Minister insists Syria strike wasn’t aimed at voters

Yesh Atid MK accused PM of ordering bombing to boost his campaign; Syrian media cite comment as proof Israel behind attack

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz (L), at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, November 23, 2014. (photo credit: Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL/FLASH90 )
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz (L), at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, November 23, 2014. (photo credit: Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL/FLASH90 )

Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz on Monday dismissed as “ludicrous” accusations by opposition lawmakers that an airstrike in Syria the day before was ordered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a move to boost his ratings as election campaigns begin in earnest.

In an interview with Israel Radio, Steinitz was cautious to not explicitly admit that Israel was behind the two bombing runs, which hit two Syrian military sites near Damascus and the Lebanese border, but noted that such operations require months of planning. The jets struck military sites at Damascus’s main airport and at the town of Dimas on a key road near the Syrian-Lebanese border, Syrian media reports said.

“It’s ludicrous and an insult to [Israelis’] intelligence,” Steinitz said of the claims that the airstrikes were politically motivated.

Nonetheless, the minister stressed that Israel maintained a very firm security policy of preventing terror groups from obtaining advanced weapons that would change military balance in the region. Arab media reported that the target of the attack was advanced Russian S-300 air-defense missiles, long considered a “game-changing” weapon by Israel. Israeli officials maintain a policy of ambiguity regarding such bombing runs, several of which have been carried out in recent years in Syria, and rarely take credit for them.

Security authorities on Monday morning instructed residents of northern Israel to carry on with their daily routines despite a noticeable uptick in military air traffic near the Lebanese border and on the Golan Heights, overlooking Syria. Reports said that fighter jets and unmanned aerial vehicles were seen flying above the area.

Steinitz appeared to be responding to claims by MK Yifat Kariv (Yesh Atid) and others that not only was Israel behind the strikes, but that they were ordered by Netanyahu in an effort to shore up his defense credentials ahead of his campaign for reelection.

Yesh Atid MK Yifat Kariv (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yesh Atid MK Yifat Kariv (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Netanyahu can’t put together an alternative coalition and so decided to choose the path of terror and fear-mongering to set ablaze the Middle East,” said Kariv, a member of the influential Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “Mr. Prime Minister — this time it won’t work.”

Kariv’s comments were cited by Syrian media on Sunday night as an official Israeli admission to carrying out the attack.

“I hope this isn’t the opening salvo of the campaign for the Likud primaries and the next elections,” Ilan Gilon of the left-wing Meretz party said.

MK Nahman Shai (Labor) said he hoped the government wasn’t approaching Israel’s security needs with an eye to its own political survival.

“I expect and believe that the government makes a complete distinction between ongoing events and security matters,” he said. “This is a sensitive period. Having said that, whenever and wherever there is real danger to Israel’s security, the government must take action.”

Zahava Gal-on, the leader of Meretz, was more circumspect than Kariv and Gilon.

“I don’t even want to think it’s possible” that the airstrikes were carried out in an attempt to boost the prime minister’s popularity, she told Israel Radio. However, she added, “I think it shows how little faith there is in Netanyahu’s government.”

The Knesset last week began the process of dissolving itself and calling new elections — tentatively set for March 17, 2015 — after Netanyahu fired top cabinet ministers Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, prompting them to pull their respective Yesh Atid and Hatnua parties out of his coalition.

The final readings of a bill to dissolve parliament are scheduled for Monday.

AFP contributed to this report.

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