Fear and Loathing in Israel's New Coalition

Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon loathes Barak, and he isn't especially fond of Mofaz. Now they, Netanyahu and the rest will be tackling the Iran issue together.

We'll always have Iran. The ayatollahs' nuclear project remains the ultimate excuse for every political move in Israel. But for the time being, it appears the main reason Kadima joined the coalition is the desire of both sides to ensure their political survival.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is offering an Iran-centric explanation, if only implicitly. But it serves his purpose well: to present a "credible threat" that Israel will use force against Tehran, as Chief of Staff Benny Gantz described it recently to Haaretz. The memory of the unity government on the eve of the Six-Day War helps prove the thesis that adding Kadima allows moves against Iran with broad agreement.

Netanyahu and Mofaz.
Tomer Appelbaum

But there's a problem with this thesis: Both publicly and privately, Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz has objected to the idea of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Mofaz possesses more strategic understanding and qualifications than most of the people who raged this week against his self-interested decision to join Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the government. The great unknown is whether he can be relied on in the security cabinet, the forum of nine (formerly eight) senior ministers, and a possible forum of three, if Netanyahu and Barak bring him into their intimate circle.

The camps in the forum of nine are less clear than it appears. Ministers such as Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai have gone from pole to pole on the Iran issue. Defense sources say Netanyahu never stops talking about the military option, out of a deep inner conviction.

The frontier between Mofaz and Barak is liable to flare up, as happened in 1999 when Barak was prime minister and defense minister, and Mofaz IDF chief of staff. Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon is a member of the axis that is leading the new government. He loathes Barak; the two have been sparring since the Netanyahu government formed.

But Ya'alon isn't especially fond of Mofaz, either. When Mofaz was defense minister, he ousted Ya'alon as chief of staff - at Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's behest, on the eve of the 2005 Gaza pullout. Can Ya'alon and Mofaz cooperate as part of a moderate axis in the forum of nine if the Netanyahu-Barak duo pushes for a military operation?

Ashkenazi - Milrod - 11.5.12
Moti Milrod

The tension is likely to grow in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election in November. This week the Obama administration announced an astronomical hike - given the troubled U.S. economy - of $680 million for Israeli security aid. This will allow Israel to acquire more Iron Dome and Magic Wand anti-rocket defense systems. (Magic Wand is still in its early development stages. ) In terms of security, no U.S. president has been more generous to Israel than Barack Obama. But that doesn't mean his loathing for Netanyahu has diminished, or that he is less angry at the prime minister's very transparent ties with Obama's Republican rivals.

The discussion more or less starts with the assumption that a reelected Obama would use the opportunity to settle accounts with Netanyahu. The president's hostility might also be reflected in the approach America takes toward the Iran issue after the election - and the fear of an American cold shoulder after November might also have an influence on Netanyahu's policy.

We dare you

At the beginning of April, a group of IDF officers paid a surprise visit to the Ulpana neighborhood in the West Bank settlement of Beit El. For months, the political decision-makers watched and did nothing, despite the High Court of Justice's May 1 deadline for evacuating the neighborhood's houses, which were built on privately owned Palestinian land.

Harpaz - Mayer - 11.5.12
Tali Mayer

The officers' visit triggered a chain reaction. The settlers were worried and approached Netanyahu, who convened a meeting on the subject a few days later. Gradually, a decision to ask the High Court for an extension beyond the two months already given took shape. The court rejected that request with disgust this week (a development that probably helped push Netanyahu to cut the deal with Mofaz ).

The current crisis was spawned by another petition to the High Court, in May 2011. Until then, the state had offered the same reply to every legal request to evacuate outposts: It is an illegal site and will be evacuated "according to priorities." In practice, nothing was done.

A year ago, the state prosecutor announced a policy change: Illegally established outposts on state land would be legalized; those built on privately owned land would be evacuated. The settler leaders, long familiar with Israeli governments that were weak when dealing with these issues, viewed this announcement as a great victory. It opened the way for the koshering of a number of outposts that sit on state land. As for the evacuation of outposts on private land, the settlers' outlook was: We dare you.

But it turned out that left-wing groups intended to force the state to keep its word to the court, and that the court was persuaded by their arguments. The result was a logjam of outposts and houses slated for removal within a few months in the settlement enterprise's ideological heartland, the Binyamin region: Ulpana, Givat Asaf, Migron and Amona.

Despite the elections that were moved up and then postponed, it's very hard to see how the Ulpana houses are going to be razed. The prime minister's aides are busily crafting legislation that will bypass the High Court and allow the neighborhood to remain intact. If so, the army will breathe a sigh of relief. No officer is eager to find himself at the heart of a violent and media-fraught clash with settlers. It's bad for the soldiers' morale and isn't exactly good for the senior officers' promotion prospects.

A new twist

The person who, as the minister responsible for the army, is also responsible for enforcing the law in the territories, is Barak. And he has committed to evacuating the outposts. Somehow, though, this issue seems to be capturing much less of his attention than the Harpaz affair, which erupted in August 2010.

A few weeks ago, some of the people in that affair - the alleged forging of a document to influence the choice of the next chief of staff - were allowed to see some of the material upon which was based in the state comptroller's report on the subject.

It's possible Lt. Col. (res.) Boaz Harpaz took advantage of the opportunity. This was the first chance to read the transcript of recordings made in the chief of staff's office. Those recordings, on which State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss drew when crafting his sharply worded draft report, documented conversations between Harpaz and Col. Erez Weiner, the assistant to Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

What happened next surprised the state comptroller and his staff. Even though Harpaz had spoken to the comptroller's staff last year, he hadn't provided substantial information about his relations with Ashkenazi and Weiner. This time, according to a letter the comptroller sent to the attorney general, Harpaz, in his response to the draft report, made serious allegations "against Ashkenazi, Weiner and the former IDF spokesman, Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, [claiming they had] used him to collect information."

The draft report blames Weiner for using Harpaz as an agent; this is based on the comptroller's interpretation of the recordings. (Weiner disputes this interpretation, claiming these were idle remarks by Harpaz.) Harpaz has now singled out Ashkenazi as his handler.

This wouldn't be the first time a suspect has turned against his superiors after discovering they had abandoned him. In fact, the notion that this chief of staff left this sensitive story for his assistant to handle looks a bit odd. In his sessions with the state comptroller, Ashkenazi reiterated his account that he had not used Harpaz and had not sent him on a mission. He sincerely believed that the document Harpaz had brought him was genuine.

Harpaz, it must be remembered, hasn't turned out to be Mr. Credibility. For example, his allegation against Benayahu doesn't sound logical.

A different picture arises from the police investigations and testimonies given to the comptroller, namely that Ashkenazi kept the two channels separate. The IDF Spokesman's Office was dispatched to take part in the media campaign, which deteriorated into a brawl with Barak's office and Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant (Barak's candidate for chief of staff ) - without Benayahu knowing about Harpaz's actions. Whereas Harpaz operated, through Weiner, in a different, secret channel in which information was supplied.

The state comptroller, in any event, thinks that the new, dramatic testimony warrants the reopening of the police investigation. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is less impressed. After a few days of uncertainty and evasiveness, Weinstein issued a vague response: He will consider the matter in due course.

In the meantime, on Monday, after another postponement of a week, the High Court of Justice is scheduled to consider Weiner's request to oblige the comptroller to hand over all testimonies that formed the basis for the allegations against him.

The comptroller will have to hire a private lawyer, because the attorney general doesn't want to represent his position on this issue. If the High Court accepts Weiner's request, as seems likely, the release of the full report could be delayed until long after Lindenstrauss' term ends, in July.

The Ashkenazi-Weiner camp has been pushing a counter-allegation against Barak, based on the mysterious glitch that led to the destruction of recordings of conversations in the defense minister's office. Barak had a hard time quashing the suspicions of dirty tricks. But actually, the uncomplimentary opinion of Barak only strengthens his case.

Ashkenazi and his aides are now in a mess because of the bizarre instruction to record every conversation, however trivial, that took place in the chief of staff's office. (His successor, Gantz, has changed the policy: Only relevant conversations are recorded. ) It's hard to believe that Barak would have allowed total documentation, and in any case the investigation by the Shin Bet security service found no "communications data" (evidence of telephone calls) between Harpaz and Barak's office.

If all the energy and time being devoted to the Harpaz affair had been channeled to a more productive goal, it would have long been possible to take care of key issues like the draft of the ultra-Orthodox and shortening compulsory army service. In the meantime, Gantz is the personification of the nonpolitical businesslike approach.

Still, in a country where soldiers are sent on life-threatening missions every day, the least we can expect is a thorough investigation and a clarification of the facts about their superiors' behavior. That requires the publication of the state comptroller's full report and perhaps the resumption of the criminal investigation.