Watching the Arab television networks, which are extensively covering the uncovering of the “Israeli espionage network,” is not a particularly heartwarming experience these days. One after another, Lebanese army and police officers, some of them high-ranking, are being brought in for detention and questioning. Advanced electronic equipment has been confiscated. The heads of Lebanon’s counterintelligence are proud of their successes in breaking the Israeli code.
Looking on from Israel, it is very difficult to gauge the true dimensions of the affair. It is clear there is more than a little exaggeration, mixed with a pinch of Oriental fantasy and the paranoia of a small state that for years has feared its secrets are being exposed to its powerful southern neighbor. The timing of the publication, too, is far from coincidental: Lebanese parliamentary elections are scheduled for June 7, next Sunday. The investigation reports reinforce the standing of the pro-Syrian, pro-Iranian radical alliance led by Hezbollah.
On the other hand, even judging from the little that Israel itself has reported, along with reports from foreign media sources, it is clear that Israeli intelligence racked up more than a few achievements on the northern front in the past decade. Operation Specific Gravity, in which the Israel Air Force knocked out Hezbollah’s medium-range missile launchers with a high degree of accuracy on the first night of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, would not have been possible without excellent intelligence information. Hezbollah also attributes to Israel the assassination of many militants in the terror organizations in Lebanon before that war, culminating with the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus about 18 months after the war ended.
Do the reports from Lebanon mean things are getting worse for Israel? Is this another foreign espionage fiasco, like the 1954 Lavon Affair in Egypt? Israel’s publication policy in this area has not changed over the years: No information is offered, good or bad. Israel will not provide its enemies with official declarations indicating whether they hit their target or missed it completely. The average Israeli, as a media consumer, therefore never knows the genuine extent of the damage, if any.
This stems not only from Israel’s policy of silence and nonresponse. In a slightly surprising development, the defense establishment is enjoying particularly good public relations – precisely in the years following its relative failure in the Second Lebanon War. In many areas, the rehabilitative work done since that war is truly impressive. But who could have predicted that the Mossad head and the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff would be competing for the title of media man of the year? It seems more appropriate to a Soviet-era Eastern European state.
It is quite clear that the Israeli public is tired of hearing about the screw-ups of its military forces. The people oppose the hostile media? Then most media outlets will change accordingly.
The upshot of these trends is increasingly less public supervision of the defense establishment. For example, is there anyone, regardless of events in Lebanon, who is examining the jurisdictional boundaries between the various intelligence agencies? Who should be utilizing agents, and do the units assigned to a mission have the skills necessary to carry it out?
In the past, a subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee played a significant role in overseeing sensitive issues. The Netanyahu cabinet includes at least two ministers with great experience in these areas, in addition to Defense Minister Ehud Barak: Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor, and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon (a former IDF chief of staff and head of Army Intelligence). One must hope that the figures holding these important positions know enough about current events and are determined enough to make sure that mishaps are fully investigated, and that Israel, which is once again confident in its military capabilities, is not confidently marching toward new entanglements.