Analysis

What's Behind Netanyahu's Move to Grant Himself Power to Declare War?

Netanyahu finally scored an intelligence 'win' with the Iranian nuclear archive – and he used every trick in the book to make sure foreign news networks tuned in

Netanyahu smirks with his feet up on his desk. Furs in the shape of Lapid and Gabbay hang on his wall. The Iranian nuclear archive is in the background.
Amos Biderman

“Netanyahu gave us a valuable gift this week,” Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay said after the prime minister’s “Iran lied” speech Monday night. “If before this we couldn’t say that he’s capable of mixing political considerations with state security – and I too didn’t think that he was – it’s clear now that he has done so in the Iranian affair. He took those materials and turned them into politics from beginning to end.”

Frustration was palpable in Gabbay’s comment. On Monday afternoon he found himself in a quandary. The previous evening, in Syria, a huge depot of Iranian missiles had been destroyed in an attack. Then Monday, the security cabinet was convened urgently at the Kirya defense headquarters in Tel Aviv to discuss the “Iranian issue.” Simultaneously it was announced that the prime minister would hold a press conference that evening at 8 P.M. – the most important hour of the day for him, the time of nightly newscasts, zero hour, spin time.

The Knesset’s summer session had just gotten underway, with the traditional no-confidence-vote rituals. The first party to remove its no-confidence motion from the agenda, due to security-related rumblings, was Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Gabbay had no choice but to follow suit. Along with the great majority of Israelis, his impression was that Netanyahu was going to declare war, or something akin to that. If you connected all the dots, that seemed to be the conclusion.

So Labor/Zionist Union struck its motion from the agenda, too. A tense silence ensued, and the stage was cleared for what turned out to be, four hours later, a spectacular sound-and-light show, replete with folders and diagrams, in a virtuoso performance by the prime minister. War was indeed declared – but on public opinion.

Netanyahu thus closed a personal circle. In the public consciousness, he’s identified with one of the Mossad’s major failures: the attempted assassination in 1997 of Hamas senior official Khaled Meshal, in Jordan. That colossal screw-up ended with the arrest of the Israeli agents, with the intended victim saved and with Israel releasing Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from prison, in return for the two would-be assassins. A victory photo in the context of an intelligence coup (along the lines of the capture of the “Karine A” Palestinian arms ship in 2002) had eluded the prime minister for some time.

The usefulness – diplomatic, political, operational and in terms of public diplomacy – of revealing the contents of the intelligence cache that Mossad agents transported from Tehran to Tel Aviv sparked a controversy between politicians and intelligence experts. What is not in dispute is that the cynical behavior of the spinmeister and architect of deception sent the national anxiety level soaring to new heights in the hours that preceded his TV performance.

In retrospect, it’s clear that there was no trick, no ploy that Netanyahu didn’t dredge up from his arsenal of gimmicks to generate tension. He could have shared the information with the security cabinet a day earlier, during its usual meeting. They would not have leaked it; the security cabinet is not a sieve. Indeed, ahead of particularly sensitive meetings, all the ministers sign a special secrecy document. Nor did Netanyahu really have to cancel at the last moment his speech at the Knesset’s memorial event for Theodor Herzl, scheduled for Monday afternoon.

The identical result could have been achieved – a prime-time press conference – without the theatrics and special effects that preceded it. But Netanyahu is a ratings junkie. He seems to have thought that, without the beating of war drums, the foreign networks would not interrupt their broadcasts and take their viewers live to Tel Aviv. That’s what he was after. And that’s also why the presentation was made in English, which is anyway the language in which Bibi feels most at home. We, the natives, are small fry.

Gabbay felt that he had been duped. “It’s clear, in retrospect, that it was a mistake to cancel the non-confidence motion,” he said on Wednesday. “But under the same circumstances, I would make that decision again.”

Yair Lapid gave vent to his frustration in a different way. On Wednesday afternoon he took the podium in the Knesset ostensibly to present a bill of some kind. But he devoted almost his whole speech to an attack on Netanyahu, arguing that the prime minister had harmed state security.

The opposition leaders weren’t the only ones who felt that they’d been led up the garden path. Ministers in the security cabinet were angry, too. They’d had to rearrange their schedules abruptly and rush to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, hearts pounding, only to receive a lightning survey that took an hour. Nor were they given the opportunity to express an opinion, question the wisdom of revealing the information or suggest alternatives. What they thought was of no interest to Netanyahu. All he wanted was to be able to claim that he’d “updated” the ministers before sending them on their way. At best, they were stagehands.

That feeling intensified Wednesday, some 36 hours after the press conference, and after Netanyahu had been interviewed on Fox News and CNN, when he instructed the ministers to keep mum – “to minimize,” in his words, their statements about Iran. He didn’t even let them collect the crumbs that dropped off his table.

“It’s very nice that he’s silencing us,” one minister said. “I only wonder what would have happened if he’d been the one to receive the information about the nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007, and not Ehud Olmert.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech on Iran's nuclear program, in Tel Aviv, April 30, 2018.
JACK GUEZ/AFP

‘Special’ vs. ‘extreme’

It’s possible that the success of the Mossad in Iran (for which the prime minister can legitimately also claim credit, as the person who approved its mission) played a part in Netanyahu’s initiative to grant himself and the defense minister the authority to decide to go to war, under special circumstances, if the security cabinet cannot be convened. Alternatively, the two senior ministers would be permitted to order actions to be carried out which are more than likely to bring about a war.

The legislation the Knesset this week approved in the first of three votes came into being in the wake of a report drawn up by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, who examined the behavior of the government and the security cabinet over the history of the state. Amidror discovered that the procedures for declaring war are unclear – is only the full cabinet allowed to make such a decision, or can the narrower security cabinet do so? – and recommended that the procedure be enshrined in law.

The Justice Ministry department that gives the government legal advice was asked to formulate guidelines based on recommendations from the political echelon (the government) in cooperation with the parliamentary one (the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee).

At first, the Prime Minister’s Bureau wanted the security cabinet, instead of the whole cabinet, to be authorized to declare war, and on the basis of a simple majority, even in a vote of three vs. two. For its part, however, the Knesset demanded the presence of a quorum – at least half the members of the security cabinet. Afterward, the bureau countered that in “special” circumstances, in which half the members of the security cabinet cannot be located, the authority can be vested solely in the prime minister and defense minister.

With regard to the security cabinet having war-making authority, such a suggestion is understandable. Its members hold discussions, hear reports and see materials to which members of the full cabinet are not privy. But the additional stipulation makes a complete shambles of the concept of “joint responsibility.” Just two people can decide to drag a country into war? And what if the prime minister is also the defense minister, as has been the case numerous times over the course of Israel’s 70 years? The bill does not provide an answer to these questions. And what about the foreign minister? It’s always been the case that critical decisions, even those that did not quite reach the stage of going to war, were made by those three ministers. War is a political-diplomatic event as well as a military one. Sometimes its political-diplomatic heft even exceeds its military weight.

But all this was of no interest to Netanyahu (who also happens to be foreign minister at present). He suggested that the circumstances in which the authority would be vested in him and the defense minister be required to be “special.” Who will decide what constitutes “special”? He will. The chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and sponsor of the bill, MK Avi Dichter (Likud), thought the word was too lenient. He proposed replacing “special” with “extreme.” The prime minister objected. The committee chair insisted.

The Knesset plenum debated the bill at about 11 P.M. on Monday. Dichter went on at length about it unnecessarily. A senior opposition figure became suspicious and wanted to know the reason for what amounted to a filibuster. He was told that there was still some discussion with Netanyahu about the exact wording: “extreme” or “special”? Netanyahu wanted a soft, ambiguous word. But in the end he gave in: The term “extreme” was adopted. And who exactly will determine what’s extreme? Guess.

The bill passed by a large majority. The questions arose afterward. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) claimed that the original recommendation (for giving the prime and defense ministers war powers) appears in the Amidror report. Absolutely not, Amidror said in response. A former head of the National Security Council, he’s very knowledgeable about the workings of the government and security cabinet. “That clause is not in the report, and I am opposed to it. The decision must be made by the security cabinet.”

I asked Shaked how she explains the disparity. She was surprised to hear that this was Amidror’s position. “In the end,” she said disdainfully, “all the noise around the bill is cheap populism. The whole story stems from a glut of judicialism.” Meaning? “When the legislation was being drafted, it was the attorney general who suggested that in special, rare, cases the prime minister and the defense minister be allowed to decide by themselves,” the justice minister replied.

I asked the office of the attorney general about this. They denied vehemently that the initiative to place the prime minister and the defense minister above the government and security cabinet came from Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. “We only formulated the guidelines of the political echelon,” an authoritative source said. “It’s true that they’re trying to pin it on us. Not this time.”

That’s another disparity in this process, which becomes more problematic the more you dig into it. Neither Amidror, the professional authority, nor Mendelblit, the legal authority, is behind the contentious amendment – neither in writing nor indirectly, neither with a nod nor with a wink. There are those who are trying to blame them, but they won’t let that happen. Only one person initiated, pushed and led the process – namely the person who occupies the Prime Minister’s Bureau and whose self-confidence and feeling of entitlement are apparently sky-high, along with the scorn he feels for his fellow ministers.

Netanyahu and Lieberman at the Knesset.
Olivier Fitoussi

I asked a member of the security cabinet what he thought. He wasn’t upset. “Bibi is a coward,” he said. “Some call it discretion. He’ll be afraid to take on responsibility like this exclusively. If a situation arises of declaring war, or even of an action that could lead to war, he will convene the security cabinet. Even if the law allows otherwise, he will prefer to get others involved, in case something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong.”

Overriding necessity

On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, headed by Justice Minister Shaked, will meet to discuss legislation that would allow the Knesset to override High Court of Justice rulings. The bill will be approved by a large majority if it comes up for a vote. It’s not yet clear whether Netanyahu is for or against, but he’ll have a hard time preventing the vote from taking place, even if he wants to, because he’s afraid Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) will run rings around him in their shared electorate.

Bennett is certain the proposal will pass under the conditions he wants, namely, that 61 MKs, meaning any coalition in the Knesset, will be able to override a High Court decision that annuls a Knesset law. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) is known to support a larger majority – 70 MKs. Fine, Bennett will say on Sunday, let Kahlon make an official appeal. Let’s see him spike the only legal option to cope with the problem of the African refugees (with the High Court having overturned several government attempts to deport en masse tens of thousands of asylum seekers).

If Kahlon does appeal, the matter will be put to a vote in the full cabinet. The only person who decides the cabinet’s agenda is the prime minister. If he so wishes, he will place it on the agenda; if not, he can bury it for good. If the cabinet does vote on the legislation, it will almost certainly get a large majority, and from there it’s clear sailing in the Knesset, where it will also pass. If Netanyahu dithers, Bennett will savage him in both the right-wing media and in south Tel Aviv, home to both a large number of asylum seekers and to locals who oppose their presence. That’s pretty much a win-win battle for Bennett. He’s maneuvered Netanyahu into a situation where, no matter what he does, he will play into the hands of his rival.

The question that continues to occupy the political arena, albeit now less intensely, is whether Netanyahu will inflate an artificial or real crisis around this issue as an excuse to hold an early election, before the attorney general makes a decision about the investigations against the prime minister.

The current working assumption is that an election is farther away than it seemed to be two months ago. No longer this September-October, more likely March 2019. Mendelblit’s intention (as reported on the Walla! News site) to decide on Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 together, pushes back his target date until the end of the year. Netanyahu thus has no reason to rush.

In addition, Likud mayors are opposed to a general election in October, which is when the municipal elections are to be held. If the Knesset vote takes place in the fall, local elections will have to be deferred for about half a year, which the mayors don’t want.

And, of course, the security arena, in the north and the south, is abuzz with activity. Sensitive dates abound: May 12, by which time U.S. President Donald Trump will decide whether the United States is withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran, followed two days later by the dedication of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, possibly with Trump in attendance. And then May 15, the Nakba march on the Gaza Strip-Israel border, with the possibility that tens of thousands will storm the fence. Moreover, at some point we can expect an Iranian response – brutal and harsh, according to the threats emanating from Tehran – to the devastation wrought by the Israeli air force on Iranian bases in Syria.

At times like this, it’s no simple matter to hold an election. But if we’ve learned anything from the events of recent years, it’s that we should not try to second-guess Benjamin Netanyahu. Sometimes, he himself has a hard time doing that.