Mossad chief suspected ex-Bennett aide leaked unusual op (2022)

Mossad chief David Barnea went to the Prime Minister’s Office for his weekly work meeting with Naftali Bennett. On his way to Bennett’s office, he ran into Shimrit Meir, the prime minister’s then-diplomatic adviser and the person considered to be the most powerful figure in the PMO during Bennett’s year as prime minister. At the end of the meeting, he asserted to other security officials who were present that he was convinced Meir had leaked information about an unusual Mossad operation that had taken place not long before. Meir denies doing this.

The report leaked had been published a half hour earlier. Meir showed the report to Barnea, and to other people in the PMO who were informed about the secret operation. Meir was not among this group. These people who did have prior knowledge of the operation expressed bewilderment at the attention Meir paid to a report about a mission she was not supposed to know about, only 30 minutes after it was released. One of the people present said that it was a very serious leak that even warranted a criminal investigation.

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Defense officials are divided as to the severity of the leak, which was termed significant: Some believe that the exposure occurred too close to the time for the operation, when some of the accompanying operations had yet to be completed, and that this caused damage. Others say that the Mossad planned to reveal the operation at a later date anyway, out of strategic reasons, and that the earlier publicity did not put Mossad agents or the organization's capabilities at risk.

Shimrit Meir, in 2016.

Barnea, his associates claimed, understood from the prime minister that the operation would be exposed, but did not expect it to be reported when it was, and without coordination with the people responsible for it in the Mossad. According to sources familiar with the matter, the Mossad chief expressed astonishment to Bennett about the rapid publication, and his concern was dismissed. After a considerable amount of time, the Mossad prompted the publication of the operation by a foreign media outlet, with Bennett's approval. In a joint statement to Haaretz, Bennett and Barnea said they had approved the publication out of "operational considerations."

This wasn't the first time that Barnea attributed leaking to Meir: In November, at the height of the backchannel negotiations to free the Israeli couple who were arrested in Istanbul, Channel 12 News reported on a direct connection between Barnea and the head of the Turkish intelligence agency who was working to secure the release of the Oknin couple.

Barnea called for an investigation of those who had knowledge of the operation, and Meir’s name came up as a suspect in the leak. The investigation did not take place; the leaker’s identity, and any possible connection by Meir to the report, was never clarified. In their responses to the report, Meir and Bennett separately stated that all actions taken by the adviser were with the prime minister’s approval.

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In a recent interview in Yedioth Ahronoth, Meir disavowed any connection with media reports concerning secret operations that were attributed to Israel. “I don’t know where that comes from,” she said this month. “On my watch, it didn’t happen. It’s not good at all. There’s a fundamental question of what should be done. It’s not my area. And afterwards there’s the matter of boasting and bragging.” But ever since that dust up about the leak concerning Israel's ties with relations with Turkey, the Mossad took to appending a warning to highly sensitive material that was passed on to the PMO: Keep away from the diplomatic adviser.

The boycotted cabinet meeting

Meir, a journalist who specialized in covering the Arab world, was appointed as Bennett’s diplomatic adviser when he took over as prime minister in June of last year. Her work was not confined to the diplomatic sphere; she was also closely involved in security discussions, unlike her predecessors who served under other prime ministers. The weight that Bennett gave to her position and her freedom of operation were considered unusual; in the Yedioth Ahronoth interview she described their professional relationship as a “partnership.” But beyond that, she also intervened in political matters, trying to navigate the coalition and keep its component parts together.

The publication of another secret operation was considered several times, and each time the idea was rejected. When Meir sought to do this again, others in the PMO attributed the repeated attempts to publish it to coalitional considerations: on that day, a number of disputes emerged in the coalition, when a recording of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked slamming Yair Lapid was leaked, Labor attacked Defense Minister Benny Gantz and MK Abir Kara criticized his fellow Yamina lawmakers. Sources familiar with the PMO say the diplomatic adviser sought to divert media attention from the prime minister’s political troubles.

In a meeting with the prime minister, attended by Shin Bet Chief Ronen Bar, Meir proposed holding a press conference that same day to present information about the operation. Bar was adamantly opposed and maintained that exposing the operation would cause serious harm. The two got into a heated argument, with Bennett not taking a side. Ultimately, he decided in Bar’s favor and instructed that the preparations that were already underway for the press conference be halted. Bar claimed that Meir misled the prime minister, that she was not knowledgeable about the details and was acting on a whim.

On December 19, 2021, there was some uncharacteristic tension between Bennett and Foreign Minister and alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who up to then had appeared to work together very harmoniously. Lapid boycotted the cabinet meeting to protest Bennett’s having discussed the effort to halt Iran’s nuclear program with members of the U.S. Congress without informing him or his ministry’s director-general. This was the only time Lapid boycotted the cabinet meeting.

When Lapid’s people checked with Bennett’s office to understand what had happened, they were told that the talks with the American lawmakers were arranged between Meir and the Israeli Ambassador in Washington, Mike Herzog, and that the ambassador had supported the idea and approved it. When Lapid contacted Herzog, he told him that he had opposed the idea and that Meir had presented it as a done deal.

National Security Council director Eyal Hulata also accused Meir of invading his area of responsibility, when he was informed by colleagues in Washington that Meir met with Jake Sullivan, his counterpart in the Biden administration.

The trip to Washington led to one of Meir’s main focuses of conflict as an adviser close to Bennett: Her relationship with Shaked. The stronger Meir became, the more distant Shaked felt from Bennett’s circle of power. In March, Bennett’s office was working on a visit to India planned for Bennett, which was cancelled when Bennett contracted COVID.

Bennett asked Shaked to join the trip, but Meir vetoed the idea of Shaked joining the prime minister’s plane. She warned that if Shaked was seated with the entourage and heard their conversations, she would take the information right to the media in the back of the plane.

Bennett, who didn’t want to anger Shaked, his political partner since his time in Netanyahu’s bureau, intervened. One of the ideas that came up was to send Shaked in a separate flight. Shaked refused. In the end, it was decided that she would join the prime minister’s flight, and Meir went to Washington, where she met Sullivan. She told journalists that she had been “called in urgently” for a discussion on Iran; sources in Washington said she had initiated the trip.

In February Meir commissioned an opinion survey from pollster Mano Geva, for Bennett and his party Yamina, and spoke with the people from the polling company. The survey questions, which she formulated, involved the prime minister’s political standing. In her role as political adviser, she was a civil servant and as such, she was banned from dealing with party matters.

After the coalition whip, Yamina MK Idit Sliman left the coalition, Meir took part in a meeting at Bennett’s home with political adviser Aron Shaviv. The three discussed the various possibilities that existed at the time to break up the coalition. The coalition was expected to fall, and Bennett wanted to benefit politically from it, when he still thought he would run again. After the meeting was reported in Haaretz, the Movement for Quality Government approached the Civil Service Commission, and Meir presented the move as the reason she stepped down.

Another of Meir’s meetings that involved a breach of procedure was with the Israel Defense Forces Southern Command chief, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano. The meeting, reported in Haaretz went against army regulations, which prohibit officers to meet with politicians of their advisers without authorization. The prime minister’s bureau said at the time that Meir and Toledano had had no contact that contravened regulations, and the IDF said that the meetings were in the context of their friendship. Following the report, Defense Minister Benny Gantz summoned IDF Chief of Staff Aviv for a hearing, and the relations between the chief and Meir have become tense since.

A presidential mediation

Bennett’s bureau was described throughout the year of its operation as particularly divisive compared to its predecessors, and mishaps were frequently reported. Although the conflicts and power struggles among officials, advisers and aides are not unusual, Bennett’s bureau was different in that the former prime minister believed that the disagreements were hurting him personally.

Meir stood almost alone against a front headed by bureau chief Tal Gan-Zvi, cabinet secretary Shalom Shlomo and political spokesman Matan Sidi. The three, like Shaked, had been with Bennett for a long time, and worked with him on and off in the ministries of the economy, education and defense, as well as in the opposition. Political spokesman Yotam Ben Yitzhak, who replaced Sidi in the last days of the government, was considered one of the only people close to Meir in the bureau.

Complaints about Meir in the bureau involved the foot in the door she had achieved, which was perceived by the other staff members as coming at their expense. In Bennett’s meetings with representatives of various ministries, he came across a few instances of “misunderstanding” regarding work with his office, stemming from the “two voices” emanating from it: Meir would give one answer, while another official would order a move that contradicted Meir. The officials who approached the Prime Minister’s Office were left helpless, lacking the ability to understand who has the last word.

In such instance happened with the President’s Residence, and bought in its wake a conversation between Bennett and President Herzog. Herzog, who has close ties with the former prime minister, suggested trying to mediate between the conflicting parties in Bennett’s bureau. Sources familiar with the mediation attempt said that the president quickly came to the conclusion that the efforts were hopeless, that the conflicts ran too deep, and he withdrew from the matter.

Shimrit Meir said in response to the report: “Everything described with regard to the actions of the Mossad is fundamentally false. I did not leak anything and I would not consider leaking such a sensitive operation. I did nothing as adviser that was not approved and requested by the prime minister at the time, Naftali Bennett, and he did not ask such a thing. The mixing of my name in this matter is completely false and libelous.

“The information about the release of the Oknins is ridiculous, and I’m having difficulty understanding what Bennett’s and my interest is in providing PR for Barnea. I assume that this is the recycling of an old claim in order to prove something.

“The Shin Bet press conference is not my business, and I don’t remember any argument with Ronen Bar, with whom I had excellent relations. I will not discuss sensitive security matters.

“The prime minister has the right to discuss anything he wants with U.S. Congress members. Bennett saw supreme importance in frequent discussions with Congress members. The outcome is that he managed the Iranian issue with the [U.S.] administration wisely and effectively.

“At the time of the planned visit to India I was in Washington, and so the seating arrangements on the plane to India were less relevant to me. I was sent there by the prime minister, and naturally whenever I asked for a meeting at the White House or the State Department, I was accommodated. Everyone in the bureau knew that I was in Washington. The outcome was that the mission was accomplished to the prime minister’s satisfaction.

“At the request of the prime minister, I assisted him in formulating relevant questions in opinion polls. To the best of my knowledge, the person who dealt with payment on behalf of Yamina was the chief of staff at the time, Tal Gan-Zvi, who controlled the party and its financial management.

“There was no conflict in the bureau, I had nothing against anyone. It was one-way bullying and it won out – I resigned. It continues even on these pages. I won't discuss the content of my meetings with President Herzog.

“Bennett and Shaked are not running together in the election although I am no longer in the picture. The essential gaps between them are unrelated to me and the relationship between them is their business.

“The reports of my incidental conversation with Maj. Gen. Toledano, which caused him needless damage, and the information about the meeting with Shaviv are leaks from people in the bureau. Two small pieces of information that were blown up into a drama and were clearly meant to damage me.

“Most of what is described here, except for the false and libelous report of the leak of a Mossad action, which was denied by the Mossad chief himself, are routine actions in advising the prime minister. The fact that they are presented as a drama has to do with the obsessive preoccupation of Haaretz and the reporter, who didn’t even bother to speak to me, with bureau gossip the goal of which is character assassination. The level of obsession is such that months after I left my job, and after the prime minister was also replaced, a newspaper that defines itself as serious is dealing with gossip about seating arrangements on a flight to India that did not take place. I recommend to the tireless leakers and to the reporter as well, to get a life and leave this obsession alone. It’s summer outside.”

Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Mossad Chief David Barnea issued a joint statement:

“The head of the Mossad never accused Shimrit Meir, or anyone in the former prime minister’s circle, of a leak and never asked Bennett to conduct any investigation into the action in question. On the contrary, the head of the Mossad, in coordination with the prime minister, acted to make the action public for necessary operational reasons.”

Bennett responded: “The incidents described here did not happen. Prime Minister Bennett did not direct Shimrit Meir to leak any information about an action to any media outlet, and she did not leak information about the operation. All of her actions during her term as senior adviser were carried out with the full agreement of the prime minister and at his request, and she contributed greatly to the government’s political and security successes. Shimrit Meir was an excellent political adviser.

“The prime minister is shocked by the collection of gossip in this article, which originates from two disgruntled advisers, who, unfortunately, did not devote more of their time to the important work they were in charge of, and not to jealousy, gossip and infighting in the bureau. I regret that Haaretz chooses in a misogynistic manner to damage an adviser whose only sin was to act professionally for the Prime Minister Bennet and in the interests of Israel.”

Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s bureau responded: “Cooperation between Prime Minister Lapid and Naftali Bennett was excellent over the past year and remains excellent.”

President Herzog, Minister Shaked, National Security Adviser Hulata, Ambassador Mike Herzog, the Shin Bet and the pollster Mano Geva did not respond.

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