Analysis

Gaza, Iran, or Is It Hezbollah? Netanyahu Using Intel Warnings to Justify Nixing Election

People close to Netanyahu warn of a threat for the Gulf, Gaza or Hezbollah. Though the threats are not unfounded, PM may be using them to suit his needs

Netanyahu speaks at the Cyber Week conference at Tel Aviv University, June 26, 2019.
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Anyone speaking to people close to the prime minister and his ministers are hearing panic that stems not just from Benjamin Netanyahu’s vigorous attempt to stop the clock on the new election. On the agenda, they whisper, is a pending security crisis. The evil will come from the Persian Gulf, the Gaza Strip or the northern border, generated by Iran and its proxies. Then the military agenda will soon overwhelm the political one, overshadowing the political parties’ petty considerations.

The sense of urgency on the security front is not without foundation. As Haaretz reported a week ago, the ministers have been told that possible tension in the Gulf could affect Israel’s borders, particular the northern front. According to intelligence analyses, Iran could conclude that the attacks on the oil tankers and oil sites in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates didn’t achieve the desired results – American readiness to seriously discuss easing the economic sanctions – and that an Iranian provocation against Israel will be necessary to persuade Washington that Tehran is serious.

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The Gaza border is also simmering. Hamas isn’t satisfied with the pace at which the economic concessions agreed on with Egypt and Qatar are being implemented, the incendiary balloons are back and Israel has become slightly more aggressive in its attacks. Toward the weekend, after the Bahrain economic workshop and the national security advisers’ meeting in Jerusalem, Israel might feel freer to respond. On Wednesday, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Channel 13’s Udi Segal: “If I were a Hamas man in Gaza today, I wouldn’t be pleasantly awaiting the upcoming period.”

Still, it appears that the dribble of reports about a security threat also has a political context. The general intelligence warnings are being leveraged in favor of an attempt to craft a new process in building a governing coalition. In a climate of security crisis, it will be easier to convince the public that the election should be called off and a unity government formed, and the potential partners in the center and left, Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan and to some extent the Labor Party, will find it harder to explain their refusal.

The leak Tuesday night to Channel 12 News of what was presented as an initiative by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to cancel the election could be seen as a trial balloon that could be floated again if there is indeed a military escalation.

It wouldn’t be the first time Netanyahu has done this. Last November, when Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of Habayit Hayehudi were on the brink of quitting the government, the prime minister sent his national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, to persuade the elderly Rabbi Haim Druckman to thwart the resignations on the grounds that security problems were expected.

A few weeks later, the background for this move became clear with the launch of Operation Northern Shield in which the army destroyed six tunnels Hezbollah had dug into Israel under the Lebanese border. (Speaking to Haaretz, Ben-Shabbat and Druckman denied that the tunnel danger was discussed at their meeting before it was reported to the public.)

This time, as far as is known, we’re not talking about an Israeli initiative. Netanyahu has always shown extreme caution about launching a military operation. In the past 10 years he has approved only two broad operations in Gaza – the November 2012 air offensive (Operation Pillar of Defense) and the summer 2014 Gaza war (Operation Protective Edge). And, from his point of view, both were approved as a last resort. It’s hard to see him risking a military operation merely to impose unity and call off the election.

On the other hand, keeping a security threat on the agenda serves him as he puts feelers out to Kahol Lavan, and will also serve him when the election campaign begins in earnest. This time, unlike previous times, he doesn’t seem able to dictate the issue on which the election will focus, even though this time much more is at stake. An election victory would not only ensure his political survival, it could improve his chances of skirting the pending indictments.

The Middle East has offered up several tense arenas this summer, the main one being the tension between the United States and Iran in which Israel is only a secondary player. As the September 17 election draws near, the political game will indeed be affected by what happens on the security front. But for now, the military threats aren’t dictating the political parties’ decisions.