With three police recommendations that he be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reached the point where anything he says or does will be viewed through the prism of his legal predicament and political survival. And now he is serving as prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister, that problem will only intensify.
Netanyahu seemed fully aware of this on Tuesday night when he gave his statement on Operation Northern Shield at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. The leader who rarely gives credit to anyone else praised his cabinet colleagues, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and all its soldiers, and even the previous defense minister and now his bitter critic, Avigdor Lieberman. The message was clear: Contrary to the aspersions being cast during the day by the opposition that this was actually “Operation Netanyahu Shield,” designed to divert the public’s attention from cases 1000, 2000, 3000 and 4000, there had been a professional and nonpolitical decision-making process.
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But IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot’s face said it all. He didn’t enjoy being part of the political show with the embattled prime minister. He didn’t even mention Netanyahu in his own short statement. Instead, he kept to the facts, giving the precise date when the decision to embark on the operation was made (November 7), and said that “it is taking place before the (Hezbollah) tunnels become operational.”
But why was the decision announced at this particular moment?
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A former IDF general who has worked extensively with both Netanyahu and Eisenkot said in the first hours of the operation that “Eisenkot wouldn’t have allowed himself to be part of a political operation. There are lots of operational parameters that determine the timing, and also non-operational ones. I can’t say whether Bibi as a politician didn’t have some of those parameters at the back of his mind. I don’t believe, however, that the operation is itself political, the IDF has been working on the Hezbollah tunnels for years and there was going to have to be a moment when it would come out into the open. The timing may be another matter.”
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When the IDF embarks on a major operation nowadays, there is always a media appendix to the operational plan. This is one of the main lessons of the trauma of the Mavi Marmara raid in 2010, when the footage that the naval commandos filmed while boarding the ferry was stuck in the pipeline for hours, while the only images in the media were those made and distributed by the Turkish activists. When Defense Minister Netanyahu authorized the plans for Operation Northern Shield, he would also have been presented with alternative PR strategies.
Was it necessary to make such a media festival out of what is just another stage in an ongoing operation? Hezbollah could have been notified by any number of other channels that Israel was only operating on its side of the border. The mysterious flight on Monday to meet U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels didn’t have to be so public – and anyway, Israel has so many other ways of informing the Trump administration. As a journalist, one has to appreciate all this information being offered. But as a citizen, one can’t help asking whether this uncharacteristic military transparency is serving other interests.
In some ways, Israel has never had a better PR machine, headed by the elder salesman of all times, Netanyahu. The various government communications departments have been expanded with an emphasis on social media, or as it’s being called in the Foreign Ministry, “digital diplomacy.”
But government press officers complain of a lack of guidance and clear strategy, which they say derives from a vacuum at the top of the ministries. “Netanyahu is prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister, which basically means we have no foreign minister because that is the lowest priority,” says one long-suffering diplomat.
Another issue that comes up in conversations with government PR experts is the lack of strategic thinking in the government’s media policy and how it has all been co-opted to Netanyahu’s personal agenda. This is also affecting the IDF spokesperson's unit, now under direct command of the new defense minister – Netanyahu.
Even within the unit, there are officers who admit it has disproportionate influence on the national "hasbara" (public diplomacy) effort. The spokesperson's unit has 150 career officers, 400 conscripts and thousands of reservists at its disposal. No other PR department is in possession of such resources, and as its visual props it has an entire army of sexy combat soldiers, tanks and fighter jets. When the civilian press officers are demoralized and disillusioned, the military takes over.
Netanyahu himself is surrounded by alumni from the unit. His official spokeswoman, Shir Cohen; his new media operators Topaz Luk and Yonatan Urichl; and his unofficial but most influential media adviser, his son Yair – all served as conscripts in the unit. It’s unclear whether the PM’s press office has been militarized or the IDF spokesperson's unit is being politicized. Either way, it’s an erosion of already blurred lines.
The IDF is about to become the main prop in Netanyahu’s survival plan.