Netanyahu Backed Off Significant Gaza Strike After Attorney General Intervened

Avichai Mendelblit demanded that Netanyahu convene the cabinet to decide on such a move, a demand that he likely coordinated with the top defense brass that was wary of the PM's plan

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

>> UPDATE: Israel was preparing to delay the election due to war

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 40Haaretz

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aborted plans for an unusual military move, which would likely have had far-reaching implications, at the last moment last week.

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

The dramatic discussion, being reported here for the first time, began Tuesday night. A few hours earlier, Netanyahu had gone through a disturbing experience: Islamic Jihad fired a Katyusha rocket from Gaza at Ashdod while he was speaking at a campaign rally there.

When the warning siren sounded, Netanyahu obeyed the Shin Bet security service’s orders to abandon the stage and head for a bomb shelter, even though hundreds of his supporters remained in the hall. The rocket was intercepted by an Iron Dome battery, and Netanyahu then resumed his address.

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Mendelblit attending a cabinet meeting in the Jordan Valley, September 15, 2019.
Amir Cohen/AP

But the incident sparked fierce criticism from political rivals. Kahol Lavan accused him of abandoning his supporters, while Naftali Bennett (Yamina) termed the incident a “national humiliation.”

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 Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, Military Intelligence director Tamir Hayman and Netanyahu’s military secretary, Avi Blot. All wore grave faces.

His office didn’t publish any details about the discussion, but a few hours later, the air force bombed several Hamas military targets in Gaza. These air strikes were slightly more intensive than others launched in recent months, but they caused no casualties, and it seems unlikely that they bolstered Israeli deterrence against Hamas.

This minor response to Islamic Jihad’s launch of rockets at both Ashdod and Ashkelon Tuesday evening 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.

Mendelblit’s opinion was based on an amendment to the Basic Law on Government that the Knesset passed in April 2018. This amendment, Article 40, states that any decision to make a significant military move that’s almost certain to lead to war requires cabinet approval, but the cabinet can delegate this power to the Ministerial Committee for National Security, better known as the security cabinet.

The amendment was based on the recommendations of a committee headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror. Netanyahu had appointed the panel to issue proposals about what powers the security cabinet should have, based on the lessons of the 2014 Gaza war. But while the Knesset was debating it, a fierce argument ensued.

Netanyahu’s Likud party wanted the amendment revised to allow the prime and defense ministers, acting together, to make such decisions in exceptional cases even without consulting the security cabinet. But opposition Knesset members, led by MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), opposed this, as did then-ministers Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, and in the end, Likud’s proposal was dropped.

Consequently, Mendelblit said, the law doesn’t allow for such a decision to be made without the security cabinet’s approval. And that body must hear from the chief of staff before making its decision. Thus in the end, according to several sources who spoke with Haaretz, Netanyahu shelved the idea of launching a large-scale operation.

It’s also reasonable to draw the conclusion that Mendelblit’s opinion was coordinated with the heads of the security services.

In his blitz of media interviews in the past few days, Netanyahu has repeatedly said that if he sees no alternative, he’s likely to order a war against Hamas in Gaza after Tuesday’s election. But he stressed that he would choose war only as a last resort.

The Justice Ministry declined to comment on this report. The Prime Minister’s Office said it never comments on security cabinet discussions.

Meanwhile, aside from the latest developments in Gaza, tension also remains high on the northern front. In his lightning trip to see Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Thursday, Netanyahu said there has been a “sharp spike in the number and the scope of Iran’s attempts to harm Israel from Syrian territory and transfer precision missiles to Syria, adding, “We won’t tolerate this threat.”

Former IDF Chief of Staff and current MK Gabi Ashkenazi (Kahol Lavan) charged at an event in Ramat Gan on Saturday that Netanyahu is feeling “hysteria, pressure and panic” and is therefore “doing dangerous things – things no prime minister has ever done.”

And on Friday, journalist Ben Caspit reported in Maariv that another vocal argument had broken out among Netanyahu, Mendelblit and senior defense officials last Tuesday afternoon, prior to the rocket attack on Ashdod.

Before going to Ashdod, Netanyahu had called a press conference at which he planned to announce plans to apply Israeli sovereignty or annex the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank (or possibly, according to other sources, to all Israeli settlements in Area C, the part of the West Bank assigned to full Israeli control by the Oslo Accords). Netanyahu informed Kochavi, Argaman and other senior defense officials about his planned announcement in a conference call. But they warned of the potential negative ramifications such a move could have, Caspit said.

Mendelblit, for his part, warned that a transitional government shouldn’t take such a far-reaching step. Thus Netanyahu was ultimately forced to make do with announcing that he plans to annex the Jordan Valley if he is reelected.