Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the UN General Assembly on Thursday refined all the trends of his recent appearances on this stage: impressive rhetoric, an aggressive stance on security, as well as new and detailed intelligence information.
Netanyahu, more than in the past – and certainly more than his predecessors – intentionally blurs the lines that once separated intelligence work from public diplomacy. Netanyahu’s tactic undoubtedly sends fear down the spines of the veterans in Israel’s intelligence community, but it’s hard to ignore its quick impact on the international agenda.
The new intelligence that Netanyahu presented included two main discoveries. In a secret facility in Tehran, Iran is hiding large quantities of materials that can be used to make nuclear bombs. This information reportedly came from the Mossad. Meanwhile, in the heart of Beirut, Hezbollah, with Iran’s help, has set up facilities to improve the accuracy of its rocket arsenal. The source of this information is the Israel Defense Forces.
Netanyahu’s messages were directed in large part at the International Atomic Energy Agency, stressing the need to keep putting pressure on Iran because of its violations of the 2015 nuclear deal. Also, Hezbollah now knows that Israel might later act against sites the organization thought were secret. And now everyday Iranians in Tehran and Lebanese in Beirut know that dangerous facilities are being built in their own neighborhoods.
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The exposure of the missile sites in Beirut continues the campaign of recent years against Hezbollah’s military buildup. This is mostly against efforts by Hezbollah and Iran to upgrade the Lebanese organization’s rockets and missiles so that if war erupts, they will be able to systematically hit both military targets and infrastructure facilities on Israel’s home front.
Israel’s mid-month airstrike on Latakia, in northern Syria, during which Syrian anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian plane, was similarly meant to thwart the smuggling of manufacturing tools from Latakia to Beirut for use in this “accuracy project.” And in recent months, Western media outlets have published a great deal of information about Iran’s use of civilian flights to ferry weaponry to Damascus and Beirut.
Netanyahu’s speech was backed up shortly afterward by aerial photographs and other information published by the IDF. Israel revealed the accuracy project’s final station – three facilities in Beirut where Hezbollah, with Iran’s help, is building the technical infrastructure needed to upgrade missiles close to home instead of relying on the dangerous smuggling route through Iraq and Syria, which is vulnerable to attack.
The IDF says Hezbollah is still working intensely on the process. The weapons plants, which have not yet become efficient industrial production lines, are under a soccer stadium in a residential neighborhood, less than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from Beirut’s international airport.
Israel’s public warning will force Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to reconsider whether he wants to continue the project. Netanyahu didn’t directly threaten to attack these facilities, but the very fact that he disclosed the information hints that Israel might attack, just as it has attacked Iranian sites in Syria.
But at stake is something far more important than that. Hezbollah has repeatedly declared that any Israeli attack on Hezbollah targets inside Lebanon, in contrast to airstrikes on arms convoys in Syria, will lead to war.
Netanyahu’s UN speech received limited attention in the U.S. media due to the drama taking place during the Senate’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. But as usual in recent years, some people volunteered to compensate the prime minister.
The embarrassingly fawning performance by ministers Miri Regev and Ayoub Kara at the ceremony to welcome the Sabbath, under the satisfied gaze of Netanyahu and his wife, now seems as much an inseparable part of the package of the annual visit to the General Assembly as the polished performance at the speaker’s podium the day before.
Narrowing margin of error
At the end of last year, Military Intelligence placed a pessimistic forecast on the table of the cabinet and security cabinet. The heightened military friction with Iran in Syria, along with the grave infrastructure situation in the Gaza Strip, have increased the risk in the year ahead of an unplanned war due to a miscalculation or local incident, MI said in a report. The situation was most sensitive in May amid the Iranian threats of revenge against Israel for its attacks in Syria, the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and the Palestinians’ violent demonstrations at the Gaza border.
The situation calmed down somewhat during the summer because of Israel’s resolve on both fronts. Iran scaled back its rhetoric a bit, and the United Nations, Egypt and Qatar bolstered efforts to achieve a long-term arrangement for Gaza, which so far has yielded only a partial cease-fire.
As October looms, and all the more so as the new year approaches, warning signs are reappearing. Lebanon is a new focus of concern. Along with the weapons plants, tensions might arise over the fence the IDF is building at a number of points along the border. In the next few weeks, the planned work on the barrier will reach two areas where the border is in dispute, near Kibbutz Misgav Am and east of Rosh Hanikra.
But the real ticking bomb remains the Palestinian arena, most potently the Gaza Strip but the West Bank as well. Two weeks ago, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot warned the security cabinet about a growing risk of escalation in the Palestinian territories. The reconciliation effort between the two Palestinian camps has run aground, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is frustrated by the U.S. sanctions against him and the total stalemate in the peace process, despite the renewed interest that U.S. President Donald Trump has suddenly showed, in his inimitable convoluted way, in the two-state solution. On top of that, Gaza's Health Ministry said seven Palestinians were killed, including two boys age 12 and 14, by Israeli fire during clashes along the border Friday.
On Thursday, in what is something of an exception, we received good news from New York. At the conference of nations that donate aid to the Palestinians, which is held alongside the annual UN General Assembly, a preliminary agreement was reached that could ease the electricity shortage in Gaza, at least slightly.
After months of discussions, the special UN representative to the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, has reached something of a breakthrough. It looks as if Qatar will agree to join up and finance the supply of fuel for Gaza’s power plant. This means, or so everyone hopes, a significant increase in the power supply to the Strip to eight hours from four.
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The Qatari aid is estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars. But the recent harsh reports on Gaza’s infrastructure attest to the urgent need for additional economic aid.
Thus, the IDF’s conclusions as 2019 looms: Israel’s strategic balance has improved given its military power and strategic alliance with the United States, and to a lesser degree with some of the region’s Sunni Arab countries.
But Israel’s margins of error are narrower than they were, and the region is in a state of tremendous volatility. This year, despite the security tension, Israelis’ feelings of security have remained solid, and the economy continued to grow. But maintaining those achievements next year looks to be much more difficult.
Friday morning shock waves
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is no longer trying to hide the disagreement: Netanyahu wants to appoint Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir as the next IDF chief of staff, and Lieberman opposes this choice, reported Ben Caspit in Maariv on Friday. Lieberman wants to promote Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon to the post, or, it seems as his second choice, Deputy Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi.
The next three weeks are key. If in mid-October Netanyahu announces early elections, as rumor has it, it’s possible the appointment of the new chief of staff to replace Eisenkot will be postponed until after the vote; that is, until the spring. The same goes for the appointment of a new police commissioner to replace Roni Alsheich
After the elections, the negotiating strength of all the sides will change. If Netanyahu wins big, as most opinion polls show, his ability to influence these senior appointments will grow. And it’s not at all certain that Lieberman, or Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, will remain in their posts. Presumably this is the reason for the timing of Caspit’s article on the appointment. If it’s true that Netanyahu and Lieberman don’t agree on the appointment of the new chief of staff, it would be better for Lieberman to bring the matter to a head now and try to force a decision.
Netanyahu, unlike during his first term as prime minister in the late ‘90s and immediately after his return about a decade ago, tends to be more deeply involved in appointments of senior officials. Also unlike the past, he’s in no hurry to accept the recommendations of the minister in charge or approve anyone perceived as the “natural candidate” by the organization in which he serves.
Caspit’s article also sent shock waves through the General Staff on Friday morning. Zamir is considered a talented and decent officer, but his appointment as chief of staff over more veteran generals would be met with criticism. This is partly because he has served as Netanyahu’s military secretary, though unlike other officers who have held the post, Zamir was careful not to sully himself in politics.
Then there’s of course the question of experience. Zamir has only served in two positions as a major general: as Netanyahu’s military secretary – therefore with no active membership in the General Staff – and as Southern Command chief. Kochavi has headed Military Intelligence and Northern Command, and has been deputy chief of staff, while Alon has headed the Central Command and the Operations Directorate.
Caspit's article will now make the race for chief of staff even more frantic and could introduce a bad atmosphere, something the four candidates (the fourth is Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, whose chances are considered slim) have been very careful to avoid.
For no fault of his own, Zamir will suffer for being “Netanyahu’s man.” Alon may very well face a campaign by the settlers against him. And Kochavi, the most experienced of the bunch, will now be seen as a compromise candidate who may be the default choice. Whoever wins will reach the finish line bruised but owing gratitude to Netanyahu. Maybe that was really the idea after all.
Time on his hands
Two weeks have passed since the resignation of the two representatives of the public appointed by Netanyahu to the advisory committee for vetting senior civil service appointments. But even though high-level appointments await decisions and approval – like the IDF chief of staff and police commissioner – Netanyahu has yet to announce who will replace those two representatives.
The apparent disagreement with Lieberman, with a possible early election in the background, could conceivably leave Netanyahu seeking to extend Eisenkot’s term by a few months; his term ends on January 1.
A short summary of the previous episodes: Netanyahu appointed to the civil service appointments panel Brig. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Nagel, a former deputy National Security Adviser, and Iris Stark, the new president of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Israel.
A nonprofit group, the Movement for Integrity, petitioned the High Court of Justice against the appointments on the grounds that the two are close to the prime minister. The court held a hearing on the petition this month; the justices hinted that they weren’t comfortable with the appointments. Immediately after Rosh Hashanah, Nagel and Stark announced that they were withdrawing their candidacies.
Since then, Netanyahu has gone off to New York to speak at the United Nations, amid the crisis with Russia over the downing of the spy plane. Netanyahu returns from the United States only on Sunday, and government ministries won’t resume full work until Tuesday after the Simhat Torah holiday. On October 15, the Knesset’s winter session opens, with the unresolved crisis over drafting ultra-Orthodox young men into the IDF in the background. Netanyahu is considering calling for early elections in mid-October, which would be held early in 2019.
If that's what happens, a further delay in the senior appointments is possible. Four years ago, then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein offered a strict interpretation that curbs a lame-duck government during an election period. At the time, Weinstein delayed the appointment of the new police commissioner.
The question now is what the current attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, will decide concerning the appointment of the IDF chief. In any event, it’s clear that the time for appointing the chief of staff and police commissioner is dwindling, though that might be less the fruit of calculated planning and more Netanyahu having a lot on his plate, and his tendency to procrastinate regarding appointments.
As Haaretz reported in June, the possibility of extending Eisenkot’s term came up a few months ago amid the tensions on the Syrian front and the clashes on the Gaza border. Eisenkot had his reservations and told various forums he intended to complete his tenure as scheduled; this would give his successor full input regarding the IDF’s work plan for 2019.
Regarding the new police commissioner, the appointment comes at a sensitive time for Netanyahu in light of the corruption investigations against him and his wife. Protocol stipulates that if no new chief is appointed, the cabinet may vote to make the deputy commissioner acting commissioner. Alsheich’s term ends in December, after Erdan decided not to extend his term.