Elections Committee head was told vote could be delayed due to war – report

As PM pushed last week for ‘far-reaching’ response to Gaza rocket that forced him off stage, national security adviser said to have alerted Hanan Melcer elections might be put off

Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, chairman of the Central Elections Committee, at the Knesset on April 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, chairman of the Central Elections Committee, at the Knesset on April 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, met with the head of the Central Elections Committee last week to warn him that Tuesday’s elections could be delayed due to an imminent war in the Gaza Strip, according to the Haaretz daily.

Earlier Monday, the newspaper reported that Netanyahu tried to initiate an aggressive response to a rocket attack from the restive enclave that had forced him to take shelter during a campaign stop in Ashdod last week. Another rocket was fired at nearby Ashkelon the same evening.

However, Netanyahu scrapped the plan after being told by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws required him to consult the security cabinet on any major military operation that had a likelihood of leading the country to war.

According to the latest report, the prospects of a possible military response in Gaza became so serious that Ben-Shabbat invited the head of the Central Elections Committee, Hanan Melcer, to attend a meeting of top security officials and Netanyahu. He reportedly did so at the behest of Mandelblit.

Ben-Shabbat told Melcer that Israel intended to a launch a military operation and asked him to prepare for the possibility of putting off the elections, the report said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat (R) are seen during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on April 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Responding to the report, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s chief election rival, accused the prime minister of playing politics with Israeli security.

Netanyahu “lost it and wanted to drag us to a war in order to delay the elections,” Gantz, a former military chief, wrote on Twitter.

“A script that fits ‘House of Cards,’ not the State of Israel,” added Gantz, referring to the Netflix series.

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

The rocket launched at the southern city on Tuesday caught Netanyahu in the middle of a campaign rally. He was whisked off the stage by his bodyguards to take shelter and later returned.

Hours after the attack, likely carried out by the Islamic Jihad terror group, Netanyahu convened the heads of the security establishment, including IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi, Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman, and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.

Netanyahu, who is also the defense minister, sought an “extraordinary” and “far-reaching” military reaction to the rocket — the nature of which was not disclosed — but several security officials were hesitant to take such action, according to Haaretz.

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

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.

Blue and White touted the fact the the party’s no. 4, MK Gabi Ashkenazi, refused to leave the stage at a campaign event in Ashkelon as the alarm sounded, while Netanyahu was rushed to shelter. Likud retorted that Netanyahu’s actions comported with Home Front orders, while Ashkenazi potentially put himself and those around him in danger.

Hamas gloated over the rocket attack, with official Mahmoud al-Zahar saying “everyone saw Netanyahu fleeing because of the resistance’s strikes” and that the incident had “shaken Israel’s image.”

On the right, Yamina party member Naftali Bennett called the incident a “national humiliation,” while Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman said it underlined that Netanyahu’s Gaza policy was bankrupt.

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