Netanyahu Knows a Pre-election Terror Attack Could Aid Trump

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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A memorial outside The Stonewall Inn remembering the victims of the Orlando massacre in New York, U.S., June 13, 2016.
A memorial outside The Stonewall Inn remembering the victims of the Orlando massacre in New York, U.S., June 13, 2016. Credit: Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Sometimes, leaders receive intelligence about a planned attack in another country. That poses a dilemma. Do they a) give the foreign country full information, b) provide a limited warning that won’t reveal their sources or c) provide warning only if the foreign country is friendly?

Israel has provided such warnings to the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, and even to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (about a planned assassination attempt), in hopes that they would then show gratitude. But what if decision-makers in Jerusalem thought a regime change in the foreign country would benefit Israel?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, 17 July 2016. Credit: Abir Sultan, Reuters

Hillary Clinton is making mincemeat out of Donald Trump in the presidential race. One of the few people who still thinks Trump could win is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Associates say they have heard him muse aloud, “Another Orlando, another San Bernardino ...” In other words, if America were hit by more terror attacks like those two, voters might yet turn to Trump.

Netanyahu knows this from firsthand experience. In 1996, he was trailing in the polls, but a wave of Hamas suicide bombings in February and March swung enough votes his way that he nosed out Shimon Peres on Election Day, May 29.

Netanyahu believes that his own continuance in power is vital for Israel and that a Republican administration in Washington is good for his continuance in power. That invites a flight of fancy: If a Trump victory is not only good for Israel, but vital, and terror attacks are good for Trump, what would Israel do if it received information about a planned attack in the United States?

Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up as he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 2016 Policy Conference at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., March 21, 2016. Credit: Saul Loeb, AFP

An actual such dilemma arose in the early 1960s, after French President Charles de Gaulle decided to withdraw from Algeria, prompting French officers who opposed the decision to plot his assassination. The ‘50s were been the peak years for French-Israelisecurity cooperation; in 1956, the two countries (along with Britain) even joined forces in a war against Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who supported the Algerian liberation movement. Thus the rebel officers had worked closely with Israeli officials and expected their sympathy, and perhaps even support.

In an interview with Micha Friedman in 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recalled that in the late ‘50s, when he was a student at a military college in Britain, he was approached by the French liaison to the ground forces during the Suez/Sinai campaigns, Col. Jean Simon, about the possibility of Israeli help for the plotters. The French officer knew that Sharon, the paratroops commander, had a direct line to Israel’s leaders.

That overture went nowhere, but two years later Israel faced a more difficult decision.

A source in the anti-Gaullist organization told Israel’s military attaché in Paris about the assassination plot and asked for Israel’s help in carrying it out. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Foreign Minister Golda Meir, Defense Minister Shimon Peres, Mossad chief Isser Harel and other senior officials then debated what to do: Help the plotters, tell De Gaulle or do nothing?

The argument for helping was that if the coup succeeded, the grateful plotters would, it was hoped, restore French-Israeli ties, which had chilled somewhat under De Gaulle, to their previous warmth. The argument against was that Israel would suffer serious damage if its involvement in assassinating the leader of a friendly Western country became known — especially if De Gaulle survived.

As for simply keeping mum, the argument in favor was that Israel didn’t want to expose an intelligence source. The argument against was that the “source” could be a plant by French intelligence to see how Israel would respond.

In the end, Israel told De Gaulle, and the plot failed. But he didn’t remain grateful for long.

America in 2016 is not France in 1961, and it’s inconceivable that Israel would even consider a similar betrayal of its greatest benefactor. Moreover, though the government could in theory order the intelligence agencies to temporarily stop their routine sharing of information with their American counterparts, in practice doing so would be almost impossible.

One proof of this is the way Netanyahu’s plan to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities was stymied by the refusal of senior military and intelligence officials to cooperate. One of the army officers who opposed that plan was Gadi Eisenkot, who at the time held a comparatively junior post. Today, as army chief of staff, he is even more influential.

Just this week, Eisenkot again demonstrated his independence when he allowed Military and Strategic Affairs, a journal published by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, to publish the edited transcript of a lecture he gave in January. In it, Eisenkot asserted that the nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers signed in 2015 was a “strategic turning point” that had produced a real change in Iran’s nuclear conduct and entailed opportunities as well as risks. This is the diametric opposite of the view held by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, both of whom consider the deal disastrous.

Thus it’s hard to see Eisenkot agreeing to look the other way should an order come down to refrain from transmitting information about a planned terror attack in the United States. And it’s equally hard to see Netanyahu being crazy enough to give such an order — especially since his meetings with senior military and intelligence officials are all recorded.

“I don’t believe anyone would dare to prevent the transmission of warning information, except in an extreme case involving fear of exposing state secrets and a risk to the lives of thousands of Israelis,” a former senior defense official well-versed in Netanyahu’s ways said yesterday. “And if such an order were given, it wouldn’t be carried out, even at the price of resignations by senior officials for reasons of conscience.”

If so, thoughts about “another Orlando, another San Bernardino” will remain mere speculations, or at most (though nobody will admit it) hopes. Israel will do nothing to make such an incident more likely, and Clinton will make hamburger of Trump, to the dismay of Netanyahu and his patron from Las Vegas, Sheldon Adelson.