Former Mosad Chief Interviewed on Israeli Gov`t System, Elections, Regional Issues
Friday, April 27, 2012
Meir Dagan, head of Israel`s spy agency Mossad, attends the Foreign Affairs and Defence committee meeting in parliament, in Jerusalem December 18, 2006. REUTERS/Yonathan Weitzman (JERUSALEM)
Interview with former Mosad director Me`ir Dagan by Ben Kaspit; date and place not given: “Dagan: Our System of Government Is an Existential Threat.”
Tell me, I asked Meir Dagan, is it true that you don`t have a cell phone? “It`s true,” replied the man who headed the Mosad for more than eight years, “I don`t have one, I go around without a phone and survive.” How can that be, I asked him, after all you`re a businessman now, you go around the world, you don`t live on the moon. “If you want me to answer you humorously,” Dagan said, “until not long ago, I made my living from people who walked around with a cell phone, so I prefer not to. Besides, now I`m unable to change a cell phone every few days, so I prefer to manage without one.”
In short, I told him, eight years in the Mosad made you very suspicious. “No,” Dagan corrected me, “I was suspicious before, too. After all, people tried to kill me even before the Mosad, didn`t they?” Yes, I tried to insist, but then you only suspected Arabs, now you also suspect smart phones. “No,” said Dagan, “you`re wrong again, in fact it was always easiest for me to get along with the Arabs.”
The jocularity ended there. Meir Dagan, 67, stocky and potbellied, is a native of Siberia who moved to Israel at the age of five and grew up in a housing project in Bat Yam, and until just over a year ago was the director of the Mosad, a role he filled impressively, perhaps unprecedentedly. Now he is a civilian, and appears to enjoy it. He bought himself an apartment in a Tel Aviv tower, his living room is filled with his own paintings (he is an amateur artist and knowledgeable about art, mainly paintings and sculpture), has gone into business, but continues to work for the country. A non-profit organization that he heads has set itself a difficult goal: changing the system of government in Israel. A number of prominent businessmen are behind the initiative, while Dagan sits in the display window.
How did you catch this bug, I ask him. “You`re mistaken when you think that generals and security officials stop being civilians and only deal with security matters. Aren`t I a citizen just like you? Don`t I care what happens in the country? Don`t I have a family, children who went to school, who now have children of their own in school? Do I live in some isolated, guarded gated-community so that I don`t experience life here? We encounter all the problems that the people of Israel encounter, for better or worse, even in the army or the Mosad. And we have the same living room conversations on Friday nights about what`s going on.”
Q: Is the system of government in Israel today an existential threat?
“In the long term, of course. No, I`m not joking. I`m absolutely serious. The State of Israel has constraints and challenges that no other country has. External threats, terror threats, a society that is split between different desires and different groups that want to change the country`s character, some of which operate within the system to change it and undermine it. Look, there are groups in Israel that want a bi-national state, and there are groups that want a kingdom of Judea, and there are groups that want a state run according to Halacha, and those who want a state of all its citizens, and some who want an anarchist state. Some of these groups are big and powerful and have avowed goals to change the country`s character. Add this to the challenges from the outside, the difficult reality--after all, we don`t have peace, unfortunately, and we must always be on the alert, prepared and trained for every challenge, with an enormous level of investment for defense for many more years, and we haven`t yet mentioned the Iranian nuclear program, terror, and with all that, how can you run a country that is unable to function effectively and efficiently? Where it is impossible to make decisions?”
Q: Aren`t you exaggerating a bit? After all the prime minister of Israel has a lot of power.
“I don`t accept that. The situation is the opposite. The prime minister here is always constrained, a great deal of his time and energy and means must be invested in maintaining the coalition, every day, so that it doesn`t crumble. He is dependent on the good graces of the smaller parties, his freedom of action ranges from very limited to non-existent, mainly on sensitive political matters. We have to strengthen the prime minister, create governmental stability, not have the government change every two years, and not need 30 ministers to keep it strong and able to last.”
Q: Did the fact that you were at the center of the security establishment for many years help you identify this existential problem, to see how things are run from the inside?
“I`ve been concerned about this for many years. When you begin to know the system from the inside, you are amazed by the creativity of the political establishment. This process didn`t happen in one day, I`m not some political science wonk who can put his finger on when this began exactly, but it`s obvious that from the moment that the large parties lost their relative weight, the center of gravity moved to sectorial parties, which became the linchpin in the various coalitions. And you watch and you see how these parties gain power and strength over time. You see how the main bodies are weakened. Not long ago, during Rabin and Shamir`s time, the Likud and the Labor Party together had around 90 seats. And they were angry at Rabin for only getting 44 seats in 1992. Today, the largest party has 28 seats. It has to be said, for the sake of fairness, that this wasn`t contrived by the current government. This is the existing situation. This prime minister didn`t invent it.” The Too Much Litigation Syndrome
(...) “The process has been going on for years, until we reached the current stage in which there is simply no governability,” he says. “The country barely functions. It is difficult to make sensitive political decisions. We are in a situation in which the national agenda, long term planning, the handling of the urgent or the politically sensitive national problems, simply don`t exist. The only thing of interest to the leaders is to maintain the coalition and survive. Today you have a government with almost 30 ministers, with 10 or 11 deputy ministers, all of whom are MKs except for one. This means that there are 40 MKs, who are members of the legislative branch, who are also in the executive branch. Tell me, is this a healthy situation? Is this normal? This is absurd. And obviously, the size is a function of political constraints, and not because the prime minister wants it. Today the prime minister controls 19% of the parliament. That`s it. That`s insane. Think about it. Everything else is the coalition that he always has to run to and maintain. He has no choice.
“Who can make decisions today about large national projects? The governments are unstable. Except for the current one, which bought its stability thanks to these crazy numbers. On average, governments in Israel are replaced every two years. Think about the fact that the Housing Ministry, in the last 15 or 16 years, has had 11 ministers. So how can it plan long-term housing? After all, the minister wants to get elected, why wrack his brains over a project that will take years, and who knows if he will be able to cut the ribbon? These are intolerable constraints. This leads to a phenomenon of everyone going to court, and putting the decision on its doorstep. Because it is impossible to create a political majority, everything is dumped on it, and that isn`t its job at all, and it finds itself ruling on political issues, or on issues of leadership, such as the Tal Law, on who is a Jew, etc.”
Q: But ultimately this is about the rule of law. Do you deny the court`s right to rule on such issues?
“Not at all. I have no argument with the rule of law, but it is unthinkable that every decision go to court just so that someone can cover his behind. This is not about the rule of law, this is about CYA and about wanting to delay and diminish the tough problems, in order to survive. That`s the entire story. Both the prime minister and the defense minister served in the IDF and I have no doubt they don`t like the fact that such an alarming number of people don`t serve and don`t share in the burden. But they have impossible constraints. Add to this the bureaucracy, all the functionaries who say to themselves, what does it matter, we`ll have a different minister in a year or two, so when he tries to change policy, we form a committee, and by the time it finishes its work, he is also finished, and that`s how we can continue to do nothing. And this also increases the motivation to dump everything on the court and to forget it. And this gives legal figures too much power, even in the government ministries, the legal advisers all prefer to delay and disqualify, and everyone says to themselves, before making any decision, wait a moment, let`s ask the legal expert.”
Q: What`s wrong with that? Shouldn`t everything be legal?
“Yes, but there is no need to run to the legal experts every moment. (...) But people want to delay, they`re scared, they want to bury, or at least get CYA. And that`s how we reach a situation in which there are people in Israel who work, who pay taxes and who serve in the IDF, but receive almost nothing from the state, while there are a lot of people who don`t work, don`t serve in the IDF and don`t pay taxes, and who receive a lot from the state. True, I`m making a generalization and doing an injustice to a lot of people, and I know a lot of Haredim who do work or serve, but the overall picture is clear. There is a terrible structural distortion in the country, which endangers it in the long term. And, incidentally, this is not just about the Haredim. If we want a society with equality, why shouldn`t Arabs also serve?”
Q: In the army?
“No, the army is a problem. But is there any lack of places? Why can`t they be in the police? The police is also a security organization. Or the firefighters? Or Magen David Adom? This could solve a lot of the problems relating to equality. When you look at the process over time, you realize that we are liable to reach a situation that is untenable. And we haven`t yet mentioned the small parties, which know how to translate their political power into money and extortion, which is a harsh word that I don`t like to use, because ultimately they`re carrying out their political objective and serving their voters. But when you look at this in the big picture, the obvious conclusion is that the majority is not ruling and dictating the agenda, but rather the minorities.” Draft for All
When I ask Dagan how it came to this, he immediately replies, “It all begins with a problem of governability; with the capitulation of the political establishment to pressure that is part of the extortion, or the ability of the sectorial parties to translate their political might into achievements for their voters. This creates absurd situations. But it doesn`t begin with that, it begins with the screwed up system. This gives the various powers the ability to have disproportional achievements for their constituents. The Tal Law, for example, is a result of this. Incidentally originally, the Tal Law was a good law meant to rectify an injustice that tried to create a gradual mechanism. The intention was good, the process failed.”
Q: How do you think the draft problem can be solved?
“By a law that is equal for all. Period. The application of the law would have to take time, it would have to be built gradually. But the law has to be unequivocal, defined, ideological and clear. There is no other choice. There is no room for a compromise proposal. The spirit of the law has to be an equal distribution of the burden among all the citizens of the State of Israel. There is no other way. Everyone must be equal in sharing the burden. Jews, Arabs, religious, Hottentots. We will have to be creative about the implementation and provide technical solutions. (...) The spirit of the law has to be full equality. And it has to be a basic law.” (...)
Q: Can you envision thousands of Haredim being led in chains to the central induction base? Is this conceivable?
“Why not? You tell me, even today, of all those who enlist, not everyone wants to go. About 30 or 40% of those who do enlist, only do this because the law forces them. So we force them and not the Haredim? They are forced, and they show up. And that`s how it will be. Can you imagine a Haredi, or an Arab, ignoring, for example, the traffic laws and permitting themselves to drive 180 kilometers an hour on the road? Should there be a difference between a Haredi driver and a non-Haredi driver? Should a Haredi pay less taxes than a secular person? No way. So we have to stop this when it comes to enlistment also. Let`s not make so much of this. There will be a law, and everyone will obey it.”
Q: What kind of system are you proposing?
“Look, there is no perfect solution. Democracy cannot be completely representational. It has to reflect the wishes of the majority, and enable the government to govern. Over-representation isn`t good, and under-representation is also not good. A formula has to be found that suits the Israeli character and the constraints that we have here. The fundamental matters have to be addressed once and for all, but I`m not ruling out the possibility that in a few years, we will examine ourselves and if something needs to be fixed, we`ll fix it.”
Q: What are the principles of your system?
“They are clear and simple: raising the electoral threshold, an election system that combines a relative and a regional system, 60 MKs would be elected in a relative system, and 60 MKs would be elected in a regional system, based on an Interior Ministry division of districts. The prime minister will be the head of the largest party, on condition that he gets at least 50 Knesset seats. If not, there will be a second round between the two leaders contending for prime minister. His term would last four years. His impeachment, only by a majority of 73 MKs, would be a constructive impeachment, i.e., there will have to an alternative candidate to replace him as prime minister. The cabinet would be limited to 16 ministers at most, the prime minister`s term would be limited to two consecutive terms, the government would be composed of technocrats who are not MKs, an MK who is appointed a minister would have to quit the Knesset, ministers will be appointed by the prime minister subject to a public hearing.”
Q: What is the point of regional elections?
“This has a lot of advantages. First, it again raises the electoral threshold through the back door, and second, an MK who is elected on behalf of a district also has a loyalty to that district, to the people who elected him, he owes them an accounting, and not to the party`s Central Committee. Today the situation is that MKs don`t really care about what the general public wants. They care about the group that elected them to the party list, i.e., Central Committee members, or sometimes the party leader.”
Q: That is clearly evident in the Likud, where pressure from Feiglin`s group brings an entire party to its knees.
“I agree that there is a concern that marginal groups will be able to exploit the system and gain such power that it creates a government of a minority, instead of the majority ruling.”
Q: Do you think 16 ministers are enough?
“Why not? Do you really think we need 30 ministers? What for? Speaking candidly, this isn`t really what the prime minister wanted, it was forced on him, to survive. And with such constraints, how is it possible to make sensitive decisions? Not just in regard to the Tal Law, but on who is a Jew, or conversions for IDF soldiers, there are a lot of weighty examples.”
Q: You are aware that a lot of parties support this. You have a lot of allies in the Knesset. Avigdor Lieberman for example. There are also a lot of organizations and groups that are doing the same thing. Your activity is being split, a lot of energy is being wasted.
“First of all, take the matter of the parties. Take the platform of all the parties, remove the name, and let the public try to match which platform belongs to which party. They won`t be able to. Except for the fringe parties, they all sound the same. They write the platform for the elections, and then immediately stuff it into a drawer until the next elections. There is no connection between a platform and what they do afterwards. We are now uniting all the organizations, I believe that within a week or two we will have a formulation and will be able to work together. I want to reach a situation in which our bill is introduced as soon as possible in the Knesset. I`m told, let`s educate the people first, teach them, and then introduce a bill and I say the people are educated and the people know and understand the situation. It`s not the people that are the problem, it`s the people who were elected. Our proposal is not right wing or left wing, we are now putting together a groups of MKs, from as many parties as possible, to introduce the bill, and we intend to use all possible means of pressure on the MKs to promote this.” Netanyahu and Baraq are not Enemies
Q: Do you intend to meet with the politicians?
“Of course. With whomever agrees to hear me. And we will distribute a petition and try to get one million citizens to sign it, in order to intensify the pressure. With a million signatures, it is obvious that there are citizens from all parties. I would be very happy if the prime minister were to adopt our law, if the major parties went for it, if their leaders went for it.”
Q: Do you think the prime minister, after everything that transpired between you two, will agree to meet you?
“Why not? I focus on the issues, not on the people. I would be happy to meet him. I never spoke of him personally. The fact that I see a number of issues differently from him or the defense minister is irrelevant. I`ve never made the prime minister or defense minister my personal enemies. I don`t agree with my wife on all the issues, either. There are quite a few matters on which I agree with Netanyahu and Baraq, and there are quite a few issues on which they agree with me. You can`t agree on everything.”
Q: Say, what do think of the “cooling off” law?
“I`ve never formally attacked this law, because, immediately, they would say that I want to go into politics. Not that going into politics is bad; I don`t think politics is a negative thing. But if I wanted to be a politician, I had many opportunities in the past, and I didn`t use them. The law is a law that mortally wounds the principle of equality. It is inconceivable that you take a group, whose members you bestow with the power to make crucial decisions, to lead people to their deaths in the battlefield, and prevent them from being elected to positions in this country. One of the basic rights in a democracy is to vote and be elected. Is a certain `cooling off` period warranted? Yes. Not because of the contact with the voters. It`s bull***t. At the end of the day, why, it is a personal law directed against specific public figures. Explain to me why the director general of a government office, say the Interior Ministry, which deals with budgeting systems and licensing, has less influence on the public than a general in the IDF or a commander in the police?”
Q: It`s not just about contact with the public. You are also very popular. It is abuse of the uniform.
“I didn`t wear a uniform in my last position.”
Q: Yes, but you were very popular.
“I can show you a few stages in which my popularity hit rock bottom.”
Q: You are exaggerating a bit. No one did much grieving here, even over (Mahmud) al-Mabhouh.
“There was harsh criticism at times, in internet comments, in op-eds. I didn`t weather everything with broad public support. But forget about me for a second. There is a serious impingement here upon the principle of equality. And there is different application (of the law) to different civil servants and discrimination against those in uniform. Why is there no `cooling off` period for a minister who completes his term in office and then promotes business deals with the ministry that he headed? Or the head of a wing, at a level corresponding to a major general, who can, three months afterwards, promote his matters vis-a-vis the office? And there`s something else. It is also an impingement upon the freedom of vocation. Three years, which is a long time, and it can reach six and seven years--with me, for example, the “cooling off” period will reach six years. The next elections will take place before the end of my `cooling off` period, and then another four years will pass, six years in total, which is an eon, it is a system gone mad. Does that seem fair to you? And in general, how many leadership pools does Israel have these days? Real pools. How many?”
Q: I see this law as an attempt by the political system to prevent competition or alternatives. It is one of the reasons that today, people say that there is no alternative to Bibi. They look right and left and can`t find anything. They have surrounded themselves with a wall, no one can enter and no one can leave. By the way, journalists are in a similar position today.
“I agree. The law originally set the period at two years, it was, after all, the Dan Halutz Law, which was created in order to neutralize him, and then they added on another year. In my opinion, it is simply the political system`s cowardice, a high level of cowardice; private, personal legislation, which is intended not to protect the country, but rather to protect the seats which they occupy, to prevent theoretical alternative threats.” There is no Eastern Front
“I suggest we calm down,” says Dagan, “the Egyptian business is not over yet, we are in the midst of the process, and you cannot know the outcome. The issue of the gas has nothing to do with the political relations. I suggest looking realistically at the issue. There is no conventional threat to the State of Israel today. There is no eastern front, there is no large conventional army, such as during the Yom Kippur War, that threatens us. I assess that the situation will stay as such for the next three years, at least.”
Q: But you cannot ignore the worrisome process in Egypt, the one million Egyptians in Tahrir Square calling to march on Jerusalem, the takeover of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“That is true, the process in Egypt is problematic, but you must recall that they have such difficult internal problems, that I find it hard to believe that they can mess with us. The internal situation, the economic situation, the investments that have been halted, the traffic through the (Suez) Canal that has declined, the tourism that is disappearing, the gas revenues that are declining, the disquiet that is scaring off investors. And they have another existential problem, which is the dispute over the division of the Nile`s water. So, regarding Egypt, with all due respect, we don`t need to overstate the issue. And really, the process there has yet to mature.”
Q: What do you mean? The Brotherhood received a huge majority, the Salafis are strong, how much more does it need to mature?
“Remember that the military has yet to decide what it is going to do. At the end, and don`t be confused, the true power in Egypt is not in the hands of the parliament, but in the hands of the president, and there is a military council which has yet to decide how to act. We need to. I`m no prophet, but there is no reason only to be pessimistic.”
Q: So, are we better or worse off?
“Look, laugh all you want, but today is the first time in our history that the Arab League is not confrontational toward Israel. All the radical elements that stirred them up against us are gone. Qaddafi is dead, Saddam Hussein is dead, Bashar is busy with his own troubles, today you have an Arab League which is far less tempestuously critical, less dominant in its passion against Israel. And there are more than a few Arab countries that understand that on some of the issues, our interests overlap. The situation in Iraq is not so bad for us either. Today it has a political system, albeit unstable, but functioning. There was never true calm in Iraq. Saddam fought the Kurds, or the Shiites, or the Iranians, and there were always conflicts. Iraq knows that it must be connected to the Western world, and the Iranians realize now that there is a limit to their influence inside Iraq, and that worries them considerably. And therefore, not all the processes are bad for us. Yes, if Egypt becomes a Muslim Brotherhood state and the regime externalizes its problems against us, we will have a problem. But I don`t see that happening so quickly. Egypt must receive massive Western aid. There is no more Eastern Bloc. It depends on the Americans. And therefore, even if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power, the chance that they will become more aggressive against us is low. We need to be careful. Why, Mubarak also had an anti-Israeli attitude. It hasn`t changed much. The cold peace is still an efficient and good peace. The fact is that we haven`t fought the Egyptians for decades. All in all, Egypt is maintaining the peace accord, with small deviations here and there, but with no substantial disadvantage.”
“When I look at the Egyptian front, I don`t see a situation in which evil will come from the south. We were never liked in Egypt. They were never and will never be supporters of Zion. They will always prefer the Palestinians. That is the situation. But there are many restraining elements there as well. Let`s not forget that nationalism was not invented by religion. The secular regimes in the Arab states were very radical in their attitude against us. The wars were against secular regimes in Egypt, in Syria and in other places. So I can`t prophesize, but you need to see the picture in its entirety, and it is diverse and complex. Each risk is coupled by an opportunity.”
(Description of Source: Tel Aviv Ma`ariv in Hebrew -- Independent, centrist, third-largest circulation daily)
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