Anti-tunnel operation in north kicks up coalition’s political dirt

Last month, Netanyahu salvaged his sinking government by hinting at a ‘military campaign’; Bennett took the bait, and now we may know why

Marissa Newman

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv on November 18, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv on November 18, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Sixteen days ago, in the throes of the most serious political crisis threatening his coalition yet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a prime-time press conference to coincide with the nightly newscasts, auguring a dramatic announcement.

The anticipation quickly soared. Would Netanyahu appoint a new foreign minister or defense minister to salvage his embattled coalition, days after former defense minister Avigdor Liberman resigned over Israel’s policy on Gaza? Would he change tack and call early elections to preempt his junior coalition partners from prematurely dissolving the government, as they appeared inevitably poised to do?

Instead, taking the podium outside the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, a backdrop often reserved for somber military announcements, the prime minister announced he would be assuming the top defense position, before issuing a most cryptic statement.

“We are in the midst of a military campaign, and you don’t abandon during a campaign, you don’t play politics,” Netanyahu said. “The security of the state is above all else.”

Netanyahu offered no further details about the security threat.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Aug. 30, 2016. (Abir Sultan, Pool via AP)

“You are only seeing a partial picture of the ongoing operation we are engaged in,” he continued, adding that, “I will not say tonight when we will act and what we will do… but I have a clear plan.”

His comments came days after Liberman resigned in light of a ceasefire agreed on by Israel and Palestinian terror groups in Gaza following an unprecedentedly fierce two-day barrage of over 400 rockets fired by Hamas and other terror groups at Israel.

Addressing mounting public anger over the much-maligned ceasefire, Netanyahu suggested during last month’s press conference that the outcry stemmed from the fact that “it is impossible to present you with some of the information.”

With scant details provided on the alleged security threat, Israelis did not appear to buy the prime minister’s claim (just 31 percent told a radio poll days later that they believed Netanyahu was motivated to avert early elections by “a real concern for the country’s security situation”).

The veiled reference to a military operation also came days after a special forces operation in Gaza went awry, leaving an Israeli officer and seven Hamas fighters dead in the ensuing shootout and prompting the largest rocket fire from Gaza since 2014. It was therefore largely interpreted to refer to tensions with Gaza or covert Israeli military activity to undermine Hamas.

People gather outside a house that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on November 13, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But the launch of an Israeli operation on the Lebanon border on Tuesday to destroy cross-border attack tunnels that Israel said were dug by the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group appeared to clarify some of the political chaos and security decision-making during last month’s crisis.

It appears to explain, for example, why Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who initially issued a public ultimatum to Netanyahu that he be appointed defense minister or he would withdraw his Jewish Home party from the government, backed down in a spectacular flip-flop a day after Netanyahu’s speech.

Speaking to reporters who had convened on November 19 expecting a resignation that would topple the government, Bennett admitted that his about-face would likely “cost a political price for me,” but, he added, “it doesn’t matter, it’s better for us to help the prime minister lead us to victory.”

Though Netanyahu would continue to lead the government through its transition phase even if new elections were called and could authorize urgent military operations during this time, a High Court of Justice ruling restricts the cabinet’s authority during this period to governance that does not have far-reaching or long-term implications for Israelis. And with ministers campaigning for reelection and no longer beholden to the government, the political fallout of a conflict could undermine the consensus on whether military action is essential.

Bennett’s eagerness for the defense post last month despite the coalition’s inherent instability (with just the barest majority of 61 out of 120 MKs after Liberman’s departure) and elections due in under a year, if not before, is also clarified by the northern military activity.

The Jewish Home leader has long cast himself as the sole minister to sound the alarm about the Gaza tunnel threat in the lead-up to the 2014 Operation Protective Edge in the face of security cabinet complacence. An opportunity to tackle the northern tunnel threat as defense minister would solidly burnish that image.

And the Israeli action in the north fleshes out Liberman’s ostensibly straightforward reason for quitting the post and the coalition on November 14. The former defense minister had cited the ceasefire agreement with Hamas, calling it a “capitulation to terror” and accusing Israel of sacrificing long-term security in favor of short-term quiet.

But according to leaks from the high-level security cabinet on Tuesday, Liberman had clashed with the Israel Defense Forces chief on whether the tunnel threat in the north was deemed serious enough to hold off on a Gaza reprisal — and may have been overruled.

Hamas or Hezbollah?

According to the leaks, the upcoming plan to dismantle the Hezbollah tunnels was a consideration — though not the primary one — in Israel’s decision to exercise restraint in Gaza last month.

“The IDF chief of staff’s position and that of officers at the meeting was unequivocally that we must immediately act against the tunnels in Lebanon for operational reasons,” an unnamed security cabinet minister told Channel 10 on Tuesday.

“Liberman’s position at the meeting was opposite and he claimed that there is no urgency for the north, and Gaza must be dealt with first,” the minister was quoted as saying.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and then- Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speak with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv on November 12, 2018. (Amos Ben Gershom)

But sources told the TV network the northern tunnel threat was not a decisive factor in the security cabinet’s decision to support a ceasefire with Hamas and avoid more extensive military activity in Gaza.

Some anonymous political sources also downplayed the northern tunnel threat in conversation with Army Radio on Tuesday. “It’s just an operation to neutralize tunnels in our territory. We could have done it in another month,” a source said.

Others, including Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu, countered by saying the government made the right decision last month not to embark on a wide-scale military operation against Hamas in Gaza, so it could focus on tackling Hezbollah in the north.

In response to questions on the timing, the IDF said this operation was planned over a “very long period of time.”

“It is not something that can be done very easily and quickly,” an army spokesperson said.

The issue of whether Israel held off on a forceful Gaza response to avert a war in the south, leaving its troops free to tackle the northern front, quickly became political fodder on Tuesday.

Yesh Atid part leader Yair Lapid (center) tours a community in the Gaza periphery, November 13, 2018 (Courtesy Yesh Atid)

Opposition figure Yair Lapid accused the government of “abandoning the south” as it launched an operation against Hezbollah in the north.

“The operation in the north doesn’t justify the abandonment of the south,” the Yesh Atid party leader told the Ynet news site. “Israel knows how to care for children in Sderot just like it knows how to care for children in Metulla; it doesn’t have to be one at the expense of the another.”

Meanwhile, coalition members, like Likud MK Yoav Kisch, linked the Gaza restraint with the northern IDF operation to praise the ministers for absorbing the public criticism in favor of broader security considerations.

“I very much respect the leadership of the cabinet and the prime minister for this balanced decision despite the harsh public criticism, which painted the prime minister’s decision as hesitant and weak,” he tweeted.

Likud MK Yoav Kisch at the Knesset on January 17, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“By contrast, I have serious criticism of the defense minister’s decision to quit at this time. It’s a decision that could have drawn Israel to elections and as a result, led to a delay in the timetable of the operation in the north,” added Kisch.  “In my view, he failed to display the responsibility required of a defense minister.”

“In light of this situation, it is obvious to me that Bennett could not have quit, and it’s good that he didn’t,” he added.

Liberman had not commented on the northern operation as of this writing Tuesday.

Both Bennett and Netanyahu on Tuesday afternoon released statements hailing the operation and threatening Hezbollah. But neither cited their previous references to a security threat during last month’s political upheaval.

Perhaps they were abiding by Netanyahu’s self-stated rule against “playing politics” during a military campaign. Or perhaps they no longer have to.

Times of Israel staff and Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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