With less than two months to go before the Knesset election, Israel’s northern borders are tense again.
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Days after the attack on a Hezbollah convoy in the southern Syrian province of Quneitra that claimed the lives of Jihad Mughniyeh (the son of assassinated Hezbollah military leader Imad Mughniyeh) and an Iranian Revolutionary Guard general, the Israeli army is reportedly beefing-up its forces in the north, closing several roads near the Israel-Lebanon border.
Israel has so far refused to either officially confirm or deny carrying out the strike that now has its northern forces on high alert, but Reuters quoted an anonymous senior Israeli security source that claimed not only was the Israel Defense Forces responsible, but that the Iranian general was killed by mistake and was not the intended target. The source also said Iran or Hezbollah “are almost certain to respond.”
Aside from questions regarding its efficacy and success, the motives and timing of the strike have also been called into question this week. This happened after Yoav Galant, the former commander of the IDF’s Southern Command and current no. 2 in Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, implied that the Syria strike was related to the upcoming Knesset election.
“There are ongoing security concerns, and in that regard I believe [the defense establishment] is operating responsibly,” Galant said this week in an interview for Channel 2 News. “Having said that,” he added, “past events can teach us that sometimes the timing is not unrelated to elections.”
As an example, Galant brought up the killing of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari, killed in November 2012 in Gaza roughly two months before the January 2013 elections. “There were other dates in which we could have killed Jabari,” said Galant. “I was commander [of Southern Command] for five years before that and there were many opportunities we could and should have killed Jabari, and in fact I recommended it, but for some reason it didn’t happen then.”
The implication of what Galant said was clear. Following Jabari’s death, the IDF carried out Operation Pillar of Defense meant to eradicate rocket attacks on Israel’s southern towns. The operation, which lasted eight days, was launched during an election campaign that came in the wake of Israel’s biggest social protest ever and had, until then, been focused exclusively socioeconomic issues. Following the operation, Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister once again, heading a hawkish right-wing government. Accusations that the timing of the operation had something to do with the election were raised at the time by media pundits, but such charges were not levelled by anyone with Galant’s security credentials — until now.
Needless to say, Galant’s words caused quite the stir. Economics Minister Naftali Bennett called it “the greatest lowpoint of these elections,” and warned that Galant’s words “might benefit the enemies of Israel.” Others praised Galant for his bravery. “Thank you very much, Yoav Galant, for one thing: that you spoke the truth,” wrote Tal Niv in Haaretz. “Thank you very much for saying what you see, laying bare the cynical dimension of the assassination, even if in the process you have made yourself a target for pressure from the right wing.”
Galant has since been forced to retract his comments, but the damage — for him — was already done. Inadvertently, Galant has corroborated something that Israelis have long since suspected: that there might be some connection between the timing of certain IDF operations and the political needs of the people in charge of the army. Galant was rebuked for implying that Israel’s defense establishment is guided by political interests, but it’s not hard to see the source of this viewpoint.
A short history of IDF attacks during election campaigns
Israel’s defense forces, after all, do have a long history of conducting major, potentially region-changing operations prior to important elections, specifically important elections where the governing party (both left and right-wing) seemed destined to lose.
In June 1981, for instance, three weeks before the conclusion of a very tight election campaign between (then-PM) Menahem Begin’s Likud and the Shimon Peres-led Alignment, Israel’s air force destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. The successful attack featured prominently in Likud’s campaign, and Begin won — barely. Begin denied the connections drawn between the timing of the attack and the election, but was still accused of opportunism by Alignment officials, including former president Chaim Herzog, who questioned the timing of the strike.
Peres, who lost the 1981 elections by 10,000 votes, faced similar allegations in 1996, after launching Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon five weeks before an election. Peres, prime minister and also defense minister at the time (following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin), was facing a very rough election campaign, his chances of winning diminished by a series of bus bombings and rockets attacks on Israel’s northern towns. Operation Grapes of Wrath, however, didn’t make Israelis feel safer and Peres ended up losing to Netanyahu anyway.
Then, three months before the 2009 election, came Operation Cast Lead. Outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert wasn’t running, but his successor Tzipi Livni was, and also then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Both Livni and Barak were considered leading candidates for prime minister, and with Benjamin Netanyahu (the eventual winner) claiming their government jeopardized Israel’s security, both needed a win.
In 2012, it was Netanyahu who faced an uphill battle to regain his premiership prior to Operation Pillar of Defense. As implied by Galant, killing a senior Hamas official prior to the election didn’t hurt.
And now, as Netanyahu is falling behind the center-left Zionist Camp in the polls, suddenly Israel allegedly strikes a Hezbollah convoy and kills an Iranian general, conveniently playing into Netanyahu’s campaign promises to be tough on Hamas and Hezbollah. Netanyahu wants to remain prime minister, Moshe Ya’alon wants to stay on as minister of defense. Both have a lot to gain from a successful blow to Hezbollah.
In all these cases, there were concrete security concerns and sound intelligence that determined their necessity. However, their timing was suspect and conveniently fit with the interests of the governing politicians to build their security credentials and solidify their status as “tough on terror.”
One can’t say for certain that all these decisions, some of which led to the deaths of thousands, including dozens of Israeli soldiers and citizens, were solely motivated by cynical political needs. But at the very least, what the similarities of their circumstances attest to — and that is, presumably, what Galant meant to imply — is that the judgement of the Israeli leaders who ordered these strikes might have been affected by their political aspirations.
What makes Galant’s comments meaningful, perhaps even the most meaningful thing said during this otherwise-meaningless election campaign, is that never before has a high-ranking security official admitted that there might be a direct correlation between the army’s actions and the political needs of its commanders.
It was a disturbing, incendiary remark, one that revealed a great big hole at the heart of Israel’s democracy, and it’s too bad Galant didn’t stand by it. Even though the evidence supporting his case could only be, by default, circumstantial, it still amounts to a very damning picture. Did Israeli politicians repeatedly endanger the fate of both Israelis and non-Israelis, and the stability of the region, only to score points in the polls? Reality may not be that cynical, but even if there is a shred of doubt — and Galant revealed more than a shred — then something is very, very wrong.