On July 12, 2006, hours after a Hezbollah ambush along the northern border led to the kidnapping of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser and the killing of another six soldiers, the security cabinet under then-prime minister Ehud Olmert met and – in a single meeting – decided to launch the Second Lebanon War.
That session will also always be remembered for two distasteful events that happened on its sidelines: then-chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz called his broker before the meeting and instructed him to sell his stocks, and then-justice minister Haim Ramon forcibly kissed a 21-year-old woman soldier in an adjacent room. Neither the atmospherics surrounding the meeting, nor its consequences – a war that a government committee later deemed was launched in haste and without adequate preparation – proved to be among Israel’s finest moments.
Fast forward eight years to the first week of July 2014, when the atmosphere in the country following a national trauma is not that dissimilar from what it was back then. But this time, the security cabinet acted much differently.
On Monday afternoon, after 18 gut-wrenching days during which the country held its breath, hoping for the safe return of three smiling boys whose faces became etched into the national consciousness, their bodies were found on a rocky field not far from where they were abducted.
The eight-member security cabinet met – sans Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who was away in Berlin – a few short hours after the bodies were discovered, for a three-hour meeting noted for its acrimonious tones and disagreements on various issues.
Up for discussion was whether a military campaign should be extended to Gaza, if settlement construction should be approved as a “fitting Zionist” response, and whether the IDF was hitting the enemy hard enough to deter the next kidnapping. No operative decisions were made, and it was decided to convene again the next night.
The cabinet is comprised of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (both of the Likud), Liberman and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch (both of Yisrael Beytenu), Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua), Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud). The first six members are there as stipulated by law – they must be in this forum, which is mandated with authority to launch military operations – while the latter two are there by virtue of political and coalition considerations.
The security cabinet met again on Tuesday night.
This time, all its members were present, and nothing was leaked to the press – apparently Netanyahu made clear to his ministers that the public nature of the debate the previous night was extremely detrimental. This time, too, no operative decisions were made, through a wide variety of options were being discussed. These ranged from deporting Hamas leaders, to restarting targeted assassinations against Hamas leaders, to launching a wide-ranging operation inside Gaza, to significant building in the settlements.
The meeting ended without a vote and with the country waking up the next morning not knowing any more about what its leaders had planned than they knew the night before when they went to bed.
But the ministers, and the country, also woke up Wednesday morning to a new reality. Overnight the body of an east Jerusalem Arab teenager, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, was found burned in the Jerusalem Forest.
Though no one knew who perpetrated the brutal murder, revenge-seeking Jews were blamed – triggering violent riots in the capital and a flood of denunciations from around the world.
US Secretary of State John Kerry called it “sickening,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was appalled, and Quartet envoy Tony Blair expressed serious concern about “settler violence.” So when the security cabinet met again Wednesday evening to discuss the response to the kidnappings and killings of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrah and Gil-Ad Shaer, the ground had significantly shifted under its feet.
In the decision-making process at the highest levels, as in so much else in life, timing is everything. Taking time has both positive and negative consequences.
One positive aspect is that one is less likely, as Ya’alon said, to “think with the gut, not the head.” But as more time passes, other elements, other events – especially here – come into play, creating a different playing field.
It is a tough balancing act: seizing the moment means acting immediately, perhaps without adequate planning and preparation – as was the case in the decision to launch the Second Lebanon War. But not seizing the moment means that the particular moment – that particular constellation of events and emotions – will be lost. What wide swaths of the Israeli public, let alone the international community, would have accepted Tuesday morning as a legitimate response to the murders of the three teens was significantly different from what they would have accepted Wednesday evening, after the murder of Abu Khdeir and the riots in Jerusalem.
And by Thursday morning, following Wednesday’s security cabinet meeting, it was still not made clear to the public what the cabinet wanted or had decided.
Netanyahu, in a brief statement to the nation on Tuesday after the emotionally draining day of the funerals, laid out three overriding goals following the murders: apprehending the perpetrators, hitting Hamas hard in the West Bank, and expanding the operation in Gaza “if necessary.”
Goal No. 1, it is assumed, is being pursued relentlessly. But five days after the bodies were found, how the government plans on achieving goals two and three remain unclear.
That there were three security cabinet meetings, where the ministers were briefed by the top security and army brass and still could not come up with operative plans, says something about the complexity of the vast array of considerations at work.
This particular security cabinet, with this prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff, has proven to be a much more measured and moderate forum than that of its public image, especially its perception abroad.
Netanyahu, Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen Benny Gantz – who is not a voting member of the forum, but whose opinions obviously carry considerable weight – have all proven to be very cautious and circumspect in the use of force: worried about biting off more than they can chew, worried about casualties on both sides, worried about international legitimacy.
Netanyahu, one government official said this week, is a veteran of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, not the Armored Corps or air force.
He believes in creative, localized, surprise responses, not in unleashing the full weight of the tanks or fighter planes all at once. And he very much sets the tone in the security cabinet.
Looking at the security cabinet superficially from outside, it would appear a predominantly hawkish forum dominated by right-wingers. A rough score – drawn up without taking into consideration any nuance – would divide it along the following lines: Ya’alon, Erdan, Liberman, Aharonovitch and Bennett on the Right, far outnumbering the two ministers on the Left, Lapid and Livni – with Netanyahu alone in the Center.
If that were truly the constellation, than one could have expected the security cabinet to have ordered a massive retaliatory operation immediately after the bodies were found. It didn’t, because that simplistic scorecard does not give a true picture of the security cabinet’s shades and subtleties.
First of all Ya’alon, who knows better than anyone both the IDF’s capacities and capabilities, is not quick on the trigger. He knows well that it is easy to start a war, but difficult to exit, and that the same voices clamoring for assertive action now – as they did in 2006 – would be the ones clamoring for his head if the operation sours. He is on the right flank inside the security cabinet when it comes to settlement construction – favoring now the construction of new houses beyond the Green Line as a responsive “tool” – but not when it comes to military actions. He would rather fire up the bulldozers to clear a hill for new homes in Judea and Samaria in reaction to the murders, than rev up the engines of tanks or warplanes to wage battle.
In the calculus of when and how to use force, Ya’alon is often of one mind with Netanyahu. Netanyahu is more reticent than Ya’alon, however, when it comes to building in the settlements as a form of response, knowing to what degree this complicates Israel’s relations with the world. That consideration is less acute for Ya’alon, keen on burnishing his political credentials with the country’s right wing as he positions himself as a possible contender for the Likud helm sometime down the line.
Liberman is somewhat of an enigma inside the security cabinet, where a number of well-placed government officials say he has not proven to be overly relevant, despite his senior position. For one thing, he misses many of the meetings because of his numerous travels abroad. And secondly, many of his fiery statements – conquer Gaza, launch Operation Defensive Shield 2 – appear afterwards to have been designed primarily for media consumption, not as real plans backed up by details and concrete steps.
These statements also serve to boost his standing with the Right for a possible run at the country’s leadership in the post-Netanyahu days, but have little impact inside the security cabinet – where he generally follows Netanyahu’s lead on the major issues.
Aharonovitch, from Liberman’s faction, owes his place on the list – as do all Yisrael Beytenu MKs – to Liberman, and as such is not likely to cross him, and will follow his lead.
Erdan is a tad to the right of Netanyahu, but will not go against him significantly on security issues, aware that the Likud central committee, from which he derives his political strength, does not like it when ministers cross swords with the prime minister on security issues.
Which means that inside the cabinet there is genuinely only one very hawkish position, that being voiced by Bennett, who is also keen – for his own political reasons – on this position being made known to his constituents.
On the left side of the security cabinet sit Lapid and Livni, both preaching prudence and patience. Livni couples her remarks with very tough words about Hamas, something that one official said may be attributed to her firm belief that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas remains a peace partner, and that a weaker Hamas means a stronger Abbas, which she views as good for Israeli interests.
The night before the bodies of Yifrah, Fraenkel and Shaer were discovered, Netanyahu delivered a speech to the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv that provided a glimpse of his worldview, and how to deal with these types of incidents.
It is a worldview that extols patience, fortitude and the long view, even in dealing with micro – not only macro – events.
The kidnappings of the three youths are part of a much bigger phenomenon, a part of the historic changes in the Middle East that will have a major impact on Israel’s security and that of the world, he said in that speech.
With the dissolution right before our eyes of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that shaped the modern Middle East for a century, all the demons in the region have been released, he added: “Shi’ite vs Sunni, tribe against tribe, sect against sect, movement against movement.”
“The hope that moderate liberation movements would take control in the Arab world dissolved swiftly, and now what we should expect are long years of struggles and instability,” he warned.
“Long years of struggles and instability”: That is how Netanyahu views the region, and Israel’s place in it. It’s a view that negates the idea of easy answers, rapid solutions or shortcuts to anything. It is a worldview that explains the deliberate nature of the meetings held this week.
No magic wands – neither in reaching peace, nor in waging battle against Hamas.