Liberman says law letting PM declare war is needed to hit enemies quickly

Defense minister claims seeking full government approval for military operations would be ‘foot dragging’; Gabbay calls on coalition to annul ‘absurd’ legislation

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads the Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting in the Knesset on May 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads the Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting in the Knesset on May 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman claimed Monday that a controversial new law giving himself and the prime minister authority to go to war without government approval is necessary, since the country’s enemies don’t have legal limits on launching an offensive.

Defending the measure, Liberman hinted at tensions boiling in the north, where Israel fears Iran or one of its proxies could launch an attack on the Jewish state in revenge for reported Israeli bombing runs in Syria.

“[Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah and [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guards don’t need a legal adviser and a Supreme Court. We must maintain the option of responding immediately in real time,” he said in comments to press before his weekly Yisrael Beytenu party’s faction meeting in the Knesset.

“We need to be ready at all times. There is no time for footdragging,” he said. “This law will help us to deal with the many threats against the country.”

In a surprising and potentially far-reaching victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Knesset last Monday evening gave him the authority to declare war or order a major military operation upon consulting only the defense minister, and not via a full cabinet vote, as the law had previously required.

Following criticism and concerns it may be struck down by the High Court, the government has reportedly decided to reevaluate the legislation less than a week after it was voted into law.

On Sunday, defense officials warned that Iran was planning to retaliate for recent deadly airstrikes in Syria attributed to the Jewish state by having its proxies fire missiles at military targets in northern Israel sometime in the near future.

Iran’s army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looking into binoculars, and other senior officers from the Iranian military, visit a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria, on October 20, 2017. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP, File)

“We are making sure that we are ready for any possible incident, both tactically and in terms of legislation,” Liberman said Monday, arguing that holding a full cabinet vote before a military operation could slow Israel’s defenses down.

The defense minister nonetheless sought to temper fear of an impending war, saying: “There is no place for national hysteria. Yes, there are threats, it’s not a simple situation, but we know how to deal with the problem and we are ready for any incident.”

According to the new law approved last week, in “extreme circumstances,” military operations can be authorized by the prime minister and defense minister alone and will not require a vote by cabinet ministers.

The law does not specify exactly what those circumstances may be, or who will determine them, saying only that the case will apply “if the issue is necessary due to urgency.”

Sixty-two Knesset members voted the dramatic proposal into law, beating out the 41 opposition MKs who opposed it on the grounds that the language of the law effectively gives free rein to the prime minister by removing all oversight.

Speaking at his own Zionist Union faction meeting, party chairman Avi Gabbay slammed the legislation and called on coalition partners to support an amendment being presented this week that would cancel it.

“Do you understand how absurd that is? For any small change to the normal laws we need the majority of the Knesset. But for this? To go to war? Just Liberman and Netanyahu,” he said.

Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay leads a faction meeting in Knesset on May 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The proposal — advanced by Netanyahu since last year — had been rejected earlier in the day by members of two key Knesset committees: Law and Justice, and Foreign Affairs and Defense. It was resubmitted, however, by Likud member and Foreign Affairs and Defense committee chairman Avi Dichter during the second and third readings of a broader amendment, and was voted into law as part of that wider legislation.

That wider amendment allows the government to delegate the authority to declare war under normal circumstances, or mobilize for a major military operation, to a forum made up of “at least half” of all cabinet ministers.

“What do the coalition partners have to say about this? About the next war, the lives of our children? Nothing. This time, your silence is dangerous. During the next war, you won’t be able to say, ‘We didn’t know,’” Gabbay charged. “The people of Israel will not forget. You have an opportunity to fix it.”

On Wednesday, Zionist Union’s Omer Bar Lev, an IDF reserve officer with the rank of colonel and a former commander of the elite unit Sayeret Matkal, and Yesh Atid’s Ofer Shelah, a company commander in the reserve Paratroopers Brigade who lost an eye during the 1982 Lebanon War, will present a bill to the Knesset seeking to revert the law back to its original text.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed