The director of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service, speaking in the wake of today’s massacre in a Jerusalem synagogue, told a Knesset committee that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas “is not interested in terrorism and is not leading [his people] to terrorism. Not even under the table.”
His remarks directly contradicted a string of statements (English) by Israeli leaders, from Prime Minister Netanyahu on down, accusing Abbas of “inciting” the attack by his calls to “defend Al-Aqsa.” Netanyahu called (Hebrew) the synagogue slaughter “the direct result of incitement led by Hamas and Abu Mazen, incitement that the international community is irresponsibly ignoring.”
The security chief, Yoram Cohen, was addressing a closed meeting of the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee. His remarks were described to reporters afterward by participants.
Cohen acknowledged that there were “factors within the Palestinian Authority” who interpret Abbas’s criticisms of Israel as “giving legitimization to terror.”
However, in describing the sequence of events that led to this morning’s bloodbath, he said the confrontations began after the July 2 murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu-Khdeir. He said the tensions were exacerbated by Knesset discussions of a bill to permit Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, submitted last spring by Likud lawmaker Miri Regev, and by high-profile visits of politicians to the Temple Mount that are seen as supporting the legislation.
Under an agreement between Israel and Jordan, dating back to Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount in 1967, Jewish prayer is prohibited on the site in deference to Muslim religious sensibilities. Efforts to rescind the agreement and permit Jewish prayer began some years ago on the fringe of the religious-nationalist right, originally as a stage in the long-term goal of building the Third Temple. In recent months the prayer campaign has gained traction on the mainstream right.
Netanyahu opposes the prayer bill. On Sunday, in his opening remarks to the weekly cabinet meeting, he called accusations by Palestinian leaders that Israel was “planning to change the status quo” on the Temple Mount “lies and deceit” (sheker ve-kazav).
Cohen’s frontal attack on the prime minister’s stance toward Abbas is particularly shocking because the Shin Bet chief, appointed by Netanyahu in 2011, has been considered Netanyahu’s one reliable ally within the Israeli intelligence community. The heads of the Mossad and IDF military intelligence consistently take less alarmist views of Arab and Iranian intentions, repeatedly blunting the prime minister’s efforts to depict Israel’s enemies as unequivocally committed to Israel’s destruction.
Just last week Cohen was at the center of a media firestorm (as I described here) after senior Shin Bet officials appeared with his permission on a television newsmagazine to claim that the security service had warned the IDF last January of Hamas plans to launch a war in July, but the military had overlooked the warning.
IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz furiously rejected the accusation in a letter to the prime minister. The IDF has continued to maintain that this summer’s war was not planned by Hamas, but emerged out of a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).