TEL AVIV — In his first Knesset appearance since taking over as head of the Shin Bet security service last Sunday, Yuval Diskin sounded a grim but unaccustomed note. “Israel’s internal strength might crumble if there were to be another assassination of a prime minister,” Diskin warned the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Regarding that issue, he added, “we are completely without a sense of humor.”
He might have added that his organization also has few leads. Diskin takes over an agency with a stellar track record in stopping Palestinian terrorism, but little success in penetrating the Jewish far right. He faces a steep learning curve. He is one of the agency’s most respected field operatives — credited with devising the so-called “targeted killings” that decimated Palestinian terrorist ranks in the last four years — but he has little direct experience with the agency’s Jewish wing, which tracks Jewish extremists, nor with the prime minister’s protection service.
Yet those two areas are seen as the agency’s top priorities for the foreseeable future; they are of even more importance than the fight against Palestinian terrorism.
The reasons for the changed priorities are twofold. For one, Jewish extremists are believed to be actively planning attacks in hopes that the resulting turmoil will stop the Gaza-West Bank withdrawal planned for this summer. For another, Palestinian terrorism has dropped dramatically, thanks partly to the success of the Shin Bet and partly to the cease-fire declared by the Palestinians themselves.
Shin Bet leaders do not concede that the Palestinian threat has declined. The agency insists that the number of warnings it currently receives — specific operations known to be planned by a specific Palestinian group — hovers around 50 on any given day.
Israel’s military brass disputes that assessment. Gadi Eisenkut, who is about to finish a tour as commander of the army’s Judea-Samaria Division, told the Forward in an interview last week that the number of daily warnings he currently faces is “zero.”
Asked about the Shin Bet’s data, Eisenkut retorted, “I don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Eisenkut is considered the front-runner for the post of chief of military intelligence. If he is chosen, he will be working closely with Diskin over the next few years. The two agencies share responsibility for Israel’s war against terrorism. Cooperation between the agencies, sometimes strained in the past, reached a peak of intimacy under former director Avi Dichter, who stepped down last week after five years.
The differences in current threat assessment do not imply any looming rift in working relations between the army and the agency, sources on both sides emphasize. Rather, they reflect differing worldviews arising from different duties. Army chiefs often accuse the Shin Bet — and Dichter in particular — of “seeing everything through a straw.” Charged with foiling imminent terrorist acts, the security service is dismissive of broader regional considerations and the long-term implications of Israeli actions. The army, by contrast, must consider such factors, both in formulating long-range strategies and in governing the Palestinian civilian population.
As a result, policy debates within the defense establishment frequently feature Shin Bet demands for tighter security measures — more roadblocks in the West Bank, fewer Israeli entry permits for Palestinian workers — while the army presses for easing conditions.
Diskin may be closer to the army’s view of things. Despite — or because of — his close involvement in tracking Palestinian activism, he has developed good working relationships with Palestinian Authority security officers. He is believed to have taken a more hopeful view than that of his predecessor regarding Israel’s future relations with the P.A.; Dichter was known as the leading pessimist in the security establishment. Diskin’s ties with Palestinian security personnel may prove crucial if Israel upgrades relations with the authority after the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank this summer.
All this, however, lies beyond Diskin’s most urgent goal: to foil any attacks by Jewish extremists. Israelis got an inkling of what might lie ahead just a day before Diskin’s Knesset appearance. Several hundred protesters managed to snarl traffic nationwide during the afternoon rush hour by burning tires and forming human chains at key intersections. Huge traffic jams ensued, and about 100 protesters were arrested. The protest, reminiscent of the demonstrations against the Oslo Accords in 1994 and 1995, is assumed to be the first shot in what promises to be a very hot summer, as opposition to Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement plan moves from the political arena to the streets.
That same day, a handful of Jewish militants were released from custody — two weeks after they were arrested on suspicion of planning to fire an anti-tank rocket at one of the mosques on Temple Mount. Police claimed that the plotters had changed their minds, a phrase that some insiders said was an indication that they had no real evidence. At best, the arrests were construed as a warning from the Shin Bet that it is giving its all to foiling such plans; at worst, they are proof that the security service was groping in the dark.
In his Knesset appearance, Diskin recalled the Shin Bet’s primary role, foiling Arab terrorism, and warned that it might find it harder to fulfill in the future than it was in the recent past. Most of the glory accrued in the past four years by Dichter — and Diskin, as his deputy — came from their steadily increasing success in reducing suicide bombings. But the success is at least partly related to the agency’s ability to penetrate Palestinian activist networks. Withdrawing from Gaza and parts of the West Bank could make such activities more difficult.
Many observers also believe that Palestinian efforts to carry out attacks will rise sharply in the fall, after the Gaza withdrawal. Hamas, the Islamic militant group, has stated that the respite it accepted in talks with the P.A. in Cairo last spring will last only until the end of the year. Top Israeli leaders, including Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, have warned repeatedly in recent weeks of Hamas’s continuing efforts to acquire weapons. Concerns have heightened in the wake of this month’s Palestinian municipal elections, in which Hamas won control of some one-third of the municipalities contested. Hamas influence is expected to grow further after Palestinian legislative elections, scheduled to take place on July 17.
Here, too, the army brass appears to differ from the pessimists. Officers were reported this week to be meeting with Hamas officials to discuss working relations following the municipal elections. Eisenkut, the outgoing Judea-Samaria commander, said that Israelis were “whipping ourselves for nothing” on the question of Hamas influence.
If Eisenkut, a former military secretary to Sharon, receives the coveted intelligence post, he and Diskin may find themselves rehashing the argument endlessly in the coming years — and not only over active terror warnings.