The Israeli media hardly missed a superlative in their praise for Rear Adm. Ami Ayalon, the outgoing commander of the navy who was confirmed this week as the new head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic secret service.
He was described by the media as a brave and honest soldier who has the right stuff to become the Israel Defense Force chief of staff – a post that has never gone to an Israeli naval commander.
Yet, his modesty also was highlighted, and it was ironic that the media-shy Ayalon became the first Shin Bet head to have his identity revealed even before he assumed office.
For years, Israelis did not have the faintest idea who ran either the Shin Bet or the Mossad, the foreign intelligence service.
In the name of personal security, their names were classified and were not released until after they left office.
That practice was based on the notion that the less one knows about security, the less security is compromised.
However, that notion no longer conformed with current realities, where the media and other sources of information make full secrecy almost impossible.
For example, the name of the outgoing head of the Shin Bet, Carmi Gilon, has long been available on the Internet.
Foreign Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli officials said this week that there was no longer any justification for keeping the name of the head of the Shin Bet classified.
But Prime Minister Shimon Peres disagreed.
Speaking during Sunday’s weekly Cabinet session, at which Ayalon’s appointment was approved, Peres said the Publication of Ayalon’s name would not set a precedent.
He said that in the future, censorship should be reimposed on the identity of the Shin Bet chief.
Peres also stressed that any information regarding the head and other officials in the service, as well as details of Shin Bet activities, should continues, as in the past, to be subject to military censorship.
Still, unveiling the name of the Shin Bet head symbolized the slaughter of yet another of Israel’s sacred cows.
Until 1973, everything surrounding Israel’s security operations was off-limits when it came to public scrutiny.
Aharon Bachar, the late columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, wrote in the early 1970s a critical article about Gen. Rehavam Ze’evi, now a Knesset member from the the far-right Modelet Party.
To bypass censorship, Bachar couched the article in terms of a Mexican general who was depicted as ruthless and arrogant – a far cry from the image of Israeli officers until those days.
Although Ze’evi’s name was not published, everyone knew to whom Bachar was referring.
The article, which represented one of the few instances when the beloved IDF was described in the press in negative terms, caused a national uproar.
Noah Moses, the late publisher of Yediot, visibly upset, walked up and down the halls of the newspaper, muttering: “I will allow everything, but I will not let them tear apart the army.”
A few months later, the 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out – and many lamented the fact that the media had not been more critical of the armed forces before.
The Shin Bet, too, has had its difficult days. A slow but steady process of criticism has forced the agency down from the Olympus of national esteem.
It was criticized for having failed to foresee the intifada, the 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising; for its involvement in the killing of prisoners suspected of terrorism; for unjust arrests; and for its cruel interrogations of Palestinian terrorists.
Finally, and most notably, it was criticized for the security lapses that allowed a lone gunman to assassinate Yitzhak Rabin.
Against this background of the Shin Bet’s increasingly tarnished image, Ayalon was greeted warmly when he was named to head the agency.
Although the agency’s officials do not know him, they hope that he will be able to turn the clock back to the glorious days when the little that was known about the agency was only good.
It was Gilon, the outgoing head of the Shin Bet, who recommended that Ayalon succeed him.
Gilon knew that this would mark the first time that an outsider became the organization’s leader.
But he also knew all too well that the only way to rehabilitate the agency’s image in the wake of the Rabin assassination was to let a new broom sweep the floor.
Ayalon was appointed this week to a job he could have had last year, when he was first offered the leadership of the Shin Bet.
At the time, Rabin had wanted to appointed an outsider to succeed then outgoing Shin Bet head Ya’acov Perri.
Ayalon reportedly refused to accept the job at the time because he did not want to “spy after Jews.”
But circumstances have changed since confessed assassin Yigal Amir, a religious Jew, ended Rabin’s life after a Nov. 4 peace rally in Tel Aviv.
As some some senior Shin Bet officials were recently quoted as saying, when Ayalon reads some of the material they have prepared for him about Israeli extremists, he will change his mind about spying on Jewish targets.
As he assumes the leadership of the Shin Bet, Ayalon confronts a host of challenges – including the fact that Israeli Jews now indeed fall within the purview of the organization’s intelligence and security efforts.
He will also have to confront the new realities on the ground in the West Bank.
As a result of the recent IDF redeployments in the territories, Shin Bet agent will no longer be able to operate freely in the area’s Palestinian population centers.
Moreover, the Shin Bet will have to learn to work with the Palestinian secret service in the West Bank.
But perhaps the greatest challenge of all confronting Ayalon will be to satisfy the Israeli people.
Even if he manages to restore a large measure of secrecy to the agency’s operations, he will no longer enjoy the virtual immunity enjoyed by his predecessors.
And even through the thick veil of censorship, Israelis will keep a close watch on their secret service.
They have learned too often and too well that the shadowy agency needs penetrating – perhaps healing – rays of sunlight.