Defense chiefs stymied Netanyahu plan to hit Gaza before elections – report

Security source says PM appeared to be guided by political considerations in pushing for ‘far-reaching’ military operation last week after rocket fire

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) is seen with security chiefs at the IDF's Tel Aviv headquarters on September 10, 2019, hours after a rocket attack on Ashdod forced him to run for shelter during a campaign rally (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) is seen with security chiefs at the IDF's Tel Aviv headquarters on September 10, 2019, hours after a rocket attack on Ashdod forced him to run for shelter during a campaign rally (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push last week for significant military action in the Gaza Strip after a rocket fired from the territory forced him to take cover was reportedly forcefully opposed by top defense officials.

Netanyahu — who is also defense minister — was escorted off stage during a campaign event in Ashdod last Tuesday, after a rocket fired from the enclave triggered sirens over the southern city. Another projectile was aimed at nearby Ashkelon, and both were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system.

Footage of Israel’s leader being ushered from the stage to take cover was seen as denting his security credentials, a week before the national election in which he faces a tough challenge.

After the rocket fire, Netanyahu huddled with senior figures in the defense establishment, among them the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet security service. It was during that meeting that the prime minister suggested launching an “extraordinary” and “far-reaching” military response against Palestinian terrorist groups in the enclave, according to the Haaretz newspaper.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taken off stage during a campaign event in Ashdod, due to incoming rocket sirens, September 10, 2019. (Screenshot: Twitter)

But the defense officials objected to such a move and warned it could spiral into war, Channel 13 news reported on Monday night.

The network quoted a security source involved in the deliberations, who said it seemed Netanyahu was guided by political considerations.

“Something happened to him,” the source, who was said to have worked with Netanyahu for years, was reported as saying. “In the past, he never played with [Israel’s] security for political ends.”

According to the report, the defense chiefs warned that a large-scale response to the rocket attacks could draw massive retaliatory rocket fire from Gaza, including at the Tel Aviv area. They also reportedly expressed concern that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, in Lebanon, might be drawn into the fighting.

The defense officials also reportedly said that preparations for such an operation would require the call-up of reservists.

Military Advocate General Maj. Gen. Sharon Afek speaks at a conference, in Tel Aviv on April 25, 2017. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

The report said Maj. Gen. Sharon Afek, the military advocate general, contacted Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to inform him of Netanyahu’s plan.

Mandelblit then told the prime minister he would have to consult the security cabinet before launching a military operation that could start a war, causing Netanyahu to shelve the plan, the Haaretz daily reported earlier Monday.

Neither Haaretz nor Channel 13 reported which defense figures opposed Netanyahu’s proposal. Among those present were IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, Mossad head Yossi Cohen, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman and Meir Ben-Shabbat, the prime minister’s national security adviser.

A Channel 12 report cited unnamed participants at the meeting saying that Netanyahu “was out of control” during the discussion.

As Netanyahu met with the officials, Ben-Shabbat told the head of the Central Elections Committee that Israel was readying to launch a major military operation and to prepare for a possible delay of the September 17 vote, Haaretz reported.

Meir Ben-Shabbat, the head of the National Security Council, speaks at a trilateral meeting in Jerusalem of the Israeli, US and Russian national security advisers on June 25, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Following the Haaretz report earlier on Monday, Netanyahu was heavily criticized by a number of former generals-turned-politicians, who said he was exploiting security issues for political gain.

“Netanyahu did away with ambiguity for political ends,” Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz charged in a tweet, alluding to recent comments by the prime minister boasting of Israeli military action in Syria. “Now he’s lost it and wants to drag us into war to postpone the elections.”

Brushing aside Gantz’s criticism, Netanyahu accused his rival of “playing politics” with Israel’s security.

Then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony held in honor of Gantz’s replacement, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 16, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The premier also said “we prepared for every scenario,” including the possibility that Gaza-based terror groups would seek to disrupt the elections with rocket fire.

In the days since the rocket attack, Netanyahu has warned that war with terror groups in the Gaza Strip could break out “at any moment,” including before Tuesday’s election.

For many of his rivals, the scenes of Netanyahu being forced to take shelter from rockets provided a counterpoint to the image he has attempted to cultivate as “Mr. Security,” highlighting what they say is his government’s failure to deal with ongoing attacks from Gaza terror groups.

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