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The Great Debate of Israel's Election: Who Was Afraid to Strike Iran, and When?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A combination picture shows Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 23, 2019 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Kiryat Malachi, Israel March 1, 2020.
A combination picture shows Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 23, 2019 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Kiryat Malachi, Israel March 1, 2020.Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The final stretch in the struggle between Likud and Kahol Lavan on the eve of Monday’s election has dragged up two issues from the early days of the last decade: The dispute over whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and the Harpaz document, a scandal that implicated both Kahol Lavan MK Gabi Ashkenazi, then the Israeli army's chief of staff, and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit in alleged wrongdoing.

In both cases it seems that Likud was relying on the short memory of Israeli voters in order to present a distorted image of what occurred back then.

Bibi went gunning for his only real rival

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Kahol Lavan chairman MK Benny Gantz reacted angrily to the opinion expressed by his (dismissed) campaign strategist Yisrael Bachar, that Gantz would be too afraid to attack Iran, which was recorded and aired on television.

In a series of media interviews, Gantz argued that he, as chief of general staff, had prepared the Israel Defense Forces for a possible attack on Iran. The decision not to attack, he said, was made by the political echelons and not by the army.

Both these claims are true. But Gantz didn’t mention one other important point: That he had indeed objected to an Israeli attack that wasn’t coordinated with the Americans, just like his predecessor Gabi Ashkenazi and all heads of security at the time.

The accusation being pushed by Likud isn’t really relevant right now. An Israeli attack on Iran is no longer on the agenda. In February 2011, when he was appointed chief of staff, Gantz expedited the attack plans that Ashkenazi had started to develop. A possible attack was discussed at least two other times – during the spring and summer of 2011 and again a year later. Senior security officials objected for two main reasons: Doubts about the ability of an Israeli attack to delay the Iranian nuclear program, and fear of a rupture with the Obama administration.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to blame Gantz for the decision not to attack. In the past, Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak blamed the decision on their inability to get a majority to approve an attack in the security cabinet and in the smaller “forum of eight” ministers who make security decisions. Ministers Yuval Steinitz and Moshe Ya’alon were said to be the resisters.

In fact, to this day it isn’t clear even to those who were privy to inside secrets whether Netanyahu and Barak really intended to attack Iran, or whether they were simply advancing preparations to attack in order to persuade the Americans to increase their economic pressure on Iran (which indeed happened in the end).

In any case, Netanyahu was well aware of the counterarguments made by the heads of the security services. He was himself afraid of getting entangled in a war in which the home front would likely suffer an attack of unprecedented ferocity by Hezbollah, and decided to avoid a move that, if it had failed, would have finished his political career. It’s hard to hang all this on Benny Gantz.

Two birds, one stone

Regarding the second matter, the Harpaz case, Netanyahu is trying to kill two birds with one stone: Ashkenazi and Mendelblit, who was military advocate general at the time. Neither of the pair has any reason to be proud of his role in that scandal, which Gantz then described as a stinking carcass in general staff headquarters. The Harpaz affair was a scheme based on a forged document, written by an Ashkenazi associate, Boaz Harpaz, that seemingly aimed to scuttle the appointment of Barak’s preferred candidate, Yoav Galant, whom Ashkenazi despised.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Likud faction meeting in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 1, 2020Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

A state comptroller’s report and a series of other examinations yielded severe criticism of Ashkenazi’s behavior, saying that he exceeded the limits of his position, and at the very least turned a blind eye while people surrounding him were engaging in ugly political machinations against Barak, his superior minister.

Mendelblit took his time with formulating the proper legal recommendation against Ashkenazi – that he immediately hand over the incriminating document to police investigators – and thus acted more like the personal attorney of the chief of staff and less like the person responsible for enforcing the law in the IDF.

But all these factors were debated endlessly nearly 10 years ago. The investigations were formally wrapped up in 2014 and during all those years Netanyahu barely exhibited any interest in their conclusions. He wasn’t the least bit curious about Ashkenazi’s doings as long as he didn’t view him as a political threat. As for Mendelblit, it was Netanyahu who pushed to appoint him attorney general despite the objections of the man he replaced, Yehuda Weinstein, and then Supreme Court President Asher Grunis. Only recently, during his battle to the death against the legal authorities, did he remember the Harpaz case. Suddenly he demanded the release of all the transcripts of conversations relating to the affair.

Likud’s horn-tooters and bots have been jumping on this information as if they have found some kind of treasure, even though almost everything that’s being “revealed” about this case had been reported in Haaretz and other media outlets when the case was ongoing. It’s not hard to see that the holy fury being demonstrated here is totally artificial. The firing of this ancient ammunition from the Harpaz case is meant to achieve two things: To strengthen the baseless claim that both camps are equally tainted by corruption, and to deter Mendelblit from taking any steps that could hurt Netanyahu between the election and the opening of his trial on March 17.

The prime minister made a bad situation worse by explaining over the weekend that because of the forged Harpaz document, Yoav Galant was not named chief of staff. But while that was apparently the intent of the document’s creators, Netanyahu and Barak in fact named Galant to succeed Ashkenazi after the scandal broke. It was reports about Galant’s alleged seizure of public land adjacent to his home in Moshav Amikam that forced them to withdraw his appointment only a week before he was to assume the job, and appoint Gantz instead.

The army in the crosshairs

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 16, 2020.Credit: POOL New/ REUTERS

Along with his political campaign, Netanyahu has not let up in his crusade against the police, the prosecution and now the judges. In recent days there have been rumors, which Netanyahu has publicly denied, of a plan to fire Mendelblit after the election and conduct a broad “cleansing” of the prosecution if the rightwing bloc gets 61 seats or more in the next Knesset.

The fear and confusion imposed by such threats against the legal system can already be seen. But what isn’t discussed is the possible influence this campaign of intimidation is having on the heads of the defense establishment.

Nearly three years ago Netanyahu’s associates were involved in an aggressive campaign against then-Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot due to the latter’s determination to prosecute Elor Azariya, who shot dead a subdued terrorist in Hebron. Over the past year there have been clear efforts to besmirch Eisenkot while providing a right-wing embrace – that will surely be temporary – to the current Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi.

These sensitive times are causing frustration in the IDF ranks below Kochavi. The army is being excluded from contact with the Trump administration on the “deal of the century,” is being dragged into serving as a backdrop for Netanyahu’s threats of possible escalation with Iran and has been forced to implement the body-gathering policy of Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, even though it doesn’t see any purpose in it. In general, the impression is that the general staff is walking on eggshells so as not to set off politicians during the election campaign.

To what degree does this affect the expression of professional and independent opinions during a period of high security tensions in the Gaza Strip and the Syrian arena? The IDF and the Shin Bet security service were already put to this test once, after a night of rocket fire on Ashdod last September.

Then, as Haaretz reported, Netanyahu tried to make a broad military move that could have led to the postponement of the second election. The move was blocked in the end by Mendelblit’s intervention, after he was warned by the IDF. But these are phenomena that could repeat themselves even now.

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