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Netanyahu Ditches Rule Book to Become Super Statesman in Saudi Arabia

By leaking news of the meeting, Netanyahu wanted to achieve three goals

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprise visit to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the week has opened up a new affair: the Prime Minister’s Office forbidding his military secretary, Brig. Gen. Avi Bluth, to report to his superiors in the Israel Defense Forces about the trip while it was happening. Netanyahu is continuing to chalk up diplomatic achievements, but along the way he is ignoring most of the accepted rules of the game relating to the defense establishment. Netanyahu has been acting of late as someone who believes with all his heart that “L’état, c’est moi.”

The meeting in the Saudi city of Neom with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was held after a series of clandestine meetings between the sides, and was meant to bolster the anti-Iranian alliance in the region, which has grown closer during U.S. President Donald Trump's tenure. But internal political considerations seem to have been behind the publication of the report in the Israeli media. This time, the military censor was not asked to prevent the publication, as is customary in such cases. In addition, a tweet was posted by one of Netanyahu’s advisers – which may have been quickly corrected, but was enough to draw the attention of all Israeli media.

With the publication of the news on the meeting, Netanyahu wanted to achieve three goals: To reinforce his image as a super-statesman, capable of weaving secret and surprising moves with the Americans and Saudis; to yet again embarrass his coalition partners from Kahol Lavan, who once again learned about the secret trip from the press; and to quickly change the media agenda by removing from the headlines the commission of inquiry set up by Defense Minister Benny Gantz into the so-called submarine affair.

Prime Minister Netanyahu's military secretary, Brig. Gen. Avi Bluth in 2016.Credit: IDF Spokespersons Unit

But to poke a finger in the eye of Kahol Lavan, it is necessary to preserve compartmentalization. In the same way that he hid the normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain from Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, this week, too, Netanyahu hid his visit to Saudi Arabia. And in order for Gantz, the defense minister, not to know, it was necessary to keep chief of staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi out of the loop, too.

The person who suffered from all this was Bluth. It is not the first time Netanyahu has thrown him – or other military secretaries – under the bus when needed. Two years ago, the Prime Minister’s Office leaked the accusation that Bluth did not pass on to the military the decision to stop the evacuation of homes in Amona.

Back in 2009, Netanyahu’s media adviser Nir Hefetz – today a state’s witness against the prime minister – made sure to involve his then-military secretary, Maj. Gen. Meir Khalifa, in lies to the media to hide Netanyahu’s secret trip to meet Vladimir Putin.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 2020. Credit: Oren Ben Hakun

Netanyahu is now at the stage where all means are justified in the battle for his survival – and it seems he doesn’t care about anyone else. Even more important than the damage to Bluth is the damage to Kochavi. At the highest professional level, Kochavi was the only one who didn’t know about the trip. The media reported that Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat participated in the summit – and the head of the Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman (who reports to Netanyahu, not Gantz), seems to have learned of the meeting from the Shin Bet’s security unit, which accompanied Netanyahu on the trip.

The military tried on to recall whether a precedent exists for such an occurrence. Gen. (ret.) Danny Yatom, who was the military secretary for Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, did say that when he served in the post at the heights of negotiations surrounding the Oslo Accords, there were many trips made without informing the chiefs of staff. But in recent years, the military has been under the impression that the Prime Minister’s Office knows to keep it updated discreetly, without any fear that anything will leak. What has changed, of course, is the nature of the relationship: Netanyahu could not stand his two previous defense ministers, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, but his relations with Gantz are even tenser and worse – certainly in light of the possibility of a fourth election within two years.

A trip such as Netanyahu's requires, under proper procedures, clandestine but organized preparations by the government and military: The appointment of an acting prime minister, establishing communications procedures with the delegation, preparing the air force in advance in case of the need to carry out a rescue mission – what happens, for example, if the plane is forced to make an emergency landing in the Saudi desert? None of these things were done this time because of the desire to compartmentalize and embarrass Gantz and Kahol Lavan – as if they are not doing that job well enough themselves.

Under normal circumstances, Kochavi would have been expected to protest, but these are not normal circumstances. The latest incident just proves what Netanyahu’s rivals have said the entire time: As experienced and skilled as he may be, there is no way to continue to run a country as complicated as Israel, and stick to business, and keep your cool, all while when you are on trial in three serious corruption cases and spending a large part of your time trying to come up with political tricks to save you from your fate.

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