Has Netanyahu, 'Mr. Security,' gone too far?

Netanyahu has unmasked the policy of secrecy that was the trademark of Israeli military actions against Iran and Hezbollah in recent years.

President Reuven Rivlin hosts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi during a ceremony honoring outstanding soldiers in the IDF at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on May 9 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
President Reuven Rivlin hosts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi during a ceremony honoring outstanding soldiers in the IDF at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on May 9
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Netanyahu has unmasked the policy of secrecy that was the trademark of Israeli military actions against Iran and Hezbollah in recent years
A week before Israel’s election – another round within six months – there was growing concern among opposition leaders that the Israel Defense Forces finds itself willingly or unwittingly supporting Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The IDF is a sacred cow in Israeli society, and a brand name with which most Israelis identify. Thus, not a single Israeli politician would dare publicly to point an accusatory finger at the military and its chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
But privately in “off the record” conversations, they say that Netanyahu is manipulating the IDF for his political agenda, and that Kochavi says nothing about it. These claims are shared by the main opposition – the centrist Blue and White party that is led by three former IDF chiefs of staffs, Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi – and by former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak, who leads a new left-wing party called the Israel Democratic Party, which is now part of what’s known as the Democratic Union.
For many Israeli voters, the coming election is considered to be the most important and dramatic in the 71 years of the modern independent Jewish state. They fear that if the right-wing Likud party, led by Netanyahu with his ultra-right and ultra-Orthodox partners, wins the election, the already fragile Israeli democracy may crumble.
Seeking his sixth term, Netanyahu is already the longest-serving prime minister of the country surpassing David Ben-Gurion, founder of the state and its first prime minister, with 13 years in power since 1996, including four consecutive terms since 2009.
Netanyahu has never believed in the Israeli parliamentary system, and sought to change it into a presidential one based on the American model, in which the president concentrates in his hands all executive powers. However, Israel does not have a constitution and will never have one because of the objection of the religious parties and their controlling rabbis. Thus total power, accumulated by one ruler without the checks and balances embedded in the American Constitution, is a recipe for a tyrannical regime, similar to the Turkish “democracy” engineered by its Islamist president, Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Since his reelection against all odds in 2015, Netanyahu’s self-confidence and arrogance skyrocketed and reached new heights. He systematically has been trying to weaken traditional institutions, especially law-enforcement bodies. His efforts focused on appointing candidates of his liking, or so he thought, for police commissioner, attorney general, state comptroller, and heads of the Mossad, the Shin Bet and the IDF chief of staff. He has targeted the judiciary in order to replace liberal judges with conservative ones. He tries time and again to close public and commercial TV channels that are loyal to the values of a free and independent media, and instead insert newspapers and radio and television stations run by his cronies and wealthy supporters.
Netanyahu is not only a control freak. Weakening the gatekeepers has become his obsession mainly because he fears to be indicted soon on corruption charges. His desire not to be sent to jail motivates him to further undermine and weaken Israeli democracy, and dub the election regulators as “fraudulent.” His sole aim is to remain prime minister at all costs. His systematic actions are a clear echo of the outbursts of his controversial but influential wife, Sarah, who once was caught saying that Israel doesn’t deserve to be led by a giant like her husband, and if he is not in power, “let the country burn” (in the sense of to hell with Israel).
Netanyahu knows that his strength and advantage to win the election is to set the discourse and agenda around security matters to camouflage his government failures to improve education and health, and lower the rising cost of housing and food products.
For years, the IDF and the intelligence agencies have stayed out of politics. Prime ministers and defense ministers, including Netanyahu in his first term, respected this prevailing approach, which is also rooted in the law. The Basic Law adopted in 1948 and modified in 1976 says the “IDF is the state’s army” under the control of the government, whose orders and instructions it has to obey and follow. In popular jargon, the IDF is “the people’s army.”
But since 2015, Netanyahu and his coalition partners have tried again and again to erode the traditional values of the IDF. They accused the IDF’s top echelon of embracing too liberal and legalistic measures in combating Palestinian terrorists. They pressed for rabbis to have more say in the daily affairs of the military, reminiscent of the political commissars (“politroks”) in the Soviet Red Army or the ayatollahs in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu’s political allies from the ultra-right worked laboriously to politicize the military, exclude women from serving alongside men in combat units, and to impose religious rituals on all of the IDF’s personnel.
However, most of these efforts were blocked by the determined and strong-willed Gadi Eisenkot, who served as chief of staff from 2015 to early 2019. Once he left office and was replaced by Kochavi, a sea change began to surface. A former paratrooper and chief of military intelligence, Kochavi is a wise and decorated soldier. He is an amateur painter with very creative ideas. He has a degree in philosophy, and it shows in his rhetoric and convoluted sentences.
At the request of Netanyahu, Kochavi immediately promoted the controversial colonel Ofer Winter, who in 2014 sanctioned the war in Gaza as a “holy war” in the name of God. As a result of his religious sermon and flawed combat performance, Eisenkot put Winter, a darling of the ultra-right political circles, on ice. Kochavi succumbed to the rabbis and reversed his predecessors’ decision permitting women conscripts to serve in the armored corps.
From the military and operational point of view, there are no major differences between Eisenkot and Kochavi. They see eye to eye on how Israel should combat its rivals on what seem to be seven fronts: Iran, Gaza, Sinai, the Red Sea, Lebanon, Syria and, according to recent reports, in Iraq. Iran, with its nuclear program and support for Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, continues to be the No. 1 priority and primary challenge for the Mossad and IDF, which continue to collect data on its plans and actions. But Netanyahu instructed Kochavi and intelligence to change priorities No. 2 and 3. Iran’s attempts to deploy its forces and its Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria was relegated to be priority No. 3.
To priority No. 2 climbed Iran’s supply and construction of assembly lines in Syria and Lebanon, which will improve the precision of Hezbollah’s long-range missiles. Israel made it clear that it won’t tolerate this. Hence, the increasing attacks attributed to the Israel Air Force against targets in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The operation attributed to Israel on the last day of August in Beirut was unprecedented. Two “suicide” mini-copters equipped with explosives crushed an Iranian-made vital component to improve missile accuracy, which was stationed outdoors for a few hours in a Hezbollah compound, before it was due to be concealed in an underground workshop. If Israel was indeed responsible for the attack, then we are talking about excellent intelligence combined with a window of opportunity to destroy the machinery hoping to further delay Iran’s and Hezbollah’s “precision project.”
Israeli intelligence estimated that neither Iran nor Hezbollah wants a war, but would have to retaliate in some way. This proved to be accurate as the mild Hezbollah response shows. It fired anti-tank rockets at an Israeli military post and a vehicle, causing no casualties or damage.
Most of the operations and priorities set by Netanyahu are supported by Israeli opposition parties. What they disapprove of is how Netanyahu is using military intelligence operations to glorify himself as “Mr. Security” and take full credit.
What is even more disturbing is that in order to advance his political agenda, Netanyahu has unmasked the policy of secrecy, which was the trademark of most Israeli military actions in recent years against Iran and Hezbollah.
And he has done it in the presence and with the consent of Kochavi, who does not find the courage to tell Netanyahu that he is wrong, and that his new policy endangers future operations of this kind.