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Netanyahu Recruits Israeli Army to Election Campaign as Pressure Mounts

Some IDF commanders asked to be relieved from hosting the PM ■ Incitement against attorney general has reached a dangerous point

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Netanyahu accompanied by Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in a military base near the city of Petah Tikva, January 30 2019
Netanyahu accompanied by Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in a military base near the city of Petah Tikva, January 30 2019Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In the numerous defense-related meetings Benjamin Netanyahu has been holding recently, he seems to be making a supreme effort to maintain his composure and show familiarity with the details. It appears that the prime minister and defense minister is happy to throw himself into security-related issues, with the Iranian nuclear program the top one, as a respite from the nuisance of the election campaign and his criminal investigations.

However, veteran defense establishment officials who’ve known him for years, having spent hundreds of hours in talks with him, say that he’s never before seemed to be under so much pressure. His weight gain may be an indicator of this as well.

The extensive and uninhibited use of military props for his election campaign, including various army units, commanders and soldiers, who serve unwillingly as extras, is starting to grate on the army’s nerves. There were instances in which commanders gently asked their superiors to relieve them of the bother of hosting him. The prime minister’s schedule last week consisted almost entirely of visits to army units, including media appearances.

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This week, the pace subsided somewhat, but even so his visits to the military far exceed those of the last two defense ministers, Avigdor Lieberman, and even the diligent Moshe Ya’alon (and if it is all meant, as Netanyahu’s people say, in order to study the issues and oversee different branches of the system, why are the media always invited to these visits?).

Some of the photo-ops seem totally forced. Last week, Netanyahu visited maneuvers held by officer cadets at the Shizafon base in the Negev, which he attended “in order to study claims made by IDF Ombudsman Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick,” in the words of his office. (Brick has issued repeated warnings that the Israel Defense Forces is unprepared for war.)

This week, setting a new record, he visited emergency warehouses belonging to a reserve paratrooper brigade in central Israel, in order to “examine their readiness,” joining a visit made by the defense establishment’s oversight unit. The results were, as expected, satisfactory. This was one of the two best-equipped and best-trained reserve brigades in the IDF. Were the prime minister to head further south to the warehouses in the Tse’elim base, he’d likely encounter a slightly different scenario.

As could be expected, Netanyahu did not forgo the opportunity to hint to people in the know that he “knew from personal experience” of the situation of another nearby base. But this impression of inside information was subsequently spoiled when he displayed gaps in knowledge in a conversation with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi. Netanyahu wanted to show his command of the material by explaining that Hummer vehicles could be sent eastwards, equipped with machine guns (in other words, a nod and wink to the right, implying that these vehicles could be used against Palestinians).

Kochavi, clever student that he is, rushed to correct him: “In a dense urban environment you fight from window to balcony, you don’t drive a Hummer up the main street,” a method he himself developed as the commander of the paratrooper brigade in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. Well, Netanyahu was then a busy minister of finance in the government of Ariel Sharon, the person who really stopped the suicide bombings. Maybe Netanyahu didn’t have time to study the lessons from that operation.

Is Mendelblit in danger?

The conventional wisdom, heard within the political system and among jurists – and perhaps this is but a collective delusion – is that Netanyahu’s reign is approaching its end. Even if he somehow wins the election, he’ll find it hard to form a stable coalition with the threat of an indictment for bribery, in the Bezeq case at least, looming over his head. In this scenario, the person delivering the coup de grace will not be former chief of staff Benny Gantz, who is now basking in the ecstatic media responses to his maiden political speech, but the attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit.

Some of Mendelblit’s friends have recently started worrying about his personal safety. Statements directed against him trouble them. When a key Likud Knesset member warns of a protest by millions taking to the streets in case an indictment is filed, when journalists describe Netanyahu as God’s emissary, when the prime minister’s social media accounts are awash with blatant attacks on the attorney general, with someone (it’s still unclear if from the left or right) desecrating a headstone on Mendelblit’s father’s grave, there may very well be cause for alarm.

Up until the police recommendations were transferred to the state prosecutors, Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich was the main target of these attacks. Alsheich clarified this week, at a conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, that despite his altercation with Netanyahu he had encountered no problem with the religious Zionist public from which he hails -- the same public to which Mendelblit is connected. “I’m received with the greatest respect in my synagogue, like royalty,” he asserted.

It’s doubtful whether the attorney general can exude similar confidence. He’s still in the midst of the storm, and judging by the security arrangements around him it seems -- as his friends in the security services claim -- that these are inadequate given the new circumstances.

In front of Mendelblit’s house in Petah Tikva there is a booth with a guard, and the attorney general is accompanied everywhere he goes by one bodyguard from the courts’ security detachment. That’s not much and it’s insufficient. All it takes is one madman who thinks that his actions will save God’s emissary and perhaps the entire homeland to try to harm him. Attacking the AG will cast the country into a vortex, compared to which the present frenzy will seem like a walk in the park.

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