Analysis

Netanyahu's Unusual Declaration – and What Really Worries Him Days Before Election

A bad week that may have driven him to throw caution to the wind

Netanyahu announces his intent to annex parts of the West Bank at a press conference in Ramat Gan, September 10, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

This is the question engaging the heads of the Israel Defense Forces just before the Knesset election this Tuesday: Has there been any fundamental change in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s considerations? The prevailing view, in the upper echelons of the security establishment and among people following his behavior for the past decade, has been that Netanyahu has remained amazingly cautious in taking security decisions. He has been good at risk management and has usually tried to avoid any military escalation on all the relevant fronts – the north, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Netanyahu acted on a deep understanding of the minimal benefits Israel could expect to achieve by war and also with the knowledge of the considerable political risks involved for him personally.

His statement on Thursday morning in an interview to Kan Reshet Bet Radio is a clear deviation from his previous line. Just prior to his departure for Moscow for a lightning visit to President Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu told interviewers Yaron Dekel and Amit Segal: “Apparently there will be no alternative but to embark on a fight, a war vis-à-vis Gaza.” It’s possible to take this with the usual tweeters’ cynical grain of salt, to look at the innumerable previous false promises the prime minister has minted on the eve of an election or to recall the empty threats made by Likud ministers in recent weeks. Yet nevertheless, this time around maybe something deeper is happening, something the top brass have been especially worried about this week – the possible start of a vertiginous spiral into a loss of control.

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The key moment occurred on Tuesday evening. Netanyahu had just left a successful speech at Kfar Hamaccabiah, and the promise by Likud spokespeople of a dramatic announcement evaporated into thin air all in a live broadcast. Instead of a major statement, there was another string of future promises made to annex West Bank land, including the Jordan Valley. Contrary to what a number of pundits have anticipated, his declaration had not been fully coordinated with the American administration nor had it been publicly given a green light by Washington.

What happened subsequently was even worse. First the prime minister was informed that his closest ally in the American capital, National Security Adviser John Bolton, had been fired by President Donald Trump. As the Bloomberg network reported, the straw that broke the camel’s back in the escalating tension between the president and his adviser had to do with Bolton’s strong objections to easing the sanctions on Tehran, in the context of the American attempt to arrange a summit between Trump and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rohani.

And then the prime minister travelled south, to an election campaign ally in Ashdod. The internal pressure within the Likud campaign, this time an increasingly blurred line between political and security considerations led to quite a serious security mishap. The party’s Facebook pages had stated the exact time and place of the gathering at which the prime minister would speak, in contravention of standing orders prohibiting any advance notification of visits by VIPs to the south or the north, areas deemed as more vulnerable to rocket attacks or other weapons fire.

Apparently Islamic Jihad follows Likud social media. The result was the launch of a rocket from the Gaza Strip at Ashdod during the speech, which compelled Netanyahu to leave the stage accompanied by his bodyguards on his way to the shelter. Remaining behind were hundreds of enthusiastic supporters, without similar protection. It’s lucky Israel has Iron Dome, which indeed intercepted the rocket, along with another one that had been launched at nearby Ashkelon.

In the nature of things, the pictures became the topic du jour in the political discourse, and, as might be expected, the opposition movements took full advantage of the scene of the evacuation from the stage. Kahol Lavan did it an usual thing of falling over its own feet even when there is no goalie between the posts: Gabi Ashkenazi was filmed at a rally in Ashkelon refusing to take cover as the warning siren blared and the next day Benny Gantz explained in an interview to Ynet that he would not have abandoned an audience the way Netanyahu did (and thus the two former chiefs of staff deviated from Home Front Command instructions, which had already been formulated back in their days at the helm).

However, the argument with Kahol Lavan about this matter is marginal, as is the artificial dismay Netanyahu expressed regarding his rivals’ gloating at the prime minister’s humiliation. What will be remembered, however, is the symbolic point at which the policy met head on with the man who had framed it. During the past year Netanyahu has intentionally avoided vising the south much, and especially communities on the border with Gaza, but this time Jihad caught him unprepared.

Protective Edge

It is exactly five years since Operation Protective Edge ended, and during these years the prime minister has avoided taking any initiative in the Gaza Strip. Israel had many opportunities to consider a long-term truce with Hamas, including significant economic measures, easing of the blockade and a solution to the problem of the Israelis missing and held captive in Gaza. This did not come to fruition, to a significant extent due to the stasis that paralyzed the government.

At the end of March 2018, after three and a half years of the stability the last disappointing operation managed to achieve, there was a change in the security situation on the Gaza border. Hamas hitched a ride on the initiative of the marches along the fence and since then there hasn’t been a moment’s quiet. The clashes, in which more than 300 Palestinians, most of them unarmed, have been killed, has spilled over into the communities on the Israeli side.

First, there were the fires ignited in the fields, to which Netanyahu wisely reacted with restraint, on the recommendation of the IDF. Subsequently, things took a turn for the worse to rounds of violence in which hundreds of rockets were fired within a 24-hour period, and there were also months of weekly bouts of rocket fire.

Amid the efforts of the United Nations and Egyptian intelligence, along with the monthly shipments of cash from Qatar, someone would succeed in dousing the bonfire. However, the relative calm is always disturbed within days, or at most, weeks. Hamas is not pleased with the rate of implementation of the economic promises it was given in return for calm, the younger generation in the Gaza Strip is frustrated with the horrendous economic situation, the feeling of strangulation and massive neglect of treatment for their injuries from the demonstrations. And Islamic Jihad, with encouragement from Iran, is always seeking to reignite the flames the moment it has an opportunity to do so.

Was the rocket fired at Ashdod a Helena Rapp event for Netanyahu? Not likely. The murder of the schoolgirl from Bat Yam in a knifing attack by a Palestinian terrorist, shortly before the election in 1992, is seen as a decisive moment in that campaign because it embodied the damage to civilians’ feeling of personal security and the Israeli failure to deal with the Gaza Strip (some things never change). In the election a month later, Yitzhak Rabin defeated Prime Minister Yizhak Shamir.

History does not repeat itself exactly. Netanyahu’s rivals are light years away from Rabin, and at the moment, at least, the feeling that there is a security threat is limited to inhabitants of the south, many of whom – like Netanyahu’s supporters at the rally in Asdod – will vote for Likud yet again next week. As of now, the election campaign is leaving the Israeli public indifferent. Spin comes and spin goes and they excite mainly the journalists and the political activists. The public opinion polls, for what they are worth, are indicating stagnation, with minimal movement between the blocs.

Stepping up strikes

So why is Netanyahu worried nevertheless? Because for now all the public opinion polls, including Likud’s, show that he is barely in crossing the threshold of 61 Knesset members he would need to form a coalition on the right without Avigdor Lieberman’s party. The stunt of the legislation to put cameras in polling places, buried by the Knesset on Wednesday, was aimed at spurring voters for the right to flock to the polling places next week under the mendacious threat supposedly posed by Arab voters. This is also the context of the awful remaks posted this week by the Likud campaign (“The Arabs want to annihilate us all”), from which Netanyahu tried unconvincingly to dissociate himself and which cost the party, on Thursday, an unusual sanction by Facebook – a 24-hour freeze on the automatic mechanism for sending posts.

The exaggeration of the fear of voter fraud could be preparation for an additional move – questioning the legitimacy of the results of the election after their publication after the outcome if it doesn't ensure the prime minister’s survival in office. Hence the security concern (theoretical, for now). If Likud is capable, intentionally and with forethought, of playing in this way with the flames of nationalistic hatred, is the sense of siege and the final battle also liable to spill over into the security arena, which until now has been kept relatively clean of such considerations?

This is a scenario that until recently would have been dismissed out of hand because of its extreme unlikeliness to any rational observer, apart from a few op-ed writers in Haaretz. However, could it be that someone will be tempted into thinking that postponing the election at the last minute in a context of unusual security tension could serve him politically? The prevailing assumption is that war is bad for the party in power (as Likud learned in the first Lebanon War in 1982 and Kadima learned in the wake of the second Lebanon War in 2006). Will this assumption hold true for next week as well?

Thus, Netanyahu’s statement about Gaza is raising some eyebrows. And Gaza isn’t the only front. When we put the official Israeli statements together with foreign media reports, it appears that Israel has stepped up its attacks on targets linked to Iran and its surrogates in the north, in an arena currently stretching from Iraq to Lebanon. The attacks are more frequent and some are carried out simultaneously (three attacks were attributed to the Israeli air force within a single day at the end of August) and many of the attacks have been high profile, with Israel sometimes taking responsibility.

Walking a fine line

All this has been happening in a context of a collapse of the Israeli action rationale with regard to the Iranian atomic project. It’s not just a matter of Bolton, who has resigned or was fired – depending on who’s talking. The new findings Netanyahu revealed about the Iranian nuclear program were greeted with sweeping international indifference. Trump’s angling for a meeting with Rohani is already clear. The outcome depends mainly on the Iranian response to his proposal.

The media, of course, aren’t exposed to the entirety of intelligence materials. However, the question does arise as to whether the increase in the attacks in the north (and the east) has to do only with necessary efforts to thwart the evil intentions of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Force. Another possibility is that there is an Israeli choice here to increase the pressure. According to the reports, the targets attacked in Iraq and on the Syrian side of the border were Shi’ite militias’ weapons depots and convoys of their people. These were not upright launchers blown up moments before firing off rockets.

The explanations could be multiple. The reason could derive from responsiveness to operational pressure from below in order to achieve results, or it could be taking advantage of a window of opportunity of American indifference to attacks attributed to Israel (which at least in Iraq is about to be shut because of concern at the Pentagon about local hostility towards the presence of American soldiers there). Here too, according to those same reports, Israel is walking a fine line.

A great deal of praise has been heaped on the Northern Command for the level-headed conduct of the campaign against Hezbollah. Nonetheless, the truth is clear: Had it not been for a targeting mistake in the Hezbollah rocket that struck near Kibbutz Yaron on September 1, Israel would have concluded the incident with five dead soldiers in an incinerated Jeep (which had been driving along the road in violation of explicit orders) – and on the brink of war.

The basic assumption to the effect that both Israel and Iran do not want war paradoxically enables them to take more risks under the assumption that in the worst case scenario the enemy will evince responsibility. However, this is exactly the route to stumbling into a war, contrary to a clear and declared strategic interest.

So Israel is attacking more forcefully in the north, and since Thursday, the prime minister has been threatening a war in the south. Are there solely definite operational constraints working here, or a feeling of hubris stemming from excessive confidence in Israel’s precise intelligence and operational capability, or perhaps, somewhere in the nether reaches, with lurking political considerations? This isn’t like the Netanyahu we have known, who for the most part knew how to hew to the necessary separation between Israel’s security and party politics. But we are in the midst of dramatic days. From the moment Likud initiated the dangerous game of undermining the public’s trust in the cleanliness of the election, even that time-honored, nearly sacred taboo has been facing a test in the domestic arena.

The question marks multiply even more when we try to figure out who is guarding the guardians. The current cabinet led by Netanyahu, in a transitional government, is apparently the weakest he has ever had at his disposal in the past decade. The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is also in effect paralyzed. The current period is unprecedented in many respects. At this time double and redoubled responsibility is incumbent upon the professionals, the heads of the defense establishment.