'Hezbollah's Operation Barbarossa': How Army Chief Pushed Netanyahu to Go After the Tunnels

Discussions on how to respond split Israel's leadership, with the PM equivocating about the timing and Eisenkot advocating immediate action

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Israeli forces stationed near Israel's border with Lebanon, December 11, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Israeli forces stationed near Israel's border with Lebanon, December 11, 2018.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

>> Update: Lebanese army on high alert after altercation with Israeli soldiers over tunnel operation

On the eve of the first day of Operation Northern Shield, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot stood alongside each other at a press conference and demonstrated a united front regarding the urgent need to destroy the tunnels under the border with Lebanon. Yet, Eisenkot had to exert quite a bit of pressure on the politicians to get to that moment at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. Months of tense debates that climaxed with the resignation of former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who believed his constant struggle with the defense establishment could end his political future, the evening with the unified message.

Conversations Haaretz conducted with some of those involved in the discussions preceding the operation reveal that the prime minister equivocated about the suitable time for such an operation until it was approved on November 7. Netanyahu was well-versed in the details of the tunnel project, for which the Israel Defense forces had been preparing for two years. Sources said that Netanyahu wasn’t hesitating about whether to act; the question for him, as for Eisenkot, was the timing.

A source privy to some of the discussions about launching the operation in the north asserted that Eisenkot exerted more pressure on this issue than on any other issue since taking over as chief of general staff. According to people who were at the discussions, Eisenkot pushed to start destroying the tunnels as soon as possible and wrangled with several security cabinet ministers, especially with Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett. Eisenkot insisted it would be mistaken to launch an operation in the south before tackling the threat of Hezbollah tunnels, they said.

“This is the organization’s [Hezbollah’s] next Operation Barbarossa against Israel,” Eisenkot said, referring to Germany’s surprise invasion against the Soviet Union in June 1941. “This is Hezbollah’s most significant part of the next confrontation,” he noted in arguing to prioritize the northern front over the southern one. “It is building on this card, which could be its signature achievement.”

During another discussion, Eisenkot presented a letter from Northern Command head Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick, in which the general warned that the delay could lead to the loss of the element of surprise, and would allow Hezbollah to carry out a deadly attack.

At another meeting, the chief of staff asked specifically to include Strick’s warnings in the minutes. Security sources said that Netanyahu was not pleased that Eisenkot had brought the letter, let alone sought to insert it in the protocol. But according to the sources, this was the moment that shifted the balance, because afterward Netanyahu gave the operation the green light. “Eisenkot, like all those present at that security discussion, knew unequivocally that no one could avoid taking responsibility for a terror attack coming from Lebanon when there were minutes in which the chief of staff and the head of Northern Command were warning of one,” said an official familiar with the details.

Irreparable relationship

The backdrop to the discussions on Operation Northern Shield was the harsh criticism over the way Israel was responding to Hamas in the south. The pressure was also coming from Lieberman, whose relationship with security officials had become so hostile that it was disrupting their work together.

The tension between the defense minister and the chief of staff had been evident in the Elor Azaria affair, the disputes over closing Army Radio, the return of terrorists’ bodies and in other cases where Lieberman believed the defense establishment was not backing the policies he advocated in the Defense Ministry and the military. Another incident that increased the tension occurred when Eisenkot submitted the candidacy of Maj. Gen. Roni Noma as the sole nominee to be the next head of Military Intelligence. Sources familiar with the situation said that Lieberman had told Eisenkot that he should submit the name of at least one other candidate to enable a choice. A few weeks later, Eisenkot was informed that Lieberman had chosen Maj. Gen. Tamir Heyman as head of Military Intelligence, after consulting with several former senior IDF officers.

Lebanese villagers smoke a water pipe and take souvenir pictures in front of Israeli excavators, Mays al-Jabal, southern Lebanon, December 13, 2018.Credit: Hussein Malla,AP

At the end of March, when the Friday demonstrations began near the Gaza perimeter fence, the tension further worsened. The gaps between Lieberman’s position and that of defense officials regarding the Gaza policy gradually turned the tension into hostility, to the point where the relationship became irreparable.

At one of its peak moments, Lieberman told senior IDF officers that he felt “as if I were talking to the Peace Now leadership.” The defense minister announced at the time that he would stop supplying fuel to Gaza until the demonstrations and incendiary kites stopped. After a certain lull, there was a conference call in which the heads of the defense establishment expressed support for allowing fuel back into Gaza due to the humanitarian crisis there. The call involved Lieberman, the chief of Military Intelligence, the head of the Shin Bet security service, Eisenkot and the coordinator of government activities in the territories. According to sources familiar with the conversation, after he compared the security officials to Peace Now leaders, Lieberman hung up, leaving his surprise listeners on the line.

In another meeting, after a heavy barrage of rocket fire at Israel from the Gaza Strip, Lieberman demanded a decisive blow against Gaza. When a few of those present asked him what he meant, Lieberman replied: Attacks from the air that will scare them, so they understand they have crossed the red lines. Bennett presented a plan for a military operation that would also lead to the evacuation of Israeli residents in the area near the border with Gaza. Bennett also wanted aerial attacks, but without having soldiers enter the Gaza Strip.

The operation in the north was approved at this meeting, and the defense establishment thought it would be irresponsible to be dragged into a conflict with Hamas only a few days before such sensitive operations against Hezbollah. Eisenkot looked like a man who had lost his patience, said sources acquainted with the discussion. Eisenkot said that it would be impossible to deliver a harsh blow acting only from the air, said Eisenkot, according to those sources. Weakening Hamas would require a ground operation, he stressed, adding that all involved needed to realize the implications of such a decision.

Eisenkot and Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman, and after them National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, were unanimous in their views concerning the need to act in the north, and not at the same time as an operation in Gaza. All the leaders of the defense establishment agreed it was necessary to first exhaust all efforts to reach an arrangement with Hamas.

The commander of the IDF’s Operations Directorate, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, said the humanitarian situation in Gaza was making the security situation worse. Haliva said that Israel could initiate economic and practical steps to prevent an escalation of the situation. He foresaw a two-month window of opportunity to move to bring about calm in the south.

The IDF’s coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun, agreed with Haliva and presented data on the crisis in the Gaza Strip. But Lieberman did not want to hear it, said one of the sources. “Lieberman would become annoyed with the officers every time they would talk about the humanitarian situation," said the source. "He didn’t let them say humanitarian crisis, it would drive him crazy.”

Netanyahu supported Eisenkot concerning the south, and left Lieberman all by himself with his positions. At a meeting after the day of fighting in which Hamas fired hundreds of rockets at Israel, on November 12, all those at the meeting went out for a short break, during which someone showed Lieberman a tweet from journalist Sharon Gal. “This toy Rambo defense minister is silent,” said the tweet. “I’m embarrassed that I was a Knesset member in Yisrael Beiteinu under this defense minister, who except for talk is not doing anything.” At that moment, Lieberman realized that he was seen as being responsible for the restrained response in the south and he expected to pay the political price for it, said sources familiar with the details.

Top priority

Thus, the discussions regarding the Hezbollah tunnels came about against the backdrop of this tension on the table, and the military – with Netanyahu’s support – trying to prevent broader military action in Gaza. Netanyahu did not talk mention an exact when he informed security cabinet members about the Hezbollah tunnels and sought approval for the operation. Eisenkot thought it was best to start the operation immediately, both for practical reasons and because Netanyahu and the other ministers who supported restraint in Gaza were losing their ability to withstand the public’s criticism.

Israeli soldiers stand guard at the site of their excavation work, near the southern border village of Mays al-Jabal, Lebanon, December 13, 2018.Credit: Hussein Malla,AP

Eisenkot’s position was reinforced by Haliva and Heyman at the meeting in which Eisenkot compared the Hezbollah tunnels to Operation Barbarossa. Haliva said the issue of the tunnels was top priority, not just over dealing with Hamas, but also over Hezbollah’s project for precision missiles, which has kept the IDF very busy in Syria.

In one of the meetings just before the approval of the tunnel operation, Eisenkot introduced the warning letter by Strick, the Northern Command head, about possible scenarios if Israel did not undertake the operation against the tunnels. Strick said the preparations for the operation had been completed and the military had the intelligence information needed for the operation. Strick also said that any delay would increase the possibility of the information leaking out and being exposed in the media, and the IDF could well lose its element of surprise, which was of critical importance. If Hezbollah learned that Israel knew about the tunnels, the threat to Israeli communities along the border with Lebanon would grow, said Strick. It was possible that Hezbollah would take advantage of this and act against Israel from the tunnels, he warned. Such action could make the situation worse than what was expected from the response to an operation to destroy the tunnels. The tunnels were intended to provide Hezbollah with victory pictures for Nasrallah as the first Muslim leader in years to fight against the IDF on Israeli soil, added Strick. Netanyahu was not pleased that Eisenkot presented the letter from Strick, and made it clear that the matter had been on the agenda for a long time and had received proper treatment, even without warning letters, said defense sources.

Lieberman also brought in reinforcements to support his position, in which Israel needed to begin an operation in the Gaza Strip and postpone the tunnel operation in the north by a few weeks or months. Lieberman invited the head of the Research Division of Military Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Dror Shalom, who said more intelligence was needed to ensure the tunnels would be found. Eisenkot allowed Shalom to give his briefing. There were those who reminded Lieberman that only a few months earlier it was Shalom who contradicted his statements in meetings about attacking Gaza. “But in this case, Shalom’s opinion matched Lieberman’s interests,” said a defense source.

During the briefing in which the approval of the tunnel operation was discussed, Eisenkot pressed to include Strick’s letter in the minutes of the meeting. He began reading out a few sentences from the letter for the minutes. “As far as Netanyahu and all those who were in the room at the time, it was a step that led to the final approval of the operation, even if someone still had minor reservations,” said a source familiar with the situation.

Another source involved in the matter said that if such an incident had taken place, even if it was not conducted from inside the tunnels and led to an escalation between Israel and Hezbollah, it would have placed the responsibility on Netanyahu and the members of the security cabinet. This is what made the approval of the tunnel operation the obvious choice, said the source.

The preparations for the tunnel operation took about two years, so a difference of a week or two from the set date would not have had any great affect, said security sources. “The intelligence assessment that preceded the decision on undertaking the operation was that Hezbollah would not respond, because the work would be in [Israeli] territory and Hezbollah would find it difficult to find an excuse to take action,” said a security source. “In addition, the assessments were that Hezbollah was in a very difficult situation concerning Iran and Lebanon, something that made it difficult [for Hezbollah] to go and fight Israel today.”

Eisenkot was not a partner in all these optimistic assessments and said in meetings that there is always uncertainty concerning Hezbollah’s action in extreme situations, so Israel must prepare for the worst possibility of a graduated escalation – all the way up to a war in the north. “It was important to Eisenkot, before the operation, to complete all the training exercises of the [front-line] divisions and to bring the IDF to high readiness in preparation in case the operation would lead to an escalation,” said the defense source. Eisenkot thought that “we are not completely past the threats and developments that could very well come in response to the [tunnel] operation.”

A spokesman for Lieberman said, “This is a mix of lies and absurdities that mostly points out the distorted approach and prejudices of the leakers and those who make use of these same leaks."

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