therefore, the time has come for the head of the Shin Bet and his organization to take action. First and foremost, it’s their legal obligation to do so. The 2002 Shin Bet Law says specifically that the organization is responsible – among its other obligations, such as prevention of terrorism and espionage – “for protecting the country’s security, government arrangements [in the sense of its institutions and order] and democratic service.”

Put simply: The law demands that the Shin Bet protect Israel’s democracy.

However, defending democracy is not only a legal matter: It is also a moral and historical obligation of the Shin Bet. Twenty-five years ago the organization not only failed to protect Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, but the democratic regime as well. Rabin’s assassination by Yigal Amir, who was incited by rabbis, settlers and supporters of the right (while Netanyahu, then in the opposition, remained silent), struck a mortal blow at the peace process with the Palestinians, and allowed Netanyahu to rise to power. In that sense this political murder achieved its objective.

The Shin Bet failed abysmally to prevent the murder although the handwriting was brightly illuminated on the wall in large letters. The failure was a two-fold one – first, that of its VIP personal security unit, whose senior officials were punished. But there was also a failure of the agency’s intelligence unit (the non-Arab branch, which is in charge of counterespionage and preventing subversion), whose eyes failed to see, and whose ears refused to hear the sounds of hatred and the threats, and to understand the magnitude of the danger. Regrettably, the state commission of inquiry into Rabin’s murder, headed by former Supreme Court Justice Meir Shamgar, made a mistake when it acquitted Hezi Kalo, who headed the unit at the time.

Argaman is an efficient technocrat. He is not a man of lofty words. He spent his entire professional career in special operations – surveillance, infiltration of buildings, wiretapping – which were aimed primarily against the Palestinians. Even after assuming his current position in 2016, and improving work methods and information-gathering by means of cybersecurity and advanced technology, he has concentrated mainly on preventing Palestinian terror. And in fact, he and his agents have notched up numerous achievements. But now he has to understand that the domestic danger is just as important as terror attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah or espionage by Iran.

In the last year, while Israel has had to face three elections and with a fourth in the making, Argaman has been very cautious about and has tried to stay away from politically controversial issues, even when he should have acted. He avoided dealing with suspicious events aimed at influencing the elections.

The Shin Bet did not react, at least not publicly, to the establishment of a fake website that tried to defame former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo. They refrained from dealing with the mysterious hacking of Kahol Lavan Chairman Gantz’s cellphone in December 2018, and did nothing when the personal information of 6.5 million Israeli voters was leaked as a result of a failure by the Elector Software company, which was working on behalf of Likud.

The time has come for Argaman to realize that this is a time of emergency. He must show determination and use all the legal tools at the disposal of the Shin Bet (and the police) against any expression of incitement, violence or calls for murder.

Argaman and the Shin Bet must not only increase the security around Gantz and Lieberman, which they’re probably doing already: They have to summon the leading inciters for talks, and warn them about their activities. These methods have been used in the past by the Shin Bet against radical left-wing activists and anarchists. It’s time to apply the same ones against radical right-wingers who threaten democracy.

Argaman must muster his moral strength, and understand the importance of the hour. His role is not only to prevent the next murder, but the upcoming civil war as well.