Netanyahu Excluded His Defense Chiefs From Cabinet Call Approving Gaza Op

PM reportedly held telephone consultation with the cabinet from which he shunned defense chiefs who had expressed concern over his intention to carry out massive action in the Strip

Netanyahu meeting with defense officials at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, September 15, 2019.
Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consulted with members of his security cabinet last week in a telephone conversation with excluded the chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet security service. At the end of the call, the premier got approval to carry out extensive military action in the Gaza Strip, Israeli daily Maariv reported on Tuesday. 

According to the report, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit was informed by defense officials about Netanyahu's consultation and told the prime minister that the move was illegal, insisting that a formal security cabinet meeting be held at which the views of top defense officials would also be heard.

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The security cabinet telephone consultation took place last Tuesday night, after Netanyahu already held an urgent defense consultation in which defense establishment chiefs expressed their opposition to the move, as Haaretz reported earlier this week. 

That inital consultation happened hours after the prime minister was rushed off stage from a campaign rally in Ashdod when sirens sounded in the southern Mediterranean port town due to rocket fire from Gaza. Netanyahu was escorted by security guards to a shelter, while hundreds of supporters in the audience remained unprotected. The rocket was intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, and the prime minister returned to the stage and resumed his speech.

Netanyahu wished to have the army carry out rar military action in the coastal enclave, which could have had far-reaching repercussions. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who was updated on the developments, thought that the law obligates Netanyahu to make such a decision only after he holds a thorough cabinet meeting in which the consequences of such a move would be explained by expert defense entities.

However, Maariv's report indicates that Netanyahu made do with a telephone call instead of an actual discussion. In that conversation, the cabinet members were not made aware of the reservations defense officials had shared with Netanyahu, and the call ended with the cabinet green-lighting the move. 

The reservations of the defense chiefs stemmed from two reasons, as Haaretz has learned: One of them was that a massive attack in Gaza would cause significant damage to the environment; the other was that a Palestinian response could include a big rocket barrage orchestrated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which would bring the escalation to the threshold of war. 

Some of the defense chiefs, although they did not share this with Netanyahu, suspected that his considerations were not entirely pure and also had to do with the upcoming election. 

During ensuing discussions, which lasted over several days, the head of the National Security Council asked the chairman of the Central Elections Committee to attend the meeting. In the meeting, National Security head Meir Ben-Shabbat said that Israel intended to set out on a military campaign that could lead to the election getting postponed, and asked Melcer to prepare accordingly. According to Israeli law, the Knesset could decide to postpone an election in special circumstances such as war, in a majority vote of 80 lawmakers. 

Eventually, the Israeli military did not carry out an extensive strike, attacking instead several Hamas targets in the Strip that did not result in casualties.