Benjamin Netanyahu.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Photo by AP
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In 1966 Israel was suffering from a recession. Disappointment and despair led to a wave of emigration from the country, or at least a wave of discussion about emigration. The depressed atmosphere gave rise to jokes that were directed mainly against Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who had previously been the finance minister. One of the jokes was about a sign that was said to have been posted at Lod airport: Will the last to leave please turn out the light.

Less than a year later, Israel had emerged from the recession. Depression gave way to euphoria, the economic crisis was replaced by abundance and prosperity. What changed the situation was the Six-Day War. There is not one iota of proof that the political leadership here had any interest in initiating the war. On the contrary: Most of the historical documentation from the period proves that Israel didn't plan to go to war, and mainly was surprised, to the point of near paralysis, by the moves of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who brought his forces into the Sinai Peninsula, violated a signed treaty and accelerated the escalation that led to war.

In spite of that, after the '67 war, there were claims to the effect that the political leadership had had an interest the previous year in heating up the border with Syria, in light of the diversion by Damascus of the Jordan River's sources, in order to divert attention from the recession. Those who seized on that claim in particular were Arab pundits and experts. For example, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the influential editor of Al Ahram during Nasser's tenure, wrote, not only in connection with the Six-Day War, that the Israeli leadership plotted military adventures every time it faced a domestic crisis.

In modern history, wars have often served to bring about economic growth, which in turn distracted attention from domestic problems that made the government uneasy. The United States was extricated from the Great Depression not only thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, but also because of World War II, which increased the economy's production capacity. Yet, in the public discourse of the past two weeks - since the beginning of "the people want social justice" revolution - only a few have dared to express the fear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to extricate himself from the political pressure he is encountering, would try to foment a security crisis by heating up the border in the north or carrying out a campaign against Hamas. One of them was MK Zahava Gal-On, of Meretz, who said things in that spirit to Yossi Verter in last Friday's edition of this newspaper.

A hint of a similar viewpoint, even if unintentional, could be heard in a TV interview this week with Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom. He mentioned that one of the reasons for the outbreak of the protest is the fact that there has been quiet on the security front in Israel in recent years, which enables the public to concentrate on issues of society and the economy. Anyone who believes in conspiracy theories might have concluded that the quiet could be shattered overnight, causing the protest to dwindle and returning Israel to the security agenda so familiar to successive governments. Shalom spoke in that same interview, as did most of his fellow cabinet ministers who appeared in the media, as if he were just a commentator - someone who bears no responsibility.

In private conversations and even at the huge rally in Tel Aviv last Saturday, one could hear a number of voices who raised the possibility that a war could be launched as a tool of diversion.

Another scenario that some people envision - a favorable one, as opposed to that involving a military escalation - is a deal to release Gilad Shalit. Until now Netanyahu was opposed to the price Israel is being asked to pay for the captive soldier's return. But the prime minister has in the meantime lost the little confidence that the public had in him, and one moderate assessment being voiced about him is that he is capable of doing anything to extricate himself from the threat that is hovering over his coalition.

The 1997 precedent

Such talk is based on a precedent: Netanyahu's 1997 decision to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, although at the time the objective was revenge rather than to divert public opinion from other matters. In the wake of two attacks carried out by Palestinian terror organizations in Jerusalem, Netanyahu had ordered the Mossad to carry out a counter-operation. "He actually demanded a 'retaliation,'" recalls someone involved in the decision-making process.

According to testimony given later by Shin Bet security service chief Ami Ayalon, Military Intelligence head Maj. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, the prime minister didn't consult with them. Danny Yatom, then a new and inexperienced Mossad chief, wanted to prove to his subordinates that he was worthy of the position.

The result was an irresponsible decision to assassinate Meshal, then still a relatively junior member of Hamas, on Jordanian soil. It's true that Netanyahu was responsible for the failure, but so were Yatom and several Mossad department heads, who should have opposed a risky operation whose failure endangered Israel's special strategic relationship with Jordan.

Netanyahu is considered to be hasty, someone who changes his mind (although not his core beliefs ), and who will do anything to improve his public image. One indication of that can be found in defiant statements by former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who has warned that Netanyahu and/or Defense Minster Ehud Barak are liable to order an attack on Iran.

But the prime minister is also thought to be someone who hesitates, doesn't immerse himself in details, and above all is afraid of taking risks. Thus, in terms of risks versus opportunities, the possibility that he will initiate a military adventure is presumed to be very slight. Moreover, such a move would require a cabinet decision, or one by the "forum of seven" ministers, and it's doubtful that Dan Meridor, Benny Begin or Eli Yishai would agree. Furthermore, the Israel Defense Forces' top brass and heads of the security services will not embark on a dangerous process whose beginning is known, but whose conclusion is hard to assess, just so Netanyahu can keep his seat. Should anyone actually consider a military operation as a solution to the country's distress, he will no doubt be accused of unbridled foolhardiness and of being willing to endanger the lives of innocent young people. This fear alone should deter Netanyahu. At the same time, he can always hope that the protest will die out on its own, that the summer heat will have its effect - or that the Arabs will show that they can be relied on to make every possible mistake and save a prime minister who is in dire straits.