Analysis

The Hair-raising Scenarios Behind Netanyahu's War Power Saga

When the opportunity arose to get around the security cabinet when declaring war, it beckoned to Netanyahu. But then he took it too far

Verter GIF
Amos Biderman

The real story behind the clause on declaring war that was born in sin and put to death Wednesday night in the nuclear bunker deep underground was like out of the TV series “Homeland” or “24.”

Back when the politicians were discussing the bill designed to authorize a quorum of security cabinet members to make a decision that could very well lead to war, the question arose: What would happen if not all the members were available?

Behind closed doors, a number of upsetting scenarios were raised. Say we woke up one morning and discovered that overnight most of the security cabinet had been murdered in their beds? (One person involved even used the word “decapitated,” borrowing from the Islamic State.)

>> War powers are too important to be left to just two people | Editorial

How could the ministers meet if their heads had been separated from their bodies? (This is what Ariel Sharon liked to say about terrorists who had been foiled, not that I’m comparing.)

A less chilling and more likely possibility in times such as these is that the need to urgently summon the security cabinet would arise because of a cyberattack against Israel that knocked out the cellular network and power grid. The prime minister wouldn’t be able to comply with the letter of the law. The ministers would be out of touch – literally – groping in the dark, stuck in elevators or circling in planes, and a legal quorum would not be available.

Thus was born the clause letting the prime minister and defense minister “under extreme circumstances and in writing” make the decisions. After all, these two have advanced means of communication, safe from harm, letting them communicate during an emergency.

The circumstances of this disgraceful amendment are in dispute. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who doesn’t automatically defend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in all things, stood by his side this time. She says things got complicated at the meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee discussing the original proposal, which had been submitted by the Justice Ministry.

That proposal had been that the decision be with the security cabinet, not the full cabinet, as is the law now. That’s what Netanyahu wanted, Shaked says. He had no other goal.

“They’re making ugly spin at his expense,” she said the next day at the security cabinet meeting where the U-turn was decided on. “This is a superb example of the saying less is more. Ben-Gurion and his colleagues were the smartest. They decided that the ‘full cabinet’ would decide on declaring war. Without nuances of this or that majority.”

In the committee, Shaked says, the hairsplitting began. Would any majority be enough? Even two against one? They decided on a quorum, a minimal number: half the members of the security cabinet. Then the split hair was split further as the problem of people out of touch arose. Netanyahu wondered, “And if I can’t gather the required quorum, what should I do? Twiddle my thumbs while Israel is under attack? Give me a solution.”

Netanyahu didn’t mean to wind up with the unconstitutional wording that blew fuses among ministers and defense chiefs past and present. But it seems that at some point he fell in love with this twisted solution.

It’s no wonder. In recent years, mainly in his current term, his fourth, Netanyahu has sometimes adopted the approach that he’s the sole ruler. When the opportunity arose to get around the security cabinet, which he probably feels is a nuisance, it beckoned to him. But he took it too far.

Criticism of the two-man ability to declare war landed from all directions, including unbiased professionals like Yaakov Amidror, who headed the National Security Council when it recommended moving the power from the cabinet to the security cabinet. It worked. Netanyahu retreated. He asked Shaked to have her ministry phrase an amendment to the amendment that would be brought before the cabinet Sunday.

MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), an active member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee who led the fight against the amendment, told the media: “When you fight for the right thing, you can win. The prime minister’s dirty trick posed security, constitutional and moral danger. Tonight, people of conscience defeated him.”

Conscience? That’s a big word. Let’s not get carried away. They’re politicians, after all. All that was needed was little common sense.

Down in the bunker

In recent weeks the security cabinet has held at least six meetings at the national crisis management center that lies in an underground bunker somewhere in Jerusalem. Some ministers describe it as a maze where they get lost. Some leave the conference room for the bathroom and have trouble finding their way back. You need good spatial skills down there.

Still, the ministers like the new location. They feel that meetings there are more efficient than at the Prime Minister’s Office. Down in the bunker, they feel isolated from the world. There are no distractions like at the Prime Minister’s Office, where aides sit outside, occasionally consulted by the ministers who step out for advice. At the bunker there’s nowhere to go and the aides aren’t there.

They seem unable to provide a clear explanation for Netanyahu’s decision to move the venue. Obviously it has nothing to do with leaks. Nobody leaks from meetings where cellphones are banned. If somebody wants to leak, he can do it after the meeting.

Is the bunker equipped with anti-surveillance devices that the Prime Minister’s Office doesn’t have? It’s hard to believe that until now the discussions of the most secret, sensitive forum in the land were buggable by foreign spy agencies.

There could be a political motive hidden here. The security developments in recent weeks, mainly regarding Iran including the exposure of the stolen nuclear archive and the airstrikes on Syria, have sent Netanyahu and his Likud party jumping in the opinion polls.

By nature, moving security cabinet meetings to a bunker for crises like total war or an earthquake signals urgency. It signals approaching peril. The deeper these signals filter through to public opinion, and the more intense the feeling of siege grows, the more only one person stands to benefit.

Right-hand man on standby

The end of this week, or the start of next week at the latest, is the deadline that Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin set for Netanyahu to tell him yes or no. Will he or won’t he be Likud’s candidate for the Jerusalem mayor’s race in October? If Elkin doesn’t move his address from Gush Etzion to Jerusalem by this Thursday, his name won’t be on the list. There’s a second date, in August, but he doesn’t want to wait that long.

Elkin isn’t pretending that he’ll storm Jerusalem because of his powerful yearning for the job without the support of the prime minister and Likud. Some are prodding him to hit the ground running – why wait for Netanyahu?

But he’s a team player, not a rebel. He’s also the practical type. Contending takes big money; 6 million or 7 million shekels ($1.96 million). He could get donors to sign guarantees for him, but the guaranteed loans would have to be repaid in a year. Elkin isn’t keen to immobilize himself with obligations for amounts that big. He needs Likud financing and Netanyahu’s public support. Without those two crutches, his candidacy is pointless.

In several conversations in recent weeks, Netanyahu tried to dissuade him. He flattered him: his efficiency, his political dexterity, the many roles he has received in recent years whether as coalition whip or political operator. And of course he has been a minister and translator in Netanyahu’s conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I need you in government, by my side,” Netanyahu told him, and apparently meant it. Elkin thanked him but clarified that Jerusalem is his heart’s desire. Backed by polls predicting he’d win, he also warned that if he doesn’t run, the city will fall to either city council member Moshe Leon, a crony of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Interior Minister Arye Dery, or Deputy Mayor Yossi Deutsch of United Torah Judaism. Either way the ultra-Orthodox would control Jerusalem; it would become their citadel.

That should have been a winning argument for the prime minister, who is also chairman of Likud. But this is where hidden interests come into play among the decision-makers.

Dery and Lieberman have been pressing Netanyahu hard not to run a candidate. The political corridors rustle with rumors about a possible triumvirate deal: Netanyahu would forgo Jerusalem in exchange for compensation from the other two. What compensation? Nobody knows. Maybe there is no such deal.

In the past, the legislation for drafting the ultra-Orthodox had been mentioned as a possible sacrifice. Lieberman would soften his position on the legislation, which threatens to destroy the governing coalition; Leon would run and Dery would also have to pay.

But there’s no supporting evidence for this dark theory. Lieberman sounds determined when he vows to stand behind the Defense Ministry committee that will be making its recommendation on the legislation soon. He’s not fool enough to get entangled in a deal that would tarnish him badly among his hard-core constituents in the Russian community – not even for Leon, his dear friend, who brokered his belated entry into the coalition and his appointment as defense minister two years ago.

So Elkin is patiently waiting; another few days. Either Netanyahu tells him godspeed or he says no and soft-soaps him. Or maybe he won’t bother to answer at all, which is also an answer. If the first scenario pans out, Elkin will demand full support from Netanyahu. Bibi is electoral gold right now, especially in Jerusalem, home of the new U.S. Embassy, where he is what Netta Barzilai is to pop music.

Choosing the next top cop gets interesting

Nearly three years have passed since the police’s Yoram Halevy lost the race to become commissioner to Roni Alsheich, then of the Shin Bet security service. Alsheich was chosen in September 2015 and began the job that December. Now Halevy is contending again for the position, which is likely to become free in around six months.

Alsheich won’t get a year’s extension. He’s more burned at the prime minister’s residence than a field near Gaza that has a run-in with one of those flammable kites. Erdan doesn’t want to continue working with him either. The police commissioner made a lot of trouble for the public security minister.

Last weekend the media was flooded with reports on contacts between Halevy and Netanyahu. Haaretz was first to report that Alsheich learned about Halevy’s behind-Alsheich’s-back meetings with Netanyahu, who is knee deep in corruption affairs. It was also reported that the commissioner’s suspicions were provoked for the first time nearly a year ago during the “metal-detector crisis” at the Temple Mount, which erupted following a shooting attack there in which two police officers were killed.

Alsheich denied the recent reports but his denial was convoluted and unconvincing. Halevy denied it firmly and asked for mercy. (“Don’t do this to me,” he told reporters.) The prime minister’s people, loud and clear, said that the meetings never happened.

This wouldn’t be the first time stories about secret talks between Halevy and Netanyahu have floated regarding the commissioner’s race. Back during the last episode three years ago, very high-level sources said Halevy delivered messages to Netanyahu – via a middleman – pushing his candidacy. But there was a denial, so these allegations weren’t published.

If such messages were given, Netanyahu didn’t like them. He vetoed two incumbents: the deputy commissioner Bentzi Sau and Southern District chief Halevy. Erdan, who wanted to clean out the scandal-stricken police headquarters, sought a candidate from outside.

When Netanyahu learned about Alsheich, his enthusiasm knew no bounds – Shin Bet, a former settler, religious-Zionist. The prime minister was sure he’d struck gold – somebody who would serve him, and her, someone who would steal horses with him, someone who would share his mindset.

Sau quit the police; Halevy was promoted to head the Jerusalem District and decided to wait for the next round. If the recent reports are true, his relationship with Netanyahu was maintained and even nurtured during these years. But next time Netanyahu won’t be able to decide on the next commissioner and hand down an order to the minister.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit put up a stop sign in front of the public security minister’s face. He asked to “be consulted” before discussions began on Alsheich’s successor so aspects concerning “a conflict of interests” could be addressed. In human-speak, Mendelbit means that a prime minister shouldn’t meddle in the choice for the head of the police force that’s investigating him. The other two ministers under investigation, Haim Katz and Arye Dery, will be asked not to vote on the appointment in the cabinet when the issue arises.