In Bid to Repair Mr. Security Image, Netanyahu Lets Secret Slip

What is it with Netanyahu and Syria? Once a decade, he reveals classified information regarding our problematic neighbor to the northeast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on an army tour in the Golan Heights, April 11, 2016.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

From time to time, Netanyahu likes to publicly reprimand cabinet ministers for leaking information from secret forums, notably the security cabinet. The rebuke usually takes the form of a press briefing attributed to “sources in the prime minister’s bureau.” He’s far more lenient when it comes to his own faults. Maybe he subscribes to former President Richard Nixon’s comment to David Frost, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

On Monday morning, Netanyahu attended an exercise of a reserve brigade of the Paratroops in the Golan Heights. Like his predecessors, he likes to don dark battle dress, make a foray into the field, peer through binoculars and have his picture taken with the troops. This week, swept on the wings of a photo-op, he let loose a security secret. “We act when we need to,” he said, referring to Israeli air force activity in Syria against arms shipments earmarked for Hezbollah, “including here across the border, with dozens of strikes meant to deny Hezbollah game-changing weaponry.”

Until now, we thought Israel was sticking to a policy of ambiguity, silence and no comment, so as not to humiliate Syrian President Assad publicly and thus provoke him into retaliating. The members of the security cabinet, too, were surprised to discover from the media that this “hush-hush” matter, as one of them put it this week, was now public knowledge. “For years, we’ve been told that silence on these issues is critical, and suddenly, like nothing, it’s out there,” said one security cabinet minister who asked not to be named.

The members of this intimate club feel deeply frustrated: Either they are kept in the dark about major developments, or, when they are told secrets, they turn out to be not so secret. Some ministers conclude that Netanyahu has embarked on a political damage-control operation to repair the battering his security image took on the issue of the soldier who shot a wounded Palestinian in Hebron last month.

The premier’s initial statement, made a few hours after the incriminating video clip became public – when he declared unequivocally that the killing of the so-called neutralized terrorist was contrary to the values of the Israel Defense Forces – is still scarring him on the electoral right. His subsequent words, silences and morale-boosting phone call to the soldier’s father (which infuriated Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon) apparently didn’t do the trick. So of late, he’s been going “into the field.” He visits the army at least once a week. Three weeks ago, he and his wife handed out Purim food gifts to soldiers in the Etzion Bloc. This week he was in the Golan Heights. On Thursday he and Sara had been scheduled to visit an army base near Petah Tikva, so as to wrap gift packages for Passover, but that visit was canceled at the last minute. Who knows what secret thereby remained unrevealed?

What is it with Netanyahu and Syria? Once a decade, he makes public classified information regarding our problematic neighbor to the northeast. In 1995, as leader of the opposition, when he was privy to sensitive materials, he revealed from the Knesset podium the existence of a document drawn up by Brig. Gen. Zvi Stauber, from the strategic division of the IDF’s Planning Directorate, ahead of a meeting between then-Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and his Syrian counterpart.

In September 2007, in the wake of the destruction of a nuclear reactor in northern Syria, opposition leader Netanyahu told Channel 1 News that he had been in on the secret and added congratulations to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Nine years later, like a broken watch that suddenly starts running, the turn of another secret-to-be-revealed arrived. And it’s always Syria on the receiving end.