Remove Netanyahu: Pressure Mounts on Israel’s Intelligence Chiefs

Netanyahu has managed to remain in office, promising a thorough investigation of how Hamas managed to pull off such a devastating attack—but only after the Israeli army has achieved “absolute victory” over Hamas and the war is over.

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File: In this handout photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consults with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (L) and Mossad chief David Barnea (C) as the former observes the seven-day mourning period for his late mother, May 12, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

When I got back from Vietnam some 50-plus years ago, all I wanted to do was get on with my life. My experience in the war as an Army intelligence case officer had dispelled any doubts that I’d had when I’d first arrived in Saigon that the war was not only a loser, but criminal. After a year there I’d firmly concluded that the wreckage we unleashed on that benighted country and its peoples far outweighed the lofty goals Washington claimed for continuing the war at its murderous rate.

Now back home in Boston in 1970, I suppressed my rage and depression about the war and focused on  finishing college, finding a mate and deciding on a career, possibly teaching world history to adolescents so that they might avoid the trap of knee-jerk patriotism and their own Vietnam.

Alas, two events soon upended my deliberate disinterest: The U.S. invasion of Cambodia, an insane expansion of the Indochina battlefield, and then publication of the Pentagon Papers, which confirmed my many suspicions about the criminal origins and prosecution of the war. But it was the devious Nixon administration’s backing of South Vietnam’s corrupt and compromised leadership, moreover, that was the main impediment to any kind of “win” in the war, much less any kind of peace, in the near future. 

They both had to go. 

So I reluctantly discarded my carefully tended stoicism and signed up with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Writing, not the classroom, became my destination. I was good enough at it that it eventually set me on a path toward a career doing the kind of investigative journalism that probed the lies and deceptions in which too many top CIA and other national security officials, whether Republicans or Democrats, cocooned themselves.

The Thread

Where’s this leading? Here at SpyTalk, we’ve endeavored to hew closely to our self-declared franchise of reporting on “the intersection of intelligence, foreign policy and military operations,” as we like to say, and steering clear of the hyper-partisan politics and emotions ruling the day. Of course, that’s practically impossible when Donald Trump, the once and possibly future president, upends national security norms by, say, publicly favoring Vladimir Putin’s version of election interference over the findings of his own intelligence agencies, or sharing top secret intelligence with Russian officials in the Oval Office, or illegally squirreling away classified documents in his various homes, or prompting violent attacks on the FBI, prosecutors and judges, not to mention presidential electors and the U.S. Capitol. 

Still, we don’t harp on them. We leave the shout fests to cable news shows and social media.  

But the Israeli campaign in Gaza has pushed us to take a stand. 

Israel’s pursuit of Hamas was initially righteous, we believe, in response to the Islamic extremists’ genocidal Oct. 7 rampage. But it’s turned into something else: the slaughter of Palestinian men, women and children without justification: the rescue or return of Israeli hostages and the effective eradication of Hamas. By its egregious actions, Israel has now ceded any moral high ground it possessed when its campaign in Gaza began. And for that Israel Prime Minister is almost solely to blame.

Not our issue? I wish it weren’t. Despite my reluctance to wade into such murky and complicated moral and political issues, I believe we have a mandate because of where the leading opposition to Netanyahu is centered: His own intelligence and security agencies.

And here’s why.

Netanyahu, who has always presented himself to the Israeli electorate as the only political leader who could guarantee the country’s security, has long had a fraught relationship with intelligence, military and security chiefs. 

He began to come under criticism from his own handpicked Mossad chief Meir Dagan in 2011 over their opposing views on how to neutralize the  threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

Until then, Dagan had favored continuing the intelligence agency’s clandestine  program of targeted assassinations and sabotage that had already liquidated a half dozen of Iran’s nuclear scientists and heavily damaged some of its nuclear enrichment facilities. By using such methods, Dagan felt Israel could achieve its aim of halting the nuclear program while avoiding an all-out war with Iran. Such a war, he and many of Israel’s military chiefs argued, would be costly for Israel and still  wouldn’t succeed in destroying Iran’s nuclear program since that would require repeated bombing sorties, which  the Israeli air force was incapable of conducting at such a distance from Iran. Israel also lacked the bunker-busting munitions capable of destroying Iran’s deeply buried nuclear facilities. 

But Netanyahu lost his faith in the utility of the Mossad’s clandestine measures and ordered the air force to begin practicing to deliver what he believed would be a one-time, knock-out punch to Iran’s nuclear aspirations. In response, Dagan, who was about to resign from the Mossad in protest, summoned reporters to the agency’s headquarters and publicly accused Netanyahu of leading the country into disaster. 

“That someone is elected does not mean that he is smart,” Dagan said, according to Rise and Kill,  author Ronen Bergman’s masterful 2018 history of Israel’s targeted assassination program.

Dagan even went so far as to brief then-CIA Director Leon Panetta about Netanyahu’s plans, which prompted President Barack Obama to warn Netanyahu not to attack Iran. 

Many other top Israeli military and intelligence chiefs also made known their opposition to the attack, forcing Netanyahu to postpone it several times and, finally, to scrap it.

The next time Netanyahu butted heads with his intelligence and military chiefs occurred soon after his re-election in late 2022, when his coalition of ultra-rightwing and orthodox religious parties announced their plan to limit the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court, which would remove the only check on his government. 

Netanyahu’s plan sparked massive protests, bringing hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets who charged that the judicial overhaul would destroy Israel’s democracy and geld the only institution that could block the government’s extremist policies from becoming law. While Israel’s top legal authorities, business leaders and military reservists led the protests, the Mossad and the Shin Bet domestic security service shockingly allowed its rank-and-file members to join the protests. 

That’s not all.

Last September, after the protests and counter-protests by Netanyahu’s supporters threatened to erupt into civil war, a group of more than 180 former senior officials from the Mossad, Shin Bet, the military and police joined the protests, warning that the deep divisions in Israeli society caused by judicial overhaul debate were undermining Israel’s unity in the face of mounting threats from the West Bank, Lebanon and Iran. And in unprecedented statements of opposition to the country’s leadership, these former officials, all veterans of Israel’s wars, declared that Netanyahu’s policies were the biggest threat to the country’s future and well-being. 

“We were used to dealing with external threats,” said Tamir Pardo, a former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency and a leader of the new group. “We’ve been through wars, through military operations and all of a sudden you realize that the greatest threat to the state of Israel is internal.”

“Mr. Security”  

The Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, in which some 1,200 Israelis were killed and 240 taken hostage, represented Israel’s worst military disaster since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Prime Minister Golda Meir and her army chiefs dismissed intelligence warning of a combined Egyptian and Syrian attack.  In the wake of Hamas’ bloody campaign, Netanyahu, who had taken to calling himself “Mr. Security,” blamed his intelligence chiefs for not warning him—and indeed reports soon surfaced that his intelligence chiefs ignored warnings that Hamas was preparing for a full frontal invasion of Israel. But the prime minister’s attempt to shift blame to his intelligence chiefs drew a sharp rebuke from the head of his own war cabinet, Benny Gantz, who declared, “The prime minister must retract his statement and stop addressing this matter.” 

Still, Netanyahu has managed to remain in office, promising a thorough investigation of how Hamas managed to pull off such a devastating attack—but only after the Israeli army has achieved “absolute victory” over Hamas and the war is over. As Israelis rallied to the government in response to the attack, calls for new elections were muted. But with the war now in its fourth month, with more than 100 hostages still being held, and with relations with the United States increasingly strained over Netanyahu’s refusal to consider the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, patience with the Israeli leader is now wearing thin. 

Opponents, charging that Netanyahu lacks a clear plan for how to get Israel out of Gaza, are now openly calling for new elections. They say personal and political considerations are guiding his decision-making, not the country’s best interest or the safe return of the hostages. They cite the three indictments that Netanyahu faces for corruption — charges that could send him to prison if he’s convicted.

“When the prime minister says ‘absolute victory,’ ’war until 2025,’ he knows that if that’s the case the hostages will die and return in coffins,” said Eyal Ben Reuven, a reserve Israeli general.  “A long war in enemy territory is not a good thing.”

Last week, Gadi Eisenkot,  a member of Netanyahu’s influential War Cabinet and a former military chief whose son and nephew were killed in the Gaza war, said that only a negotiated deal could free the remaining hostages. His remarks were a direct challenge to Netanyahu’s insistence that sustained military force is the best way to win their release. Even more importantly, Eisenkot also called for early elections to restore the public’s trust in their leaders.

The Gaza war, meanwhile, has inflamed the wider Arab world, generated new fronts in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, reinvigorated Islamist militants from the occupied West Bank to Africa, and—important to us— implicated the United States in a brutal Israeli assault on Palestinians that, if it’s not actual genocide, now looks very much like it. While it’s impossible to predict how the Gaza war will end, it’s clear to us at SpyTalk that any solution to the morass in the Middle East must begin with the removal of Netanyahu from office. And as the spearhead of that removal likely resides in Israel’s much respected intelligence services, we will cover it. 

Jonathan Broder contributed deep reporting on Israel to this piece.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the editor-in-chief of SpyTalk, a newsletter covering U.S. intelligence, defense and foreign policy, on the Substack platform. Previously, he was the SpyTalk columnist (and national security correspondent) at Newsweek, and before that, the SpyTalk blogger at The Washington Post.

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