columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Intelligence leaks and the consequences of Israel’s resistance coup

Pentagon documents spoke of the Mossad backing anti-government protests. Even if only partially true, this sends a signal to the Jewish state’s enemies about its weakness.

Reservists and veterans from the Israel Defense Forces, in addition to activists, block Road 1, the main highway to Jerusalem, during a protest against the government's planned judicial reforms, Feb. 9, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Reservists and veterans from the Israel Defense Forces, in addition to activists, block Road 1, the main highway to Jerusalem, during a protest against the government's planned judicial reforms, Feb. 9, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Israel’s government was doing damage control this past weekend and, for a change, it wasn’t about its losing battle to pass judicial reform, dissension over the surge in Palestinian terrorism or the threat from Iran. Or at least, not directly. Instead, it was put in the unenviable position of having to deny a report published in The New York Times and widely reported elsewhere about leaks from secret Pentagon documents detailing the U.S. intelligence activity.

Yet as controversial as the contents of the report may be, the main concern shouldn’t be about the Biden administration’s involvement in Israel’s internal affairs. Rather, the focus should be on the consequences of the debate going on inside Israel that Washington wants to influence. Even the Israeli government’s fiercest and most unfair critics now believe that the Jewish state’s enemies regard the current atmosphere of political chaos as evidence of weakness. That means the price for the upheaval inside Israel will continue to be paid not in losing media cycles for the ruling coalition but in the blood of its citizens.

Most of the attention from the shocking exposure of U.S. internal reports centers on the revelations about American espionage that targeted Russia and its impact on the war in Ukraine. But the dump of classified documents that have been spread around the Internet also discussed U.S. spying on friendly countries, including Ukraine, and allies like South Korea and Israel. That included reports about American pressure on Israel to supply lethal aid to Ukraine despite it being in the interests of the Jewish state to stay out of direct involvement in that conflict.

What happened inside the Mossad?

But as concerning as all that might be, the documents that speak about the Mossad—Israel’s foreign intelligence agency—are especially troubling.

According to an internal report produced by the CIA, the Mossad’s leadership had encouraged its personnel, as well as other Israeli citizens, to participate in the anti-government protests that have shaken Israel over the past three months. If true, it would be an inexcusable violation of the agency’s responsibility to remain above politics and to follow the orders of the country’s democratically elected government. More than that, it would give some credence to claims by some of the government’s supporters, including Netanyahu’s son Yair, that hostile elements inside Israel’s intelligence community had colluded with the Biden administration to help fuel the protests with the ultimate goal of toppling the government.

The response from Jerusalem was immediate and emphatic.

It stated that the report “is mendacious and without any foundations whatsoever. The Mossad and its senior officials did not—and do not—encourage agency personnel to join the demonstrations against the government, political demonstrations or any political activity. The Mossad and its serving personnel have not engaged in the issue of the demonstrations at all and are dedicated to the value of service to the state that has guided the Mossad since its founding.”

Israel’s citizens and its friends elsewhere can only pray that the denial is more truthful than the American intelligence report. And although there appears to be no doubt about the authenticity of the documents that were published in the Times, it does not guarantee that the assessments made by American intelligence were completely accurate.

Still, some elements of this report are rooted in the truth. It has also been reported that some in the Mossad requested and apparently received permission to participate in the demonstrations as private citizens. Mossad director David Barnea, reportedly in consultation with Israel’s attorney general, seems to have ruled that lower-level staff could join in the protests as long as they didn’t openly parade their affiliation.

This fact is still shocking since it shows that Mossad personnel were not instructed that, whatever their private beliefs, their responsibilities as members of a service actively engaged in the country’s defense should mean that they must stay out of overt political activities. And by letting them do so—even if there was no encouragement or conspiring with the opposition or foreign government on the part of senior intelligence officials—the defense establishment was sending a message of its acquiescence to an unprecedented effort to topple a government that had been elected only months before.

Mossad chief David Barnea at a ceremony marking Remembrance Day for Israels Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 3, 2022. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

Disregard conspiracy theories

Some may seize on the Pentagon document and use it to back claims that the protests are primarily the work of some sort of a conspiracy. Allegations about a conspiracy, however, are clearly unfounded. What the demonstrators are attempting is—despite their virtue signaling about their devotion to democracy, and venting their fears about Netanyahu and his allies installing a dictatorship—nothing less than an anti-democratic coup of their own. Nevertheless, the protests are the product of a widespread belief on the part of secular liberal Israelis that their country is in peril.

That these fears, which have been incited by the biased reporting of Israel’s leftist-dominated media and the maneuverings of its legal, economic and academic establishments, are wholly unfounded is beside the point.

The hundreds of thousands who have taken to the streets, blocked highways and sought to sabotage the country’s economy and defense believe what they are saying. President Joe Biden is supporting their efforts for reasons of his own, which have to do with Washington’s desire for a weaker Israeli government that won’t make trouble about appeasing Iran. But though the demonstrators are foolishly welcoming American intervention to help them overturn the results of an election that their side lost in November, they’d be in the streets even if Biden had not sought to intervene in Israel’s internal politics.

Israeli security forces at the scene of a deadly terrorist attack in Tel Aviv on April 7, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.

Israel’s enemies smell weakness

Still, Netanyahu’s critics understand that the paralysis of Israeli society and its government that they have brought about is being closely observed by Iran and its terrorist auxiliaries and allies, as well as by an intransigent Palestinian leadership. They are now testing Israel, as seen by a surge in bloody Palestinian terrorism, coupled by rocket fire from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

David Horovitz, the editor of The Times of Israel, spoke the truth when he wrote last week that “our enemies smell weakness” as the country seemed to be spiraling out of control due to the fight over judicial reform. Under his leadership, TOI has not just been a cheerleader for the protests but has actively sought to exacerbate divisions over the government’s efforts to pass legislation aimed to restrain the untrammeled power of the country’s Supreme Court. Indeed, Horovitz even penned a holiday-themed Passover column in which he argued for using the seder as a platform for efforts to demonize Netanyahu rather than encouraging viewing the festival as a moment to work for Jewish unity.

Of course, when speaking of the way the protests have weakened Israel, he and other Netanyahu critics are, like the Biden administration, blaming it all on Netanyahu and his supposedly extremist allies. The truth is that those like Horovitz, who are cheerleading for the protests, are not primarily interested in preserving the unchecked power of the judicial establishment that is essentially anti-democratic. What they want is to overturn the results of the last election, and somehow ensure that the nationalist and religious voters who gave Netanyahu a clear Knesset majority are essentially disenfranchised.

Israel’s liberal establishment fears that the leftist parties that represent its interests can never win another election, and so they have done everything they can to undermine Netanyahu with protests akin to the color revolutions that sought regime change in the former Soviet Union. Indeed, they are so determined to oust the government that they even consider measures that could harm the country’s finances or undermine its defense, like the refusal of reserve duty by supporters of the protests, to be legitimate tactics.

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Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that Iran, Hezbollah and the Palestinians are seeking to exploit the situation. Whether that leads to a major escalation or just an increase in the number of Israelis killed in attacks, any perception of weakness is a standing invitation to just the sort of miscalculation that can lead to more violence and bloodshed.

While the right to protest should not be questioned, the measures undertaken by the prime minister’s political foes go beyond normal political activism. Having succeeded in creating chaos, they now have the chutzpah to blame Netanyahu for the dangers they have brought about that are undoubtedly harming Israel’s security as well as sowing dissension with its allies.

The Pentagon leaks ought to be a wake-up call that demonstrates that the extremism of the anti-Bibi resistance has gone too far. Unfortunately, the divisions within Israel and among those who care about it may now be so great that a sober re-evaluation of the impact of the anti-government hysteria may be impossible. Having convinced themselves that the lies about Netanyahu threatening democracy are true, the Israeli left and its foreign enablers may have rendered themselves insensible to the potentially catastrophic repercussions of their efforts.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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