A right-wing Israeli activist group tried today to counter the anti-Netanyahu campaign of a reserve generals’ peace group, Commanders for Israel’s Security, by announcing its own list of “Officers and Soldiers Against the Partisan-Political Use of the IDF.”
The pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom reported on Monday that Im Tirtzu, best known for its attacks on the New Israel Fund, had gathered more than 400 signatures of retired officers and soldiers on a petition opposing the retired generals’ campaign. The petition was reported later in the day on the right-wing news site nrg.co.il, which said it included more than 1,000 signatures but didn’t mention Im Tirtzu’s role. Nrg’s report included a photo of the petition, which claims it has more than 1,000 signers, with 93 selected to illustrate .
The generals’ group, launched in November, calls for a regional peace conference with the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative as its frame of reference. It has 183 members. During the last two months, since the start of the election campaign, it has released a series of videos accusing Prime Minister Netanyahu of irresponsibly exaggerating the threats Israel faces while failing to counter them effectively, and calling for his defeat.
The rightists’ statement says the generals’ actions “border on lawlessness” and questions their military record. “To our great regret, we have learned not infrequently in the past that the security predictions of those senior officers who were influenced by their political views were mistaken and cost Israeli society dearly in blood,” the petition says.
But the new ad unintentionally highlights the seriousness of the generals’ message and the feebleness of the right-wing counter-effort. The generals’ group consists entirely of veterans with the rank of general — including brigadier, major and lieutenant generals — along with retired chiefs and deputy chiefs of the Mossad, Shin Bet and national police. In all it includes about one-third of all living former generals.
The rightists’ petition, by contrast, lists exactly one ex-general, along with three retired colonels and 15 lieutenant colonels. The rest are field officers — majors, captains and lieutenants. Given that these are the names chosen for publication, it must be assumed that there aren’t many high-ranking names, if any, lurking among the other 900-plus signers left unpublished.
In effect, the petition serves as a reminder that the generals’ position, favoring compromise with the Palestinians and cooperation with Western diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear threat, represents the consensus view of Israel’s defense and intelligence community. The counter-argument, while popular with the public and right-wing politicians, has little traction among Israel’s security professionals.
Most of the officers listed on both petitions continue to serve in the active reserves, with the field officers commanding reserve field units and the generals serving in senior management, planning, intelligence-gathering and assessment roles. The contrast between the two groups of retirees casts a harsh spotlight on the gap between what Israeli intelligence knows and what right-wing Israeli politicians believe — and tell the public.
The gap, and the refusal of the political right to believe the information it pays the intellligence community to gather, bears an odd resemblance to the refusal of the American right to believe the scientific community on the threat of climate change. In both cases, a combination of religious obscurantism and anti-intellectual populism works to shut out the facts.
The gap between what Israeli intelligence knows and what Israel’s right-wing politicians believe was on display internationally last week when Time magazine reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to cancel a January 19 meeting between the director of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo, and a group of visiting U.S. senators. The senators were to have received a briefing from Pardo about the Iran nuclear negotiations.
Time reported that Netanyahu’s decision to cancel the Pardo briefing prompted the leader of the Senate delegation, Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee, to threaten to cut his visit short. In the end Netanyahu gave in, following intervention by his Washington ambassador Ron Dermer.
Netanyahu, it appears, was worried that the senators would ask Pardo about the impact of the Kir-Menendez Iran sanctions bill that Republicans, Netanyahu and AIPAC favors and Obama has vowed to veto. Knowing what his intelligence community thinks of his Iran policies, the prime minister feared correctly that Pardo would give the Mossad’s view of the bill, which is that it would sabotage the current Iran nuclear negotiations, which Netanyahu opposes.
The senators’ Mossad briefing came one day before Obama’s January 20 State of the Union address, in which he issued his veto threat. The following day, January 21, House Speaker John Boehner issued his invitation to Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on the Iranian threat.
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to reporters in Europe following a negotiating round with Iran’s foreign minister, said in response to the House invitation that an Israeli “intelligence official” told him the new sanctions bill would amount to “throwing a grenade” into the negotiations.
Bloomberg View reported January 22 on briefings given by “Israeli intelligence officials” to Obama administration officials as well as the visiting senators about their concerns that the sanctions bill would “tank the Iran nuclear negotiations.”
Later that same day the Mossad issued what was described as a rare public statement denying that Pardo had questioned the prime minister’s support for the sanctions bill. The statement explained that when Pardo told Kerry the sanctions bill would be like throwing a grenade into the negotiations, he didn’t mean to suggest that it would cause permanent damage. Got it?
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).