Analysis

Israel Election Results: Deliberate Security Escalation Could Torpedo Political Negotiations

Escalation may serve as an excuse for a Netanyahu-led emergency government. Israel's security chiefs may require nerves of steel

Netanyahu and Israeli army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi during security briefings in northern Israel, August 2019.
Haim Zach / GPO

The days that may turn out to be the twilight of the Netanyahu era also pose an inherent risk. By law, the political system has almost four months from Election Day to exploit all the options for forming a new government before – God forbid – another election must be called. In around two weeks, the ticking political clock will be joined by the no less critical legal one.

The prime minister’s lawyers will come to a hearing before Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. The attorney general’s expected decision to prosecute Netanyahu in three separate corruption cases will certainly impact the deliberations during the coalition negotiations. But in the background, we will hear the ticking of a third clock: the security clock.

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Smoke rises in Maroun Al-Ras, Lebanon, near the Israeli border, from shells fired from Israel, September 1, 2019.
\ AZIZ TAHER/ REUTERS

The security tensions are still bubbling very close to the surface. There is a danger that they might now be used as an excuse: The intentional escalation in one of the arenas, against Iran and Hezbollah in the north or against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, could disrupt the coalition talks in a way that would accelerate the establishment of an emergency government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In an extreme scenario, an escalation could even be used to justify the defection of individuals from Kahol Lavan or Labor.

Urgent security circumstances have often provided a comfortable context for establishing unexpected coalitions. That how a seasonal flare up connected to the Iranian nuclear issue in 2012 gave Netanyahu the opportunity to add, for a short time, the Kadima faction headed by Shaul Mofaz to his government.

Top security officials will need nerves of steel during the coming weeks to not be dragged into an escalation over irrelevant considerations. This is not a conspiracy theory or an unreasonable scenario; we were actually on the verge of such a possibility only a week ago, when Netanyahu tried to advance a major military move in Gaza but was blocked by the reservations of some senior security officials, and particularly by Mendelblit’s opposition for legal reasons.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants display rockets during an anti-Israel military show at Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, June 20, 2019.
\ MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

Would the prime minister have actually implemented his plan had he not encountered resistance? It’s hard to say. Netanyahu, especially during times of political pressure, tends to push forcefully in several directions at once to leave himself a number of options. National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat was sent to Central Elections Committee head Justice Hanan Melcer last Wednesday to present a scenario for postponing the election.

The direct reason was Mendelblit’s directive to Netanyahu, which was backed by the former’s insistence that the security cabinet must be convened to approve an operation in Gaza (Netanyahu, according to the Maariv newspaper, wanted to make do with getting approval from the ministers by phone, without them hearing the opinion of army chief Aviv Kochavi). But at the beginning of September, the small and closed circle that led the Likud campaign had already raised the possibility that the election could be delayed by a deteriorating security situation.

The security establishment’s reservations over Netanyahu’s planned operation were relatively mild, but a few security agency heads suspected that the reason for a change in policy were primarily political. Up until a few days ago, Netanyahu knew very well how to convince himself of the need to continue the policy of restraint and containment he had been implementing in Gaza for the past year and a half. The sharp change that could have resulted in an operation leading to war looked dubious in its timing.

Netanyahu meeting with defense officials at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, September 15, 2019.
Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

On a small scale, this was a rerun of the confrontation between Netanyahu and his former Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the security services heads at the beginning of the decade over an attack on Iran. The restraint imposed on the prime minister last week proves that even these senior people were appointed by Netanyahu, they are not in Netanyahu’s pocket.

Given the slow handling of Netanyahu’s criminal cases and the marked leniency shown his wife, many on the left like to describe Mendelblit as a dishrag, constantly being stepped on by the prime minister. But in fact the attorney general seems to have made a double contribution with his conduct last week: He rescued the state from an unnecessary war in the Gaza Strip and prevented the mortal blow to Israeli democracy that postponing the elections would have delivered.

“Everyone now wants to take the credit, but the only real man here was Mendelblit,” said a senior officer who was exposed to last week’s developments after the fact. His colleagues said that contrary to some of the press reports, the heads of the security agencies did not consider resigning to protest Netanyahu’s moves, “and maybe that’s the problem.” Either way, in this instance the extended lineup of gatekeepers did their jobs.

Under other circumstances, if Netanyahu’s ambition to form a 61-member government had been realized, the consequences might have gone beyond ensuring his legal immunity and castrating the Supreme Court through an override clause. The military leadership is quite sensitive to political winds. Senior army officers learn to toe the line when there is pressure from above, particularly when colleagues who are labeled too independent or too left-wing find themselves being shown the door.

The move that Netanyahu tried to push through, and especially Mendelblit’s stance against it, helped the Israel Defense Forces rediscover its backbone. Over the long term, the danger that the government would try to appoint additional lackeys like State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman floated not just over the legal system but over the security echelons as well. That’s another reason that Netanyahu’s failure to achieve his 61-member government can be considered good news.

The full column will appear in Friday’s Haaretz.