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Israeli spy chiefs led secret revolt against judicial reforms

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Picture: Ronen Zvulun / EPA-EFE (Pool) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, April 2, 2023. In public, it appears, opposition to the new Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms has come mainly from the grass roots or retired officials, as serving lawmakers and security figures remain supportive or tight-lipped, the writers say.

By John Hudson and Louisa Loveluck

As the Biden administration races to investigate a leak of classified US documents, Washington and Jerusalem are remaining silent about a particularly sensitive disclosure within the trove of files: an alleged revolt by Israel’s top spy service against the judicial reforms proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The leaked document, labelled “top secret”, says that in February, senior leaders of the Mossad spy service “advocated for Mossad officials and Israeli citizens to protest the new Israeli government’s proposed judicial reforms, including several explicit calls to action that decried the Israeli government, according to signals intelligence”.

By itself, the direct intervention into Israeli politics by Mossad, an external spy service forbidden from wading into domestic matters, would be a significant revelation. That the information surfaced as a result, apparently, of US espionage on its closest Middle East ally could further inflame what has been a time of historic political unrest in Israel.

“If accurate, this is a dramatic change in procedure by Mossad’s leadership and puts Israel in unprecedented territory,” said Natan Sachs, an Israel scholar at the Brookings Institution. “It’s a sign of just how far the Netanyahu coalition has pushed Israeli society and how high the stakes are.”

The memo is among the dozens of images leaked online and subsequently obtained by The Washington Post and other news outlets, appearing to show worldwide intelligence briefings on countries in the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa, tactical-level battlefield updates and assessments of Ukraine’s defence capabilities, and much more.

Information in the documents, dating to late February and early last month, appears to have been prepared for senior Pentagon leaders and made available to hundreds of other personnel and contract employees with appropriate security clearances.

The National Security Council, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the State Department all declined to comment on the memo related to Israel. The Israeli government also declined to comment. Defence Department spokesperson Sabrina Singh said last Friday that the leak was under review. The Justice Department said it had opened an investigation.

The embarrassing disclosure comes at a time of domestic tumult in Israel, as Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing and religiously conservative in its history, faces crises on multiple fronts. The new administration’s controversial plan to weaken the country’s Supreme Court has divided society, brought hundreds of thousands out onto the streets, and caused fractures in the military by inspiring hundreds of reservists to declare they would not serve.

Israeli diplomats joined the strikes and, for a day, scores of Israeli embassies across the world were shuttered. But, at least in public, opposition came mainly from the grass roots or retired officials, as serving lawmakers and security figures stood supportive or tight-lipped.

The only major figure to break ranks, defence minister Yoav Gallant, himself under pressure from former military colleagues, did so late last month. The following day, Netanyahu announced Gallant was fired, although he remains in office.

Picture: Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP – Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant delivers a statement to the press at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) headquarters near the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, on March 9, 2023. US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, on a visit to Israel, expressed concerns about Jewish settler violence against Palestinians and warned against acts that could trigger more insecurity.

By contrast, Mossad, whose chief David Barnea was installed by Netanyahu, has been publicly silent on the reforms. The measures under consideration could have a dramatic impact on Israeli society. Many of the country’s thorniest issues – among them the rights of Palestinians, matters of religion and state, and minority civil rights – end up being adjudicated in Israel’s courts.

The proposed reforms would hand Israel’s parliament control over judicial appointments, eliminate judicial review of legislation and allow lawmakers to vote down Supreme Court decisions.

Despite the high stakes, undermining the agenda of a sitting prime minister would be a dramatic step for the Mossad leadership to take. “If they were organising against Netanyahu’s reforms in their official capacity, then it’s a true scandal,” Sachs said. “That’s a line the Mossad is not supposed to cross, and you could expect repercussions.”

The memo is light on details, and it is unclear who in the Mossad leadership advocated for rank-and-file spies as well as civilians to protest against Netanyahu’s reforms. Efforts by Mossad leaders to encourage the demonstrations occurred in “early to mid-February”, the leaked document says.

The information is labelled “FISA”, meaning the collection of the intelligence required approval from a federal judge as established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Washington’s role in exposing Mossad’s concerns about the reforms could draw the fire of Israeli conservatives, some of whom have accused the US of secretly fomenting the protests – charges Washington denies.

Last month, Netanyahu’s son Yair claimed the US State Department was “behind the protests in Israel, with the aim of overthrowing Netanyahu, apparently in order to conclude an agreement with the Iranians”.

State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel denied the charge, saying: “Any notion that we are propping up or supporting these protests or the initiators of them is completely and demonstrably false.”

Sachs said any US espionage role in intercepting the communications of Mossad leaders “could give fodder to some on the right pushing back against the Biden administration’s concern over the judicial revolution”. Mossad’s alleged opposition to the reforms won’t surprise some, however, given the opposition to the measures – or their political impact – within Israel’s national security establishment.

Late last month, Gallant, the defence minister, made a televised statement calling for a freeze in the legislation, arguing that it was harming the country’s ability to defend itself. “The rift within our society is widening and penetrating the Israel Defence Forces,” he said.

“This is a clear and immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state. I shall not be a party to this.” – Israeli Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant

Avi Dichter, the agriculture minister and a former head of domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet, has also privately expressed concerns about its impact on national cohesion, Israeli news station Channel 12 reported.

As protesters announced rallies on Saturday for a 14th-consecutive week, former defence minister and IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon was among the announced speakers. “The Israeli government has failed in every area,” protest leaders wrote in a message circulated via WhatsApp, “and instead of focusing on security, senior ministers announced their intention to pass the judicial coup at the end of the Knesset recess.”

This article was first published in The Washington Post