JERUSALEM — A prominent Israeli ex-intelligence chief sought to sway Israelis against Benjamin Netanyahu in upcoming elections, saying in an interview published Friday that the prime minister has mismanaged Israel's response to Iran's nuclear program and missed opportunities to make inroads on a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
The interview by Yuval Diskin was an unusually strong and overt assault on a prime minister by a figure formerly from the security establishment, coming less than three weeks before the Jan. 22 election, in which polls predict Netanyahu will be reelected. The election campaign has hardly touched on security issues like the conflict with Iran or the stalled peace process with the Palestinians, focusing almost entirely on domestic issues.
Diskin, who ran Israel's Shin Bet intelligence agency from 2005 to 2011, has been a vocal critic of Netanyahu. But his front-page interview to the daily Yediot Ahronot included his sharpest comments yet. He accused Netanyahu of acting illegally by ordering the security apparatus to prepare for an attack on Iran before gaining former approval by the Cabinet of ministers. He also said Netanyahu squandered the gains made by Israel's security forces by not using a period of relative quiet over the past few years to move toward peace with the Palestinians.
"I am convinced we deserve a better leadership that's braver and more moral, and that sets a better personal example," Diskin said. "If I cause the Israeli voter to think twice before choosing parties and leaders that are not worthy, because they are actually not leading us where we should be going, I've done my part."
He said he formed his opinion "based on dozens of discussions with many people more or less of my rank" who feel "a lack of security, lack of trust and lack of appreciation" for the current administration.
Netanyahu's office in a text-messaged statement called Diskin's comments "baseless" and accused him of personal frustration over not being selected to head the prestigious Mossad spy agency.
Though Diskin oversaw Israel's domestic security in his role as Shin Bet chief, he was also involved in key security decisions affecting the country including deliberations over a possible strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Diskin said that in 2010 Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak tried to convince him, the army chief and the head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency to prepare the security apparatus for an attack on Iran before gaining approval from the necessary government forums, a move Diskin called "illegal."
The army chief and Mossad chief from the time — Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and Meir Dagan — both spoke similarly about the meeting to Israeli television in November.
Diskin also described attending a meeting with Netanyahu, Barak and then-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, in which they discussed the Iranian nuclear threat over cigars and liquor. He called the atmosphere "bizarre," saying leaders discussing such a serious subject with Israeli security officials should show more gravity.
Diskin said Netanyahu acted irresponsibly regarding Iran's nuclear program and accused him of prioritizing personal concerns over national interests.
"I have a very strong feeling that with the Iranian issue Netanyahu is 'haunted' by (former Israeli prime minister) Menachem Begin, who attacked the reactor in Iraq, and by (former Israeli prime minister Ehud) Olmert, who, as it is claimed in many places, attacked the reactor in Syria," Diskin said. Netanyahu "wants to go down in history as someone who did something of the same proportions."
Netanyahu and Barak have both repeatedly hinted that Israel would carry out military action to stop Iran's nuclear program if necessary. Israel says Iran's nuclear program is aimed at weapons development. Iran denies this and says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
On the Palestinian issue, Diskin criticized Netanyahu's lack of movement on peace talks and said there is a chance another Palestinian uprising could break out.
"The role of the security forces is to create conditions so the political echelon will know what to do with them, and the quiet which was achieved in the last few years is an opportunity that the political echelon should not have missed," Diskin said.
Asked about the response by Netanyahu's office to his comments, Diskin replied only "Have a good Sabbath" in a text message to The Associated Press.