Filling the power vacuum
The State Comptroller inquiry into the travels of Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu poses a political, diplomatic and security threat to the prime minister's freedom of action.
The State Comptroller inquiry into the travels of Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu poses a political, diplomatic and security threat to the prime minister's freedom of action. Even calling it the "Netanyahu Inquiry" is incriminating, suggesting his decisions were motivated by external considerations. In his messianic quest to remove from Israel strategic-existentials threat from the east, Netanyahu likes to pretend he is Churchill. But Churchill also needed the agreement of Roosevelt (and Stalin ).
Netanyahu will need the consent of Barack Obama for any action he takes, or at least an assurance that he will get away with it. At home, he will need to overcome pockets of resistance among the operational corps, who defy the conventional wisdom about military chiefs being more trigger-happy than their political leaders.
Netanyahu's main partner is Ehud Barak, the most sophisticated politician to grace the Middle East since Anwar Sadat. He is so sophisticated that you can never tell what his main thrust is, as opposed to the the diversionary maneuver. In 1982, while serving as a major-general, Barak proposed to Ariel Sharon, the defense minister at the time, that Israel attack Syria in an operation whose details only half a dozen of government and military leaders would be privy to. The rest would be distracted and misled. An IDF lightning strike, he said, would get the Americans to "quickly recognize the new reality." Sharon decided to go for Lebanon instead. In 1991, then-deputy chief of staff Barak withstood pressures from Defense Minister Moshe Arens, Air Force Commander Avihu Bin-Nun and others to attack West Iraq, but during talks held at the Pentagon, he understood the benefit of having the IDF semi-openly prepare for war. The U.S. assessment that Israel might be pushed to action caused Washington to boost its own efforts in West Iraq.
Barak and Netanyahu need a decision-making mechanism under their control and military professionals that think like they do. They have progressively diluted the stock of the public in the most fateful decision of this era - from the electorate to the Knesset, from the Knesset to the MKs who made the deals to create a government, to the ministerial defense committee and finally to the cabinet of seven. Their goal will be achieved if the cabinet of seven decides to empower a triumvirate - made up of the prime minister, the defense minister, and a third member, preferably a friendly minister or chief of staff, as Galant was meant to be - to decide on the timing and outline of a military operation.
Clause 40 of the Basic Law on Government requires that any declaration of war be approved by the cabinet. It also allows a handful of ministers to determine "military operations needed for defending the state and public security," but only in the case of responding to an attack, not initiating an operation that can be expanded into war. It is unclear whether Barak and Netanyahu will invite senior professional officers who think otherwise to share their reservations with the rest of the cabinet. The law also obliges the government to inform the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee about its plans. Strategically speaking, this committee is not as convenient for Barak and Netanyahu under its current chair, Shaul Mofaz, as it was under Mofaz's predecessor, Tzachi Hanegbi.
State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss was only recently dragged into this mess, as part of his investigation of the so-called "Harpaz affair," in which a document was forged in order to influence the appointment of the next army chief of staff. It was said at the time that Gabi Ashkenazi should have handed over the Harpaz document to the comptroller himself, rather than wait for the affair to explode. The lesson has been learned, and about two months ago, a senior officer delivered to the comptroller huge mountains of documents, about 100 megatons worth of political and personal explosives, concerning decisions on strategic matters made by the top political and military brass.
The comptroller is now reading the material, some of which has been described as hair-raising. Lindenstrauss prefers constructive pre-emptive criticism over hand-wrenching reports written after the disaster. In an interview to an internal newsletter in his office, Lindenstrauss spoke about "real-time inquiries, in special situations when public interest warrants their conduct even as the event in question is still taking place, to fundamentally influence decision-making already at the early stages."
Both inquiries, the open one pertaining to actual flights heading west and the covert one pertaining to different kinds of flights heading east, put Netanyahu in a pincer-like clutch. The comptroller's assertiveness in these matters is a sign the power vacuum created by the weak leaders of the Netanyahu-Barak government.