Northern Shield was planned, but its political timing is impeccable

The operation is advantageous to Netanyahu in its timing, burnishing his own “Mr. Security” image.

Israeli vehicle digs at the border near the village of Kfar Kila, in south Lebanon December 4, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/KARAMALLAH DAHER)
Israeli vehicle digs at the border near the village of Kfar Kila, in south Lebanon December 4, 2018
Two weeks ago, The Jerusalem Post reported that the chain of events leading to last month’s political crisis came from concerns about the security situation in the north, specifically Iranian involvement in Lebanon. On Sunday, this became clear, as the IDF embarked on Operation Northern Shield to destroy Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels into Israel.
Last month, when Hamas responded to a botched IDF operation in Gaza by launching 460 rockets into Israel in one day, the IDF struck back at Gaza, but the Security Cabinet quickly agreed to a ceasefire without a vote, because there was no serious opposition. The reason? Because they knew their focus would soon need to shift to the northern border. They chose Northern Shield over a southern shield. And they said they would respond more harshly to Gaza at a time that’s better for, and determined by Israel.
A senior cabinet source confirmed on Sunday that the North is the operative priority, and that the area is of greater sensitivity, because of the continuing need to attack when Iran attempts expanding its presence in Syria. Therefore, the ministers decided it was not worth risking a greater escalation in Gaza.
Of course, the public didn’t know that, and then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman was being slammed in the media for talking tough and doing nothing – including by usually-friendly commentators – and he resigned from his post, saying Israel surrendered to Hamas, and pulled Yisrael Beytenu from the government. This left the coalition with a one-seat majority, throwing it into a crisis, leaving most in the political sphere certain that it would fall apart sooner, rather than later. But Netanyahu managed to convince his remaining coalition partners to keep it together, and while the past few weeks have been challenging, the Knesset has yet to be dissolved.
Throughout the political crisis, Netanyahu referred to a “sensitive security situation” as a reason that now is not a good time for an election, and that it made Liberman’s resignation irresponsible. Some Security Cabinet members agreed that the situation was, indeed, unique, while others, like Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who was gunning for Liberman’s job, said: “There’s no apocalypse, there are enemies. We have always had enemies.”
It’s possible, of course, that Bennett is right, and this operation will be exactly what the IDF said it is – destroying Hezbollah tunnels – and won’t lead to anything more. After all, it is primarily an operation of engineering, meant to take place on Israel’s side of the border. But with Iranian missiles stored in Beirut and elsewhere in Lebanon, as Netanyahu revealed in his speech to the UN in September, this could easily snowball into something major, and the Security Cabinet clearly chose to be risk-averse.
Agree with it or not, there is a clear logic behind the Security Cabinet’s decision not to stoke the fires in the south so that the planned operation in the north can go off without a hitch.
And now that the logic is clear to all, Liberman’s resignation is politically riskier than ever. If Netanyahu manages to spin this the right way, he can continue to portray Liberman as irresponsible, while burnishing his own “Mr. Security” image, especially now that Netanyahu is defense minister (and prime minister, foreign minister, health minister, and immigration absorption minister).
And Netanyahu is taking full advantage. A few Security Cabinet ministers anonymously expressed frustration to Army Radio host Razi Barkai at being told not to give interviews after the Northern Shield was announced, saying Netanyahu was silencing them so he can have all the glory, while he inflated “a small engineering operation” beyond reasonable proportions.
This operation is advantageous to Netanyahu in its timing, as well. On Sunday, when the police recommended that he be indicted for bribery, breach of trust and fraud in relation to the Bezeq Affair, the prime minister pointed to the suspicious timing of their release. Netanyahu was referring to it being ex-chief of police Roni Alsheich’s last day on the job, but the same could be said with an IDF operation two days after bad news for the prime minister.
The timing is also good for Netanyahu in that it will probably keep the coalition intact a bit longer, which is exactly what he wants. Not only will the coalition rally around the flag, but Yesh Atid and Zionist Union in the opposition are likely to tone down their criticism as well while the operation is still ongoing.
All indications show that this operation was planned in advance – again, the cabinet decision to keep the south calm was made three weeks ago, before the political crisis – but this surely is a welcome distraction from Netanyahu’s legal and political woes.