Israel Election 2019: Israel Was Preparing to Delay Election Due to Possible Gaza War

Netanyahu's national security adviser met Central Election Committee chief to prepare for delaying election in light of Gaza military operation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and US National Security Advisor John Bolton, June 2019
Abir Sultan,AP

Israel's National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat met with the head of the Central Elections Committee to prepare him for the possibility of postponing the general election slated for Tuesday due to a military operation, Haaretz has learned. (Click here for live election updatesHere for latest polls)

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Haaretz reported earlier Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aborted last week plans for an unusual military move in the Gaza Strip, which would likely have had far-reaching implications.

He did so at the last moment due to a legal opinion by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit that the plan required the approval of the security cabinet.

Officials involved in the matter said in response to the report that the attorney general was the one who asked the senior adviser to update election board chief, Justice Hanan Melcer, about a possible escalation.

The dramatic discussion over a potential military action began Tuesday night. A few hours earlier, Netanyahu had gone through a disturbing experience: Gaza-based Islamic Jihad operatives fired a Katyusha rocket at the southern city Ashdod, where he was speaking at a campaign rally.

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After the rally, Netanyahu convened senior defense officials at army headquarters in Tel Aviv for urgent consultations. Afterward, his office distributed a picture of him with the senior officials in question – Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, National Security Adviser Ben-Shabbat, Military Intelligence director Tamir Hayman and Netanyahu’s military secretary, Avi Blot. All wore grave faces.

Some of those at the discussion had reservations about the force of a possible attack for two reasons: The possibility of sustaining collateral damage and the risk that a Palestinian response would include massive rocket fire by Hamas and Islamic Jihad that would drag the two sides toward war. In addition, although nothing was said directly to Netanyahu, some participants were concerned that some of the prime minister’s motives were connected to the election.

The dispute continued during the following two days, as well. Mendelblit played a major role after being brought into the discussions at a later stage. He warned Netanyahu of the legal requirement to involve the security cabinet in any decision that could lead to a war. But Netanyahu did not bring the decision to a vote before the security cabinet and in the end stopped pressing the heads of the defense establishment to act. Early Wednesday morning the army conducted a minor air raid, hitting several Hamas targets in Gaza without causing any casualties.

This minor response to Islamic Jihad’s rocket launch at both Ashdod and Ashkelon stemmed in part from the fact that some of the senior defense officials present objected to Netanyahu’s plan. But a major reason for the decision was Mendelblit, who wasn’t present but participated in the discussion by phone.

Ministers in the security cabinet said on Monday said they had been updated during the week about deliberations regarding a possible action in Gaza, but as far as is known the security cabinet was not convened. Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz told Kan’s Reshet Bet radio that “This report is totally baseless. A complete lie.”

Netanyahu did not respond to this report.

Haaretz has learned that the discussions were so serious that Ben-Shabbat asked the head of Israel's Central Elections Committee to come to the security meeting.

At the meeting, Ben-Shabbat said Israel may launch a large-scale military operation that may force the delay of the election, and Melcer should be prepared for that possibility. According to Israeli law, only the Knesset may postpone an election with a special majority of 80 members. Such a delay occurred in the 8th Knesset when the Yom Kippur War caused a two-month delay.

As Haaretz reported, Netanyahu eventually aborted a plan for a significant retaliation. 

In light of the report of Melcer and Ben-Shabbat's meeting, Benny Gantz said that "Netanyahu erased ambiguity for political means. Now he lost it, and wants to drag us into a war to postpone the elections." He added, "This is a script fit for House of Cards and not for the State of Israel." He called on the public to vote for his party and "put an end to this."

Responding to Gantz's remarks, Netanyahu said in a heated video, "Benny Gantz, are you not ashamed? To make politics out of security matters? You're accusing me, who strictly guarded the lives of our soldiers and civilians – you, who took pride after Operation Protective Edge that you endangered Golani Brigade soldiers in favor of Palestinians," A reference to a de-contextualized remark by Gantz at a 2015 conference in which he discussed the dilemma of knowing that Hamas terrorists were operating within civilian hospitals.

Netanyahu reiterated that Israel is prepared for any scenario, including the possibility of rocket fire from Gaza disrupting elections, "and we prepared an intense response," he said. "But I will choose the time we begin the operation we prepared at the best time, and not a minute before."

Nitzan Horowitz, chairman of the Democratic Union party, also responded to the report, saying: "Netanyahu is not a leader. He is a reckless person who is prepared to play even with our security in order to survive in power at any price and escape jail. He has no red lines and no inhibitions. In his current state, he is a dangerous man."