Analysis

Police Probes Affected Netanyahu’s Judgment in Temple Mount Crisis

The need to juggle the multifaceted crisis in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Jordan took its toll

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: a lot on his mind.
Rami Shllush

In a small room in an Israeli police facility, a silver-haired, 66-year-old gentleman has been sitting and filling notebook after notebook in recent days. The question of just what Michael Ganor – the go-between in the submarine deals who signed an agreement last Friday to turn state’s witness – is writing still managed to preoccupy top security officials and politicians this week, even as attempts continued to calm the situations surrounding the Temple Mount, the West Bank and Jordan.

What Ganor says could impact Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close circle, and possibly even the government’s stability. The investigation also seemed to indirectly affect the handling of the security situation this week. The crisis, which began two weeks ago with the Temple Mount shooting attack that left two Israeli policemen dead, hit Netanyahu at a particularly bad time. It is already widely believed that Ganor’s testimony has implicated two of the premier’s friends in the Israel Navy, Maj. Gen. (res.) Eliezer Marom and Brig. Gen. (res.) Avriel Bar-Yosef.

Businessman Michael Ganor in court, Rishon Letzion, Israel, 17 July, 2017.
Ilan Assayag

The next person in line is David Shimron, Ganor’s lawyer at the time the deals were made with ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems and, of course, also Netanyahu’s attorney and close adviser. Interviewed by Guy Peleg on Channel 2 this week while vacationing abroad, Shimron already sounded like he expected to be facing an indictment before long. If the police and state prosecutor conclude that Shimron acted in a conflict of interest with the ship and submarine deals, these suspicions will also cast a shadow over his law partner – the person Netanyahu apparently trusts above all others, lawyer Isaac Molho.

Molho, the man Netanyahu calls upon for special missions, is normally in charge of political communications with Jordan (the security relationship is run via the Israel Defense Forces and the Mossad). But when the crisis with Jordan arose on Sunday night, it was Shin Bet security service chief Nadav Argaman who was sent to deal with it. Argaman quickly accomplished the task assigned him by the prime minister. He secured the return of the Israeli Embassy security guard who shot and killed two Jordanian civilians, as well as the return of the diplomats who were trapped in the embassy.

From its initial investigation into the incident, the Shin Bet concluded that the security guard, Ziv, acted correctly. The guard testified that there were five Jordanians in the room where he was attacked, and he understood that they were discussing the situation at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, before one of the workers stabbed him from behind with a screwdriver. The guard shot his attacker and accidentally also killed the landlord, a Jordanian doctor, who evidently was trying to separate the two men. About 10 bullets were fired during the incident.

Defense officials are not buying the belated Jordanian claim that the shooting was really the result of a brawl and not a terror attack. This version was intended to assuage the anger of the Jordanian public. A Jordanian newspaper reported that, after his son’s death, the father of the young Jordanian worker said his son was “a martyr who sacrificed himself for Al-Aqsa.”

Ziv is considered a highly experienced security guard. He has served in security positions abroad for five years – three in Turkey, two in Jordan. He was a company commander in the Kfir Brigade during his military service.

Netanyahu was forced to accept Jordan’s demand to remove the metal detectors and return things to how they were at the Temple Mount, in order to try to put out two fires at once. But as soon as the security guard was back in Israel, Netanyahu also had to do something to calm his hard-core supporters. And so we saw his frenzied schedule on Tuesday, during which he was photographed embracing the grateful security guard in his office, dragging the defense minister and IDF chief of staff to a photo-op with the Hermon Brigade, and concluding with condolence visits to the families of the two slain policemen.

Netanyahu hugs Ziv, a security officer who worked at the Israeli Embassy in Amman, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, July 25, 2017.
Haim Zach / GPO

Naturally, the Jordanians were angered by the first event on the schedule. They would have preferred that their consent to let the guard return home be kept relatively quiet – they certainly didn’t expect to see the prime minister welcoming Ziv back as a national hero.

Netanyahu’s need to demonstrate “Zionist backbone” could also be seen in his statements of support for the Knesset bills concerning Jerusalem and the nation-state. Bet on seeing more such moves in the near future, in an effort to reduce electoral damage on the right after what is being perceived as a national humiliation regarding the Temple Mount.

Netanyahu did not ignite Jerusalem and the occupied territories in order to evade the corruption investigations against him. This idea is nonsense that some on the left are spreading in order to whip up their audience. But it did look this week like the need to juggle so many arenas – with the heavy pall of multiple police investigations already hanging over him – took its toll on Netanyahu, affecting his equilibrium and judgment.

Israel capitulated on the Temple Mount and removed not just the metal detectors but also the security cameras, and even the rigs on which the police were going to install more cameras. It’s hard to believe the police plan for expanding the security cordon around the Temple Mount, as presented to the cabinet last Sunday, will be implemented.

The Palestinians demonstrated to Israel just how quickly religious pretexts pertaining to any change in the status quo on the Temple Mount can be used to ignite the region. “When God is brought into the room, I start to worry,” a veteran intelligence official said this week.

On Thursday morning, the mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Hussein, announced that since the Israeli concessions had restored the old situation on the Temple Mount, prayers at Al-Aqsa would resume. In the Old City, Muslim worshippers handed out sweets. Nonetheless, the Palestinians have still been sending out mixed messages.

At the same time, attention is again being focused on thwarting attacks by lone-wolf attackers. On the Israeli side, there may be “price tag” reprisal attacks on Palestinian property as revenge for last Friday’s attack in the settlement of Halamish, in which three members of the Salomon family were murdered in their home.

Since the July 14 Temple Mount attack, things have more or less returned to the starting point – with the exception of the killing that took place in the interim, along with the security tensions, worsening relations with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, and the accusations traded between ministers and security chiefs.

“We ended up, for lack of any other choice, making the correct decisions, but only after we made every possible mistake along the way,” said one security source.

The Azaria effect

On Sunday morning, the military appeals court will issue its verdict in the case of Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot dead Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a Palestinian assailant already lying incapacitated on the ground in Hebron. The ruling will bring this long and sorry episode near its end, but before that there may be more dramatic twists. Azaria has been convicted of manslaughter and unbecoming conduct and given an 18-month sentence. Rather than try to get the sentence reduced or seek a pardon, the Azarias appealed the conviction and replaced their legal team with attorney Yoram Sheftel.

If the appeal is granted, the reverberations will affect the standing of the Israel Defense Forces, its chief of staff and the military prosecutor. If the appeal is rejected, Sheftel could appeal to the Supreme Court, but the chances the top court will hear the case appear slim.

In that case, the frenzied push to obtain a reduced sentence or pardon will resume. The first stop will be Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who will rely on the military prosecutor’s opinion. The next stop, if Eisenkot turns down the request, will be the President’s Residence; Reuven Rivlin will have to confer with the defense minister, the chief of staff and the head of the IDF Manpower Directorate.   

Rivlin will probably seek to coordinate his moves with Eisenkot and wait to see what Eisenkot does. The question is which politicians will step in and try to gain some easy credit with the public by putting pressure on the military. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who as an opposition politician fanned the flames in the trial’s early stages, became more statesmanlike on the issue once he became defense minister.

Elor Azaria and his parents at the military court in Jaffa, April 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

But any new discussion about reducing Azaria’s sentence holds the potential for tension between the defense minister and the chief of staff. And it’s hard to imagine that ministers and Knesset members from Likud and Habayit Hayehudi will show much self-restraint. Even if the appeal is turned down, Eisenkot has a tough week ahead – and he’ll have to act pretty quickly.

The Azaria affair also returned to the public debate because of recent events. After the shooting of two policemen at the Temple Mount, the police were filmed fatally shooting one of the three assailants from Umm al-Fahm; he was sprawled on the ground after he apparently tried to attack them and begin his escape attempt.

Also, during the killing of three members of the Salomon family in the West Bank, a neighbor, a soldier on leave, fired a single bullet at the terrorist stabbing the family, seriously wounding him. The first sergeant’s quick action prevented the assailant from getting to the women and children who had fled upstairs. On social media, right-wingers talked about the “Azaria effect” and argued that the soldier, who is with the Oketz canine unit, should have ensured that the terrorist had been killed.

This isn’t the first time the right has claimed to notice a crippling “Azaria effect.” Similar assertions were made following the slow reaction from cadets, most of them from home front units, when four officer trainees were killed in a truck-ramming attack in Jerusalem in January. This is a simplistic and misguided view reminiscent of complaints during the first and second intifadas: Officers were to afraid fight without a lawyer by their side.

The Azaria incident exposed a serious gap between the IDF’s combat ethics and rules of engagement as understood by the senior command, and the way these things have come to be understood by many soldiers and their parents. If anything, the army’s main problem is exactly the opposite of what the right suggests: How to ensure that soldiers won’t respond with excessive gunfire at a limited threat, as in the not-so-uncommon case of young Palestinian women with problems at home brandishing a knife at a checkpoint with the aim of being killed or arrested.