Analysis: How Netanyahu ran the Gaza operation alone, without the cabinet

Israel’s response to this week’s escalation in the south was masterminded behind closed doors, without the input of the security cabinet.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu takes part in a memorial ceremony for the victims of the Altalena Affair, in Tel Aviv on May 30th, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/HEIDI LEVINE)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu takes part in a memorial ceremony for the victims of the Altalena Affair, in Tel Aviv on May 30th, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/HEIDI LEVINE)
A month-old law permitting a prime minister to declare war, or take steps that could lead to war, by himself came into play earlier than any of the ministers expected this week.
The bill was initially intended to transfer power to declare war from the cabinet as a whole to the security cabinet, a move designed to prevent leaks, which had the support of the coalition and leading figures in the opposition.
But just ahead of the vote, the bill was amended at Netanyahu’s request to give the prime minister and defense minister the right to decide on their own in extreme circumstances.
According to the law, all Netanyahu would have to do to be able to decide by himself is fire the defense minister or not appoint one at all, as has happened in the past.
After a public outcry, Netanyahu accepted Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s request to convene the cabinet last week to repeal the bill and give the right to declare war to the security cabinet. But the repeal must still pass three readings in the Knesset, so the law still stands.
When dozens of mortars and rockets started falling in the Gaza periphery Tuesday morning, Netanyahu chose not to convene the security cabinet. Sources said the reason he refrained from holding such a meeting was that he did not want to escalate the conflict in Gaza.
After a rocket fell close to a kindergarten in the Eshkol region, Netanyahu’s ministers started competing with bombastic statements.
Shaked said Israel needed to prepare to recapture the Gaza Strip from Hamas, and Likud ministers Gilad Erdan and Yuval Steinitz publicly threatened targeted killings against the heads of terrorist organizations, which could have led to a serious escalation.
Ironically, the law that outraged people because they thought it would lead to Netanyahu haphazardly going to war without consulting anyone ended up being implemented by him for the opposite reason.
WHEN MINISTERS are not consulted about key issues, they often get upset about it.
The best example is that Netanyahu’s then-No. 2 in the Likud, Gideon Sa’ar, decided to temporarily quit politics in September 2014, after he was left in the dark about Operation Protective Edge that summer.
But security cabinet ministers said they were not upset that Netanyahu convened only Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz for emergency security consultations Tuesday evening. The ministers revealed that procedures for what would happen in the event of a mass rocket attack had been discussed at length by the security cabinet in the past, and Netanyahu merely implemented what they had already decided.
The forum of Netanyahu, Liberman and Katz has become the closest thing to an inner security cabinet like Israel has had in the past.
Liberman and Katz were the only ministers whom Netanyahu told of the secret Mossad operation to bring to Israel Iran’s nuclear archive.
The rest of the security cabinet ministers found out only shortly before Netanyahu revealed the information to the world.
Netanyahu and Katz have had their ups and downs, publicly sparring when Netanyahu suspected Katz of conspiring against him to bring down his government and replace him as head of the Likud. Now the prime minister is trusting Katz with some of the state’s most sensitive secrets.
Sources said that trust was the result of Katz publicly backing up Netanyahu on his criminal investigations, or it could just be that Katz’s Intelligence Ministry has more authority than people gave it credit for in the past.
Netanyahu did end up convening the security cabinet Wednesday evening, but it was a very short meeting that was intended only to brief the ministers on the success of the IDF’s retaliation against Hamas and Islamic Jihad after the fact.
The security cabinet ministers were not invited to speak at the meeting, except to ask specific questions to relevant security authorities. They were there to listen.
Without a serious security cabinet meeting in which ministers could give their input, they were limited in what they could do to attract attention and use the rocket attacks to build up their security credentials. Such limitations required creativity.
EDUCATION MINISTER Naftali Bennett called Ilanit Suissa, a resident of Kfar Aza in the Gaza periphery. Weeks earlier, Suissa was a guest co-host on Army Radio’s Rino Tzror program and told Bennett he could not possibly understand what she and her neighbors were enduring.
In an unconventional step, Bennett asked Suissa whether he could sleep at her home Tuesday night, and she agreed. Bennett drove south, after stopping at his home in Ra’anana, where he presumably picked up his tefillin which were recently featured on the Eretz Nehederet satire show as imitating Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai’s curls.
Bennett joined the Suissa family, as they were woken up six times throughout the night by sirens and ran to a bomb shelter. He boasted about the adventure and scored political points by being interviewed from the “front” on the 7 a.m. morning radio shows.
By 8 a.m., Bennett was meeting with local mayors, and after that the education minister spoke to fifth and sixth graders at a school in the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council. The children told Bennett that they were scared, but that they deal with their unfortunate situation by making jokes out of it.
Bennett was not the only minister who gained this week from the Gaza conflict. Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis hosted an event in Jerusalem with 25 delegations of science ministers and director-generals from around the world.
Netanyahu spoke at the event Tuesday and stayed throughout, long after his address. The following day, attendees kept coming to Akunis in the Knesset cafeteria to give him credit for the event’s success.
Akunis said that success was enhanced by the fact that the ministers were in Israel at the peak of a security escalation and not one member of any of the delegations left the country.
Politicians in the opposition also did what they could to attract attention. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog wrote a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, asking for the UN to condemn the rocket and mortar attacks. Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid did the same in English tweets on Twitter.
Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay tried to score points by condemning ministers for warmongering statements that, he warned, escalated in the past to operations in the Gaza Strip. But Channel 2 found a statement Gabbay himself made as a candidate for Labor leader in July 2017, in which he called for “capturing Gaza and getting it over with.”
After Lapid suffered repeatedly over the past few weeks from TV archives revealing his zigzagging on key issues, he was spared this time.
But Lapid had one interesting moment at Yesh Atid’s faction meeting at the Knesset on Monday, when he was asked by The Jerusalem Post about Netanyahu’s decision to not initiate an early election over conscription of the haredim, due to fears in the Likud that such a move could play into Yesh Atid’s hands.
Quoting from a classic May 1999 Netanyahu speech, Lapid said, “They are a-f-r-a-i-d.”
When it came this week to deciding how to handle the Gaza escalation, Netanyahu showed no such fear.