Analysis

Netanyahu Spins Operation Against Hezbollah Tunnels Into Armageddon-style Mission

With an eye on the election and on his legal trouble, Netanyahu sows fear in the hearts of Israelis

GIF: Netanyahu launches a cake at Bennett's face.
Amos Biderman

What a difference two days make. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as he came across on Tuesday evening at the Defense Ministry, surrounded by technical props and with the chief of staff at his side, didn’t recall in the least the Bibi of Sunday evening, after the recommendation by the police concerning Case 4000 had been made public.

At the Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony with Likud activists on Sunday, the suspect in three bribery cases spoke from the depths of his heart, out of his fear of conviction. His speech was not as well organized as usual and he projected pressure, apprehension. The premier’s blistering attack on the outgoing police commissioner reflected a loss of control. Roni Alsheich is yesterday’s war. There’s no point wasting ammunition on a rival who’s basically extinct, except perhaps to boost the morale of party stalwarts who are starting to feel a bit nervous about their dear leader’s prospects of extricating himself from the mire.

At the Kirya defense headquarters in Tel Aviv, on the evening of a day that made every Israeli heart skip a beat – “The IDF has launched an operation” – and ended in an anticlimax, he was in his element: Mr. Security, and this time officially. The launching of the engineering project by the Israel Defense Forces along the northern border intended to neutralize Hezbollah’s terror tunnels (something that is already routine in the Gaza Strip area) was transformed by the world’s propaganda champ into a masterful piece of work that bolstered the essential narrative for his election victory. The message: Israel is on the eve of dramatic security decisions, and no one but he can lead the country in the existential era that looms.

His text was precise and focused. “Citizens of Israel,” he said. “There is more here than meets the eye. What you’ve seen now is only a small part of the overall picture of our operations and of the operations we are preparing in order to ensure Israel’s security – in all sectors.” He delivered each sentence slowly, emphatically, with pauses in the right places – reminiscent of what Golda Meir once said about Anwar Sadat: “I don’t know if he deserves the Nobel, but he definitely should get an Oscar.”

Netanyahu’s aides uploaded to his Twitter account a clip with his fateful declarations, garnishing them with a dramatic musical soundtrack that recalls Hollywood sci-fi flicks like “Armageddon.” Just before Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck lift off into space on a mission to blow up the monstrous asteroid, the violins and the cymbals pound us with a rising crescendo. (The same clip with Netanyahu’s statement in English was devoid of special effects; just goes to show what the prime minister’s new-media people think of the Israeli audience.)

When in Israel’s 70 years of existence has there not been more than meets the eye? When weren’t operations planned and executed by the thousands, all aimed at ensuring Israel’s security? Since taking over as defense minister, Netanyahu has already delivered two angry-prophet speeches. The first, dubbed the “speech of the sacrifice,” announced forthcoming military operations that were liable to exact victims, because of which he ostensibly preferred a truce over a confrontation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Security cabinet ministers who knew what was coming, guffawed. This week, after the second address, someone wondered whether Netanyahu is prime minister and defense minister, or head of Israel’s promo department.

Netanyahu has figured out the formula for penetrating voters’ hearts and minds in a way that no one before him has. His system is to plant seeds of fear and terror, which he then systematically cultivates and irrigates by way of a Chinese water-torture method of piling threat upon concern, danger upon complication, fright upon panic. There’s no hope in his lexicon, no future, and the only dream is a bad dream. Nor is there any light at the end other than the blinding flash of missiles.

It’s said that Netanyahu has fallen in love with the defense portfolio – there appears to be a lot to become enamored of – and he isn’t missing an opportunity to turn the position into a political bonanza. Many of his predecessors in the Defense Ministry liked having their picture taken in a boulder-strewn, untamed landscape in the company of photogenic IDF officers and soldiers. He too hasn’t abstained from that. But two blood-sweat-and-tears speeches live on prime time within just three weeks? Only Bibi can get away with that. Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned as defense minister last month, must be eating his heart out in his armchair in Nokdim, the settlement where he resides. His term of 30 moons had faded from the collective memory even before Defense Ministry staffers could change the copper plaque on the door of the minister’s bureau.

Netanyahu has gone through three defense ministers in the past decade. Two of them, former chiefs of staff Ehud Barak and Moshe Ya’alon, were pushed out of political life and are desperately seeking a way back in. None of them even tickles the soles of his shoes. The big question in the looming election will be: Will the third former chief of staff who’s now warming up on the sidelines, namely Benny Gantz, who is looking like the wild card in the race, succeed not only in tickling but also in scratching him?

Emergency merger

Netanyahu tours the Israel-Lebanon border, December 6, 2018.
Amit Shabi / Pool

The 45-day extension that the government was given to legislate a new army draft law will run out on January 16, 2019. From conversations with senior officials in the ultra-Orthodox parties, it emerges that the law that Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, MK Meir Porush and their rabbis hope for won't materialize in the next five weeks.

The conclusion is that the Knesset will be dissolved by the end of January, and the election will be held in the latter half of May, immediately after Independence Day and the Eurovision song competition. In the past it has been claimed that this is the timing Netanyahu is aiming for, for reasons related to the attorney general's expected decisions regarding the corruption probes and the exposure the prime minister will get at the Memorial Day and Independence Day ceremonies.   

Meanwhile, preparations for the election are underway. On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation is expected to vote on the so-called Gideon Sa'ar bill, which would limit the president's discretion in deciding who should form the government.

The bill's expected approval will appease Netanyahu, at least when it comes to President Reuven Rivlin. Netanyahu has gotten it into his head that Rivilin would do anything to deny him the mandate to form a government. This is Netanyahu's problem: He projects his dubious values on others, and thus causes himself unnecessary anxiety and existential fear.

After that, Netanyahu will be free to tend to other matters. In private talks, he expects that at the last minute, Gantz and his Knesset ticket will join forces with Zionist Union and former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, turning into a force to be reckoned with. How would one deal with such a scenario? Officials close to the premier have recently put out feelers regarding a potential emergency merger with Habayit Hayehudi. The idea wasn't rejected outright.

Public insecurity

The appointment of former Israel Police Maj. Gen. Moshe Edri as the force’s next commissioner was supposed to be a corrective experience for Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, after the traumatic failure to get Gal Hirsch appointed to that post three-and-a-half years ago. By now, Erdan is familiar with the apparatus, the procedures, the land mines and the pitfalls, as well as with the dangers that lurk for candidates hoping to become police chief. This second effort was supposed to end in a dizzying success, not a loud crash.

In August 2015, Erdan named IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Gal Hirsch as his candidate for the top spot at the police force. We all remember how that ended. It was actually Prime Minister Netanyahu who appointed Roni Alsheich – and lived to regret it. This time, however, it will be harder for Netanyahu to intervene so as to advance the selection of a commissioner who’s on his wavelength. The prime minister can’t be involved in any direct way, because he himself is a suspect. If he operates behind the scenes, he might be found out. He has enough investigations to contend with as it is.

With Edri, Erdan apparently did the proper homework vis-à-vis the Justice Ministry. He received a green light to proceed with the appointment. By the way, it is odd that his team didn’t discover the State Comptroller’s Report from two years ago that described the “culture of lies” that prevailed in the traffic division while it was under Edri’s command. He personally cancelled, on a wholesale basis, traffic violations and other fines earned by senior officers in the force, friends of his. Free advice, to future appointers: At times like this, Google can be quite useful. It offers access to a treasure trove of information.

But even without the wonders of the search engine, this appointment was stillborn. The most minimal due diligence would have ruled it out from the get-go. As the days passed, Edri proved to be a huge can of worms. The death blow was dealt by Amir Oren of the Walla news site, who reported that the candidate for police chief didn’t bother to tell anyone that the technician who administered his polygraph also advised him as to how to cope with the test. With sketchy norms like those, with such a lack of integrity, he should show some respect and go find himself a regular job.

Erdan’s choice of Edri, currently his director general, was natural: They had worked together, so there was mutual trust, and perhaps friendship and mutual esteem, too. After Alsheich – who couldn’t have cared less about the minister he was accountable to and made no effort to hide his attitude – Erdan hoped for better and less frustrating days alongside someone like Edri.

His second successive failure in what’s considered the crowning moment of the public security portfolio – appointing the commander of the police – hit Erdan in his soft belly: his judgment. He’s a veteran politician – this is his fifth Knesset term, he’s been a minister almost 10 years. But he hasn’t yet accumulated the mass of public regard that’s crucial for anyone who’s striving to catapult to the national leadership after Netanyahu (an “after” that’s getting closer).The Edri fiasco and the earlier Hirsch screw-up have implications for Erdan’s understandable ambition to reach the top of the pyramid when the time comes. And there were other snafus, too, such as his hasty statement about “a definite ramming attack” – which hasn’t yet been proven to be the case – during the evacuation of the Bedouin community of Umm al-Hiran. Erdan could have forged himself a leadership image and consolidated his public status if he’d taken a contrarian stance to Netanyahu in regard to the investigations of the premier. He chose a different route, because his gaze is focused on internal Likud politics. The protection Erdan gave police investigators who were subjected to frequent verbal abuse by Netanyahu and his cohorts, MKs and confidants of various stripes, was flaccid and glaringly insufficient. We didn’t hear a peep out of him after the nervous appearance of the suspect from Balfour Street at Kfar Maccabiah on Sunday, a large portion of which was devoted to defaming the police, and was delivered as if the one speaking was the most notorious criminal defendant.

Erdan’s cantankerous and childish reaction to the decision of the Goldberg vetting committee, which disqualified Edri last Thursday night, also didn’t serve his cause. It paved the way for an ugly offensive by problematic types such as former police Maj. Gen. Uri Bar-Lev or, by contrast, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who, in the heat of their burning ambition to topple the gatekeepers, insulted and offended Eliezer Goldberg, one of the most highly regarded former justices of the Supreme Court. Now, when it’s clear to everyone with eyes in his head that Edri is unworthy to be the top cop, or any cop – an apology would be in order.

The government’s term is approaching its end, along with Erdan’s as public security minister. He will leave the ministry bruised and battered, clutching his head in his hands. He’ll probably be elected to a high spot in the Likud primary ahead of the next election. Likudniks like him and perhaps will want to compensate him. But his future in the next Netanyahu government looks bleak.

Erdan’s relations with the imperial couple are rancid. The Balfour Street group terms him, loathingly, “traitor.” Bibi and Sara had great expectations of him: that he would contain the investigators, harass them, embitter their lives. That was never a realistic option, but in the world of the Netanyahus, when the madness takes hold, reality is blocked at the gate.

The hatred of Erdan is comparable only to that which The Lady harbors for Ayelet Shaked. According to police leaks, Erdan’s testimony (as the communications minister before Netanyahu) in Case 4000, the Walla-Bezeq case, didn’t help the prime minister. Netanyahu was confronted with Erdan’s testimony in one of his interrogations. Erdan responded by saying that in his own interrogation, he had said that the prime minister had not tried to persuade him to act contrary to his policy regarding Bezeq Telecommunications. Even if that’s true, when the next government is formed – and if Bibi is the one doing the forming – Erdan will do well not to hold his breath waiting for a phone call.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Emil Salman

Unkosher behavior

The defense arguments of Shaul Elovitch, the former owner of the Walla website and one of the key suspects in Case 4000, are the stuff from which political plays are written. The quotes reported by Israel Television News correspondent Amit Segal concerning pressure exerted by the prime minister of Israel on his pal and benefactor to slant news coverage on the website, are a trailer of what we can expect when the transcripts of the testimony by Nir Hefetz are published. The latter, who has turned state’s evidence, served as a gofer for the raging ruling couple. There are certainly plenty more goodies in the recordings he handed over to the police. It’ll be fun.

Perhaps we will discover in that trove testimony from Israel Hayom staffers, such as the former editor in chief, Amos Regev. The Bibi freebie also racked up significant mileage as a long arm for the elimination and belittlement of political enemies of Balfour Street.

The story about Netanyahu’s apparent request to Elovitch – that his site run a report stating that Gilat Bennett, wife of the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, worked as a pastry chef in non-kosher restaurants when the couple lived in New York – causes 50 shades of revulsion. Elovitch was quoted as saying that the site’s editors refused to publish the story. In a perverse and sick manner, Netanyahu had decided not just to humiliate the leader of the right-wing religious party in the eyes of his supporters, but also to besmirch him. Bennett’s wife might have kneaded dough or spread frosting at a non-kosher restaurant, and perhaps even grazed the tail of a shrimp, not to mention tasted one. For all we know, treif creatures continue crawling around the Bennetts’ residence.

Everything we knew or thought we knew about the raging obsession that drives Bibi and Sara when it comes to Bennett and Shaked – from the period when they were Netanyahu’s chief of staff and bureau chief, respectively, in 2006-2007, and more recently, during their service as senior ministers in his coalition – never even approached these new realms. Netanyahu is revealed here in all his pathetic pettiness. The man who has dined in non-kosher restaurants his whole life, always at the expense of others, the man who likes to say, “Leave my wife and children alone, deal with me,” turns out to be a seventh-rate gossip-monger. It would be interesting to know whether it was his initiative to ask Elovitch to run the story, or whether he was assigned the mission by She-who-must-be-obeyed.

Netanyahu is a brilliant politician, and a prime minister whose head is on his shoulders when it comes to statesmanship and national security, but his legs are wallowing in sordid mire. Let’s wait for Hefetz’s testimony about Sara. Maybe we’ll discover there what kind of rumors she spread about Shaked and Bennett, whom she refused to forgive after they declined to become her abject servants in the bureau of the then-leader of the opposition. Elovitch’s testimony about the prime minister’s request will pale by comparison, making it look like a mischievous but good-hearted act.

For Bennett, this whole affair couldn’t have come at a better time – while he’s still licking the wounds from the saga of his threat to resign, which ended with him skulking away, tail between his legs. Finally, the perfect opportunity arrived for him to put Bibi in his place, to shine the spotlight on him and reveal him as he really is: a small person. Not an ideologue, not an idealist. Just a vengeful character who will stoop to anything.

“I feel sorry for you, Mr. Netanyahu,” Bennett hurried to tweet on Wednesday evening. What Netanyahu did was “despicable and cowardly,” he added. “Shame on you.” He demanded an apology to his wife (Netanyahu will offer one probably a minute after Bennett apologizes to Goldberg) and got in return a tweet from Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son. “Well, and you did it a million times against my mother with [Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher] Noni Mozes and with every editor of every possible media outlet in the country.”

A few minutes passed, and the PM’s new-media advisor, Jonathan Urich, tweeted a very similar message on his account. A few minutes later, and their comments became Likud’s official response. Not in the same words and style, but in the same spirit. It was a real-time demonstration of who’s running the show, not only in the Prime Minister’s Bureau but in his party, too. This is the food chain: Netanyahu Jr. – Urich – Likud.

By the way, the author of these lines can say from personal experience that from the time that Bennett and Shaked first ventured into political life, both of them have stubbornly refused to release information about their dealings with Sara. Their lips clamped shut whenever the subject was raised. Bennett did have one famous faux pas when, in an interview, he described his relations with the Lady as being comparable to participation in a terrorism course. But when it comes to juicy stories, and they have an endless supply of them, they have both refused to share.

Habayit Hayehudi’s electorate, a large portion of which is at any given moment prone to cross the lines to Likud, this week lined up en masse behind the party chairman and education minister. In the previous round, when Bennett tangled with Netanyahu over the defense minister position, presumably a subject of national importance, a majority of his voters did not back him up – they understood he was acting out of personal considerations. This time, they are 100 percent behind him.