Israeli Politicians, Political Maneuvering and Military Gains

There are good historical reasons to suspect hidden motives behind the prime minister's U-turn on the Shalit deal.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Benjamin Netanyahu is good at explaining, but has difficulty deciding. When he finally makes a problematic decision and attempts to explain why he did so - he only adds to the worry: In whose hands is the State of Israel, and where is he leading it?

When engaged in lengthy bargaining, one occasionally tends to become mired in the details and to fall in love with minutiae. True, the forest has burned down - what can you do? But a certain iconic ancient tree survived and became a symbol. On the one hand, hundreds of murderers will indeed be freed, but on the other, Israel's adamant demand that they be transported to freedom by bus and not train was accepted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

In the historic balance, the Palestinian resistance movement and Muslim fanaticism scored a huge victory this week. They initiated a move, carried it out, held firm - and defeated Israel. They thereby proved that patience pays off, that Arab time beats Western time, and in the face of such patience, military and technological supremacy are meaningless. From an operational standpoint, this is a message that will spread across the Muslim world, from Hamas to Hezbollah and the assorted Jihad movements, from East Asia to South America, from China to Sinai, reaching every youth who has no need of a chain of command or weapons infrastructure to get up, kidnap a random Israeli, stash him in a readymade hideaway, and demand 1,000 prisoners for his release.

Netanyahu is remembered as the ambassador to the United Nations who opposed the Jibril deal in 1985 - to the point where he sabotaged a television interview that had been arranged for his political patron, Moshe Arens, to explain the rationale behind the deal. Netanyahu and Ehud Barak know that never before have two such arrogant veterans of the elite Sayeret Matkal unit capitulated like this to Ahmed (Ja'abari ) and Mohammed (Def ). This is a painful disillusionment, the motives for which can be interpreted only in a context that goes beyond that of the Gilad Shalit deal. The modus operandi of Netanyahu and Barak shows a willingness to absorb a small loss if they think it will help them attain a great success. The behavior of prime ministers and defense ministers in previous affairs provides telling indications that add up to a clear direction: toward some sort of a military adventure.

* What do you do when someone in the leadership is of a different opinion? The case of Sharett: In 1956, David Ben-Gurion decided to go to war against Egypt. To assure himself maximum control, he ousted from the government then-Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, who opposed his belligerent line. When he coordinated the Sinai Campaign/Operation Kadesh with Britain and France, he made a point of not informing Sharett, who was humiliated for his ignorance while on a visit to India.

* What do you do when there's an important matter, and an even more important matter? The case of Begin: In the spring of 1981, Syria moved surface-to-air missiles into Lebanon. Menachem Begin wanted to attack the missiles. Bad weather and U.S. intervention caused the operation to be canceled. Begin reconsidered and decided that attacking the Iraqi nuclear reactor was more important than hitting the Syrian missiles. Since Israel might pay a heavy political price for each of the two operations, the reactor should take precedence, he thought.

* What will the Americans say? The case of Sharon: Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, while visiting U.S. Secretary of States Alexander Haig in May 1982, imagined that he would secure from Haig an understanding for an operation in Lebanon in retaliation for a "mass provocation" whose essence remained unknown. That was the shaky premise for the assumption that the Reagan administration - in which Haig was not among the more powerful players - would show restraint over the invasion of Lebanon two weeks later. The allegory is fairly obvious: placing people where the decision makers see fit, subjugating secondary concerns to a single top priority, and assuming that the U.S. administration will react with indifference or even support, not active opposition.

The Netanyahu-Barak government began operating in March 2009. On one miserable matter, peace talks with the Palestinians, it purported to begin anew and remains stuck to this day. On two other matters - the danger of Iran's nuclear program and a deal for Shalit's release - a reshuffle of the defense leadership occured but was delayed.

Benjamin NetanyahuCredit: Amos Biderman

Barak and Netanyahu regretted Gabi Ashkenazi's fourth year as Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Yuval Diskin's sixth year as head of the Shin Bet security service, and Meir Dagan's eighth year as head of the Mossad. They inherited the first from the preceding government, which was acting on the advice of then-Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. The additional years for Diskin and Dagan were granted by Netanyahu, with Barak's approval (under a political agreement between them ).

Ashkenazi and Dagan made it hard for Netanyahu and Barak to take action against Iran. Diskin stopped them from capitulating to Hamas on a Shalit deal. In both these matters, the politicians were afraid to confront the incumbent professionals in government discussions, subsequently also in public, and ultimately - in the event that politicians ignore the professional warnings and the warnings are subsequently realized - even perhaps before a commission of inquiry as well.

Personnel solution

The solution this time, as in the case of Sharett, was a personnel change. Foreign Minister Golda Meir was more junior in the party hierarchy, personally loyal to Ben-Gurion, and a fan of belligerence. Netanyahu and Barak wanted Yoav Galant as IDF chief of staff and did not want Gadi Eizenkot. They got Benny Gantz, who thus far has gone to the trouble of avoiding confrontations with the defense minister and taken steps to set himself apart from Ashkenazi.

Gantz did not fall on his sword and appoint Colonel Sharon Afek military advocate general, as per Ashkenazi's emphatic recommendation. The present chief of staff also preferred to appoint Rear Admiral Ram Rothberg as navy commander - not Ashkenazi's recommended choice, Rear Admiral Rani Ben-Yehuda. This, of course, does not mean that Gantz will buckle in every case and under any sort of pressure. It could be that he is storing up goodwill and hoarding proof of the pertinence of his positions in various disputes.

The most reliable experts in Israel estimate that the danger inherent in the Iranian nuclear program will come to fruition in 2014 at the earliest. Their calculation is based on Iran's leader, Ali Khamenei, taking about a year to decide whether to turn the capability he has been piling up in parallel channels (materials, missiles, warheads ) into nuclear weapons, and another year or more from the moment the decision is made until operational capability is achieved.

Even if, for argument's sake, we presume that this assumption is shared by the IDF top brass - Gantz and Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kohavi - an experienced prime minister or defense minister could opt for another assessment. There are two conditions for doing that: The first is finding another reliable expert, just as Aviezer Yaari, the head of MI's research branch in the run-up to the Lebanon War, told Begin, Sharon and Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan what they wanted to hear - as opposed to MI chief Yehoshua Saguy. The second is that the person who is assessing the policy and who disagrees with the defense minister not emulate the passivity evidenced by Saguy, who tried to excuse his lame behavior by saying "I moved aside" (and eventually was moved aside by order of the Kahan Commission ).

Barak was angry a few weeks ago at GOC Home Front Command Eyal Eisenberg for having concluded that the chance of a regional conflagration had increased, but it seems that Eisenberg was correct. The regional thermometer shows that precisely because Syria is weak at the moment and Egypt is still governed - although not entirely ruled - by the High Military Council, a major multi-front clash could erupt, with rockets and missiles from north and south on the Israeli home front, in retaliation by Hezbollah and Hamas for a big IDF operation or even as a preemptive strike, at Iran's behest.

The change in the Shin Bet's position, with the move from Diskin to Yoram Cohen, came as no surprise. It was foreseen the moment Netanyahu decided to skip over the leading candidate, A., who was too closely identified with Diskin's thinking. In organizations with a rigid hierarchy, like the Israel Air Force and the Shin Bet, it is enough to screw on a new head to thoroughly alter the organization's position. When Yitzhak Rabin wanted to cancel the Lavi project, he appointed as IAF chief, in place of the aircraft's advocate Amos Lapidot, its outspoken opponent, Avihu Ben-Nun. In Cohen, Netanyahu found a Shin Bet chief behind whose back he could hide in agreeing to the same deal he had always described as capitulation to terror.

As for the green light from Washington, Netanyahu and Barak's gamble is especially big. Maybe they think that Barack Obama will show restraint and that the Arab countries, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, will secretly be glad to have been spared the necessity of deciding whether to follow in Iran's footsteps and go nuclear. If the two Israeli ministers are wrong, this is a particularly dangerous illusion. After the statement by U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on board his flight to Tel Aviv and again at IDF headquarters - that "coordination" is required against Iran - should Israel take action, it would give an impression that there is such coordination. That, as we recall, is how Begin implicated Anwar Sadat at their meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh on the eve of the attack on the reactor in Iraq - four months before Sadat's assassination.

On the domestic front, Netanyahu's U-turn in the Shalit affair erased most of the distinctions between the political parties. If every prime minister, from every party, regardless of his presumption to a worldview, eventually gives in to the dictates of reality, what makes the Likud superior to Kadima, or Labor to Yisrael Beiteinu?

To put it in the terms of which Netanyahu is so fond, he behaved like Chamberlain this week, in trying to depict capitulation as an accomplishment. The day is not far off, Netanyahu believes, when Churchill will emerge from him. Until that happens, he would do well to give in once more, this time to the medical residents. They are needed in the hospitals, in preparation for the escalation in honor of which Netanyahu and Barak strove to close the file on a Shalit deal.



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