During the fall of 2022, my family and I lived in Tel Aviv, where my wife and I were visiting professors at Reichman University, in Herzliya. I taught a class called “Democracy and Dictatorship.” It was a fraught time. Almost all of my students were in the military or veterans. Several were deeply concerned that Benjamin Netanyahu would bring a new era of antagonistic nationalism to Israel, at a time when they felt the country needed cohesion instead. One said she would likely leave the country if he won.
As the former mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, I was asked to speak at the university’s annual World Summit on Counter-Terrorism conference, on a panel about the dangers of far-right terrorism in the United States. In my presentation, I recounted a chilling conversation I’d had in June 2017 with a civil servant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. He told me that Trump-administration officials had basically instructed his office to stop talking about white nationalists when they referred to domestic terrorism in the United States. He implied that this decision had been made for domestic political reasons.
Two months later, Charlottesville was invaded by multiple violent white-nationalist militias who’d plotted their attack secretly on the gaming chat app Discord. Federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the Department of Justice, supposedly dedicated to preventing just this sort of incident, were absent from the scene.
Elizabeth Neumann, Trump’s assistant secretary at DHS for counterterrorism and threat prevention, resigned in 2020 in protest of the administration’s ideological approach to violent right-wing extremists. She gave an interview that exposed in detail how the administration not only failed to “inoculate [conservatives] from that recruitment and that radicalization,” but also took actions that had “the opposite effect. We have the president not only pretty much refusing to condemn, but throwing fuel on the fire, creating opportunities for more recruitment through his rhetoric.”
After the panel ended, I walked outside. It was a beautiful blue autumn day; the blazing desert heat of the Israeli summer had only recently receded. A slender, dark-haired, curiously intense man approached me. He introduced himself as an official with the “Office of the Prime Minister” and asked if I would be interested in briefing his “colleagues” on some of our lessons from the United States.
Of course, I said. Inquiring with my own colleagues afterward, I learned that the department name was a euphemism. I was being invited to brief Shin Bet, Israel’s FBI, which usually referred to itself as the “Office of the Prime Minister” for confidentiality reasons.
Over the next couple of months, the man and I had several exchanges over WhatsApp about my talk, and I was invited in person to the headquarters for a prep session, where I was treated to coffee and a fruit plate. My interlocutor and a colleague advised that, although much of my talk had focused on averting the internal indecision and lack of planning that had plagued the response to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, they were most interested in the point I’d emphasized through the anecdote about the State Department official: What lessons might they draw about the dangers of political co-optation to government agencies dedicated to intelligence and counterterrorism?
In mid-December 2022, I showed up at Shin Bet’s headquarters. After being ushered through several layers of security, I was greeted by a room of a couple dozen friendly faces. I went over the events before, during, and after the notorious riot in Charlottesville, and the group, as predicted, homed in on the danger that domestic intelligence agencies can be co-opted by ideological extremists. They repeatedly asked about my observation that the federal agencies—DHS, DOJ, and the FBI—had not intervened.
They were particularly interested to learn that independent investigations had proved the link between ideology and lack of preparedness. As The New York Times Magazine reported in a 2018 exposé on the Trump administration’s cozy relationship to white nationalism, white supremacists and other far-right extremists were responsible for the majority of fatalities in domestic terror incidents from 2008 to 2017, as compared with Islamic extremists. Nevertheless, according to P. W. Singer, a national-security expert at the think tank New America who had met with Trump-administration officials, the agencies were focused instead only on “foreign-born” terrorists.
Shin Bet’s questions were precise and apolitical. My questioners were, I realized, concerned. Watching them, I was reminded of the fathers and mothers of my friends growing up in Arlington, Virginia—civil servants in federal agencies, who were at a remove from the politicians who came and went in their agencies. I saw that these Israeli civil servants were worried about further tremors from the political earthquake that had just occurred in Israel, with the reelection of Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition.
Although they took pains not to be too specific with me, an outsider, about their worries, their questions suggested that a primary concern was how the right-wing bias of the new politicians could, as in Trump’s government, distract or deter them from the work of protecting the public.
The questions about ideological capture ended up consuming most of the meeting. How did the ideological capture happen? (Trumpism drew on nationalist sentiments that had significant currency among aggrieved white Americans.) How did the federal failures intensify the conflict in Charlottesville? (A state-level DHS memo drawing attention to the potential for domestic terrorism four days before the rally was marked “confidential” and never reached Charlottesville’s city council or the litigation that was under way to stop the rally from occurring.)
The Shin Bet meeting took place on our last day in Israel. We flew out that night, after a final meal of hummus and shakshouka at Tel Aviv’s popular restaurant chain Benedict on Ben Yehuda Street. We were close to the Mediterranean Sea, almost within earshot of the hundreds of people playing beach volleyball, yet we were overseen by dozens of security cameras bristling on poles. We were a 20-minute walk from the site of a terrorist attack on Dizengoff Street that killed 22 civilians in 1994.
We came home to a country that, despite projections of a “red wave,” seemed to have rejected a takeover by ideological extremism. Republicans had not won a supermajority of the Senate; they were not going to impeach and convict President Joe Biden. But back in Israel, the convulsions were only just starting. I stayed in touch with several friends who played leading roles in the summer’s protests. One, a captain in the army reserves, helped close down the airports in protest of Netanyahu’s policies. Another, a conservative professor, found himself joining the demonstrations together with his young family.
These were valiant attempts to halt the new government’s march to shut down an independent judiciary. Yet the sparkle of what appeared to be an awakening constitutionalism in Israel hid a deep rot. In the days since Hamas’s horrifying attack on southern Israel, I’ve been haunted by my conversations with Israeli civil servants—by both what the politicization of their jobs augured for Israel’s security and what their experience suggests for the United States.
I’ve realized since my visit that, like a virus to a new host, ideological capture can have many strains. Reports are emerging of just how dysfunctional the Netanyahu government has been at the agency level. One Associated Press review explores how a number of agencies were paralyzed by the coalition’s focus on nationalistic enterprises, subverting the independent judiciary, and then dealing with the massive protests in response. Gideon Rahat, a political-science professor at Hebrew University, told the AP reporter, “When you are a populist government and all you do is talk and tweet and write posts instead of doing real things, when you are needed you don’t know what to do.”
This misplacement of priorities particularly undermined the intelligence community. Indeed, as The Times of Israel reports, Ronen Bar, Shin Bet’s head, warned in August that terrorist attacks by Jewish Israelis against Palestinians in the West Bank were fueling Palestinian terrorism. Two of Netanyahu’s coalition lawmakers then opined that “ideas of the left have reached the top” of the security agency and that senior defense officials do not know how to “distinguish between the enemy and your own people.”
The New York Times recently published a startling exposé of the security failures leading up to the attack, including the revelation that Israeli security officials spent months trying to warn Netanyahu that the “political turmoil caused by his domestic policies was weakening the country’s security and emboldening Israel’s enemies.” Yet Netanyahu refused to listen, according to the article, or even meet a senior general who “came to deliver a threat warning based on classified intelligence.”
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant voiced support for the civil service in a statement: “Thanks to the members of the Shin Bet and their leader, who operate far from the public eye, the lives of Israeli citizens are saved every day … Any attack by public figures against the Shin Bet harms the security of the state and its citizens.”
But by and large, the nationalism of Netanyahu’s coalition led his political appointees to neglect and underestimate intelligence about Hamas. The New York Times reported that as recently as late September, senior Israeli officials expressed concern that Israel might be attacked soon on several fronts by Iran-backed militia groups, but ignored the potential for Hamas to initiate a war with Israel from the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, American spy agencies, acting on cues from Israel, had largely stopped collecting intelligence on Hamas and its plans, “believing the group was a regional threat that Israel was managing.”
The reckoning is only beginning, as is the political infighting and ideological positioning. The chief of Shin Bet has apologized for the failure of Israeli intelligence to foresee the attack: “As the one who is at the head of the organization, the responsibility for this is on me.” But the ideological politician–Netanyahu–later issued an early-morning tweet stating that “all the defense officials, including the heads of Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet assessed that Hamas was deterred.” Outrage within his emergency government forced Netanyahu to delete the tweet and retract the political assault on the country’s professional agencies. But the damage was done. One wonders about further chilling effects on the independence of Israel’s intelligence agencies.
Israel plainly has enough to worry about in terms of getting its house in order. Its experience also holds an important lesson for the United States. Heading into next year’s presidential election, Donald Trump and his allies are promising to double down on their earlier pledge to root out the “deep state.” As The Atlantic has reported, immediately upon his inauguration, Trump would most likely “seek to convert thousands of career employees into appointees fireable at will by the president.” He would assert full White House control over agencies, including the Department of Justice, that for decades have operated with either full or partial independence.
America devised its civil service during the Progressive era precisely to ensure that a major part of the government could work free from political pressure. Civil servants earn pensions, keep their job regardless of the political appointees who are “layered” on top of them, and ensure that the work of the government proceeds with continuity despite elections. After all, most government work, including the gathering of intelligence, does not burp forth in four-year increments timed to election cycles.
Civil servants are unfortunately often fair game for politicians. They are made fun of and attacked, described as, variously, bureaucrats or members of the deep state. But Americans should have no illusions about the new phase their democracy is entering. As in Israel, the United States is engaged in a grand battle not only over extremism, but over whether the state can stand separate from extremism. The fight is therefore not just about politics, but about the viability of government itself. As both Israel and the United States show, federal agencies are democracies’ gates against chaos. They must be defended, lest the barbarians truly take over.