Opinion |

The Shin Bet Is Being Responsible, but Its Right Hand Doesn't Know What Its Left Hand Is Doing

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Ronen Bar, the director of the Shin Bet security service.
Ronen Bar, the director of the Shin Bet security service.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

The heads of the Shin Bet security service since the Six-Day War in 1967 are focused on their targets — and their target is preventing terrorism. This is an important goal that enables Israelis to maintain reasonably routine lives, in a reality of violence, lethal terrorist attacks and harsh threats.

The success of the leaders of the Shin Bet and their subordinates in the struggle against terror allows Israel to exist as a Western democracy, inside the blurring and disappearing borders of the Green Line. Of course, no vestige of Israeli democracy exists in the settler state in the West Bank, where the Palestinians are suffocating under the occupation regime. The Shin Bet must be reminded of this too.

Since 1967, 10 heads of the Shin Bet have led the organization — Yossef Harmelin filled the position during two separate terms. All of them, with the exception of Ami Ayalon, grew up in the service of the organization and viewed their role in a relatively limited manner through the prism of preventing terrorism. But the heads of the Shin Bet are not supposed to be just contractors for prevention and the gatekeepers of security, they also need to serve as unbiased and fearless advisers to the prime minister and the entire cabinet. Their vision needs to be not just security, but also diplomatic and strategic.

It seems that at least in the events that occurred recently, the Shin Bet and the person who leads it, Ronen Bar, have not demonstrated these traits. The urgent summoning of Bar for talks in Cairo with Abbas Kamal, the head of Egypt’s general intelligence, is just one example of this.

For five months, the Shin Bet has been working with the IDF almost every night in the West Bank, especially in the northern part, and arrests wanted men and suspects, confiscates weapons, munitions and money. A few Palestinians have been killed and almost 2,000 have been arrested. These actions have been named "Operation Breakwater.”

About a month ago, as part of this ongoing operation, Shin Bet and IDF forces arrested Bassam al-Saadi, who is suspected of being the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization in Jenin. He was shown on social media being dragged along the ground and being bitten by a dog.

The leadership of the Islamic Jihad threatened to respond, and according to the Shin Bet and IDF, it had planned on firing antitank missiles at the Israeli civilian communities near the border with the Gaza Strip. Egyptian intelligence went into action, tried to mediate and asked Israel not to act, especially when it turned out that Hamas would show restraint this time — if Israel responded. After three days of waiting, which paralyzed large parts of southern Israel, Israel’s patience ran out — and began another round of the fighting in Gaza, which was awarded the name “Operation Breaking Dawn” — and lasted “just” three days.

This occurred due to the efforts of Egyptian intelligence too, which once again succeeded in bringing the clash to an end. But General Kamal was not pleased by Israel’s actions and invited Bar for a talk. True, Egypt – like Israel – wants calm in Gaza and the two countries maintain very close and intimate security and intelligence cooperation. Nonetheless, Egyptian intelligence operates on matters concerning Gaza as the good fairy, the angel that guards over Israel, and it would be best if the Shin Bet and the IDF don’t forget it.

Yair Lapid, as Foreign Minister, visiting Egypt in 2021.Credit: Shlomi Amsalem

Another example of the strategic impairment is the excessive use the Shin Bet makes of administrative detention. A week ago, Haaretz reported that the number of prisoners held in Israeli prisons without trial has risen to 723, the highest number since 2008. 11 of these detainees are Arabs who are Israeli citizens or residents – and the rest are Palestinians. Not of a single one of them is a Jew. The same goes for the designation of the six human rights organizations as terrorist organizations, even though the intelligence information the Shin Bet provided to justify the decision has not convinced the United States or Western countries.

A line connects all these examples: The crisis with Egypt, the numerous operations in the West Bank, administrative detentions and shutting down the organizations. Have the Shin Bet and the defense establishment used the proper diplomatic judgment in these cases? Or maybe we are witnessing a situation in which the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing? It is a good thing that the Shin Bet is working unceasingly to prevent terrorist conspiracies — but is there someone in the organization’s leadership who knows to say to himself and colleagues — maybe the timing is not appropriate and let’s temporarily reduce the dosage?

Do the district and branch commanders in the Shin Bet, and maybe even the department and section heads who are their subordinates, have too much independence in making decisions — or should they be required to show more fundamental and deeper judgment, certainly at the level of Shin Bet chief? Is the top leadership of the Shin Bet in love with the operations themselves, and is the most important thing to make sure this tool doesn't erode?

Is it not the job of L., the head of intelligence analysis, or a division head, to pull on the sleeve of the head of the Shin Bet and draw to his attention the fact that this time, possibly, it is not worth it because it could lead to unneeded complications?

The head of the Shin Bet has an important role to play, especially now, when Israeli governments are finding it difficult to function properly. Such a situation contains both an advantage and disadvantage. The disadvantage is that the political leadership is subject to elections and politics. The advantage is that this allows the heads of the defense establishment and Ronen Bar among them, freedom of action. This is an opportunity for him to demonstrate the art of restraint of power and to serve as the responsible adult.

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