Analysis

Netanyahu Had More Than Islamic Jihad in His Crosshairs

Right-wing identifies former IDF chief as a threat

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi to announce the assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata in Tel Aviv, November 12, 2019.
Moti Milrod

The two days of bombing in the Gaza Strip put the political developments into the shade but it is impossible to disconnect the two. Netanyahu still presided over the start of the crisis wearing his two hats – that of prime minister and of defense minister. Naftali Bennett took up his new position as defense minister only in mid-morning and was somehow shunted aside in the victory celebrations – whoops, sorry, the joint press conference with the chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet – that was held about an hour after the new minister officially took office. 

There is no way of knowing how long Bennett will remain, as a member of a transitional government, in the Defense Ministry but for now he is trying to fix in the public’s mind his image as a legitimate candidate for the position in the long term as well. The perks that come with he position – bodyguards, solemn photographs with top officers and smiling selfies with soldiers, endless air time in radio and television interviews – are worth their weight in gold in political terms, as long as there is no really major military screw-up. 

Throughout the operation in the south, it was apparent that Netanyahu was not taking his eye off the other ball he has in play: undermining the possibility, the chances of which looked slim in any case, of Benny Gantz and his Kahol Lavan party being able to put together a minority government with the support of the almost entirely Arab Joint List. On Wednesday, as the rockets were still zooming into Sderot and Ashkelon, the prime minister took the trouble of attending the special session of the Knesset after completing a visit with Bennett and Kochavi to the Gaza Division. Very quickly the added value of the Knesset session became clear from his perspective. In his speech, Netanyahu attacked the Arab Knesset members and accused them directly of war crimes by the Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip.

That same message has been echoed by his spokespeople and his sycophants over social media for several days now: All the Arab Knesset members are supporters of terror and therefore even their support from the outside for a coalition headed by Kahol Lavan would be illegitimate and forbidden. It is not by chance that recently appearances by Gantz and another former chief of staff from his party, Gabi Ashkenazi, have been interrupted by heckling from right-wing activists accusing them of being leftists and Arab-lovers.

In the meantime, another few precious days of the mandate to form a government that Gantz received from President Reuven Rivlin have been irretrievably wasted. It appears that Netanyahu’s line of argument is posing a difficult problem for Gantz. The sense of a constant security threat, if not from Gaza then from Iran, is persistently fueled by Netanyahu. In these circumstances, the public revulsion at a third election only increases. And even though every sensible person is aware that the coalition talks are revolving entirely around Netanyahu’s attempt to save himself from his legal troubles, Gantz is liable to be accused of having been the one who thwarted the establishment of a unity government and led to another election. 

Gantz and Ashkenazi are not alone. The former chief of staff who served in the position after them, Gadi Eisenkot, is once again in the gunsights. The bone-cracking embrace from the right that Kochavi is getting has already been discussed here a number of times. The chief of staff justly earned praise for the functioning of the IDF during the operation this week in Gaza, even if it was sometimes accompanied by an unpleasant tinge of journalistic fawning. However, during one of the special programming broadcasts on Wednesday, someone made the astounding assertion that the army’s success under Kochavi in hitting the launch cells was in fact a correction of neglect on the part of his predecessor, Eisenkot.

Not mere neglect, but rather intentional neglect: Eisenkot’s policy, it was claimed, prohibited the army from hitting terrorist missile launchers in the previous rounds of escalation in Gaza – and all the attacks were directed only at the enemy’s offices and depots. In other words, the previous chief of staff is a kind of traitor, who by consciously ignoring the launch cells enabled the enemy to aim untrammeled at Sderot and Ashkelon. 

Then-IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (L) visits the Northern Command during Operation Northern Shield, July 14, 2019.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit

There is hardly any need to say that this is a totally false. However, let there be no mistake here: Its aim is not only to glorify Kochavi, and more importantly to glorify Netanyahu, who appointed him to the position (and who also of course appointed Eisenkot and Gantz; in all three cases he in fact approved the defense minister’s recommendation). An additional target has also been marked out here, in a plan that often reflects the daily list of talking points from the prime minister’s official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. Eisenkot cut short his demobilization furlough from the IDF, at the end of March, and because of the election campaign that was underway then, his passage through the cooling-off period required of top military officers before they enter politics was accelerated. From the moment he did that, Eisenkot has been a potential political threat that has to be thwarted.

Kochavi didn’t have time this week to keep track of the broadcasts. However, his glory will not come from complicated songs of praise on Army Radio broadcasts. And it certainly doesn’t need to be built upon systematic belittling of his predecessor’s deeds. An old military saying holds that the answer to the question of who the two worst officers in the organization are will always be: my predecessor and my replacement. Kochavi has never taken this approach in the past. There is no reason for him to enable it now.