In 1996, a few days after the elections in which he beat Prime Minister Shimon Peres against all odds, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoned a senior Likud party member who was a close associate at the time. The man, who still holds a key public office these days, was convinced that Netanyahu wanted to consult with him about the tasks ahead, including the formation of a new government coalition and ministerial appointments. He was wrong. From now on, Netanyahu told the Likud stalwart, Army Chief Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak is to be considered a political leftist. Netanyahu said he wanted Lipkin-Shahak dubbed a leftist whenever possible.
Lipkin-Shahak, the highly decorated commander of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), was a popular military leader. The handsome, charismatic general, with the prestigious red paratrooper cap tucked under his epaulets, also came across well on television. The IDF was a highly respected state institution and its chief was guaranteed public adulation. With his keen senses, Netanyahu identified the political threat he posed well before it emerged. Three years later, Lipkin-Shahak, by then a civilian, established the Hamerkaz party (Center party) party along with Likud leavers Yitzhak Mordechai, Dan Meridor and Ronnie Milo. The party’s founding weakened the Likud and helped Labor party leader Ehud Barak, yet another former IDF chief, beat Netanyahu in the 1999 elections.
More than 20 years on, nothing has changed. Netanyahu continues to target serving generals and occasional other threats and label them “leftists.” This time, he has incumbent IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, in his crosshairs. Kochavi, too, sports a red paratrooper beret and projects considerable charisma. His other sin is being a protege of Defense Minister Benny Gantz, also a retired IDF chief and currently a bitter political foe of the prime minister. These two former paratroopers, now ensconced in their respective offices at Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv, are looking on as Netanyahu runs the affairs of state almost single-handedly and keeps them out of the loop.
On Nov. 22, Netanyahu flew off to Saudi Arabia without informing them, without appointing a temporary replacement during his absence and without holding the type of consultations and discussions that precede such a historic move. His September 2019 decision to annex the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements, which did not work out in the end, was made without holding a professional discussion on the potential implications of such a far-reaching move with the heads of Israel’s security agencies. This prompted a particularly furious conference call by leaders of the security agencies to Netanyahu, just minutes before he was about to announce a historic annexation.
Netanyahu also apparently gave a greenlight for the US sale of F-35 stealth fighters to the United Arab Emirates on the eve of signing a normalization agreement with them in September — without holding a single discussion with his defense chiefs on the matter. He did not tell them about it in advance and even denied the leak of the proposed deal and his intention to abandon Israel’s traditional opposition to the arming of Arab Middle Eastern states. By the time the heads of the various security agencies found out that Netanyahu had approved the F-35 sale with a wink and a nudge it was too late.
Netanyahu holds the defense stick at both ends. He does not trust anyone but himself, makes decisions on his own and nurtures a deep-seated paranoia about generals and their political ambitions. Nonetheless, his suspicions are not entirely unfounded. One general thwarted his reelection bid (Barak) and others have challenged his hold on power over the years, among them former IDF Chiefs Shaul Mofaz, Yitzhak Mordechai, and more recently Moshe Yaalon, Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.
Netanyahu and Gantz are facing a dramatic decision on whether to dismantle their “unity” government and prepare for a fourth round of elections within two years, probably in the spring. The Dec. 23 deadline for passage of the state budget is looming, and Gantz has sworn to vote for disbanding the Knesset unless Netanyahu brings a two-year budget (for 2020 and 2021) to a Knesset vote, as he committed to do in their coalition agreement earlier this year.
True, for Gantz, this would be political suicide. He knows that elections would bury the remaining support for his Blue and White party, which has plunged in the polls. On the other hand, he also knows that Netanyahu’s continued refusal to bring the budget to a vote stems from one single consideration: It provides him with the excuse he needs to violate his agreement to switch jobs with Gantz next November and allows him to run for reelection next year without significant opposition.
Gantz would rather fall on his sword now, while he still enjoys a modicum of pride and standing rather than wait for Netanyahu to humiliate him even further. Gantz, however, does not have the final say. The decision is up to Netanyahu. Can he overcome the coronavirus crisis and its induced economic recession to ensure victory? Right now, he is convinced he can. Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett is soaring in the polls and posing the only credible threat to his reelection, but Netanyahu believes Bennett will eventually be unable to hook up with the center-left and will “come home” to the right-wing bloc at the moment of truth.
Until a decision is made, Netanyahu continues to tar his rivals with the lethal “leftist” stain and to play his cards close to his chest. His trip to Saudi Arabia and meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman generated great concern in Israel that the F-35 deal could be replicated with the Saudis. Saudi Arabia is not the Emirates — equipping it with such advanced fighters is far more troubling given its potential points of friction with Israel on land and sea. The conservative, secretive kingdom could also potentially reverse its pro-Western position and undergo a regime change dangerous to Israel’s security.
Is Netanyahu, who tagged along with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his Saudi visit this week without informing his political partners, putting together with the Trump administration in its waning days a massive arms deal involving Israel, the Saudis and the Americans? Is such a deal supposed to pave the Saudis’ way to normalization with Israel? All these questions are hanging in the air. The IDF chief of staff, the ministers of defense and foreign affairs, and the heads of the security and intelligence agencies do not have a clue about the answers, and they have no one they can ask. Netanyahu is the proverbial one-man show. The only one to whom he is accountable is soon-to-be former US President Donald Trump. “On this front, at least, change is coming,” a senior Israeli security official told Al-Monitor last week on condition of anonymity, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.