RAMALLAH //Israel's former domestic spy chief has launched a withering attack on Benjamin Netanyahu less than three weeks before national elections.
Yuval Diskin accused the Israeli prime minister of mismanaging Israel's response to Iran's nuclear programme and missing opportunities for progress towards a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
"I am convinced we deserve a better leadership that's braver and more moral, and that sets a better personal example," said Mr Diskin, an outspoken critic of Mr Netanyahu since retiring as head of the Shin Bet intelligence agency in 2011.
"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."
In an interview with Israel's bestselling Yediot Ahronot newspaper, the former spy chief accused Mr Netanyahu of acting illegally by ordering preparations for an attack on Iran without cabinet approval. Mr Netanyahu "wants to go down in history as the person who did something on this size and scale", he said.
"When I look at Netanyahu, I don't see a shred of personal example as a leader in him," Mr Diskin said. "There is a leadership crisis. It's a crisis of value, it is total disregard for the public.
"People may think that I see this in an overly extreme manner. I am telling you that from up close, things look even worse.
In the interview, Mr Diskin recalled a meeting with Mr Netanyahu, the defence minister Ehud Barak and Avigdor Lieberman, the former foreign minister, when he was head of Shin Bet.
The three ministers smoked cigars and drank alcohol during their discussions about Iran's nuclear facilities. Mr Diskin described the meeting as "bizarre".
Mr Diskin also warned of a Palestinian uprising because of Mr Netanyahu's intransigence on the peace process. The recent lull in conflict with the Palestinians, he added, was "an opportunity that the political echelon should not have missed".
"Netanyahu fears ideologically taking a step towards the two-state solution and, furthermore, he is not built for this by nature, he cannot make decisions of the magnitude made by" his predecessors, Mr Diskin said.
He accused Mr Netanyahu of weakening the moderate Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and strengthening the militant Hamas faction,
Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council that represents Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, said Mr Diskin's criticism was part of a smear campaign.
Mr Diskin's comments had "nothing to do with Mr Netanyahu's capabilities as a leader", said Mr Dayan, an ally of Mr Netanyahu's pro-settler coalition who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.
"I see it as politically driven. There is an orchestrated effort by part of the media, the security and former security establishment to remove Mr Netanyahu from office."
He also speculated that Mr Diskin may be disgruntled at being passed over to head Israel's Mossad intelligence agency. "He had plenty of opportunities while in office to express that he was uncomfortable with the way the country is being led," Mr Dayan said.
Yediot Ahronot and other Israeli publications, including the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, have ratcheted up criticism of Mr Netanyahu in the run-up to voting on January 22, when the prime minister is expected to be re-elected.
They say his policies have strained Israel's relations with the United States. In addition to bellicose rhetoric on Iran, Washington has also been angered by Israel's accelerated expansion of settlements on land Palestinians want for their state.
Mr Diskin - who last year accused the prime minister of seeking a "messianic" war with Iran - is not alone in voicing frustration with the Israeli leadership.
In August, Gabi Ashkenzai, a former chief of general staff of Israel's military, cautioned against striking Iranian nuclear facilities. That was also widely seen as a rebuke of Mr Netanyahu, who in September warned during an address in front of the United Nations that Iran would reach a "red line" this year if it continued to enrich uranium.
Mr Netanyahu's office dismissed Mr Diskin's criticism as "fatuous".
* Additional reporting by the Associated Press