The Israeli public reasonably expected a dramatic announcement was coming when the Prime Minister’s Bureau announced Monday afternoon that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would give a prime-time press conference that evening from the Prime Minister’s Office at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv rather than the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Over the past several days, Israel has found itself in the midst of a simultaneous and coordinated assault. It has suffered terror attacks countrywide and rocket volleys from Gaza, Lebanon and Syria.
And Iran is on the cusp of independent military nuclear capabilities.
On its face, though, Netanyahu’s press conference did not provide the expected drama. His rendering of the situation was minimalist and descriptive, rather than analytic or thematic. He noted Iran in passing. He described with near antiseptic spareness the retaliatory attacks Israel has carried out against rocket stores and other military infrastructure in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, and its counterterror operations in Judea and Samaria. He praised the IDF and Israel’s other security services. Netanyahu did not gather the public in front of their television sets at 8:15 in the evening to declare war.
So why did Netanyahu do it?
To understand his purpose, and why despite the absence of any major statement, Netanyahu’s press conference was a dramatic event, it has to be viewed in the context of news that hit Israel like a thunderclap the day before.
On Sunday, Israelis awoke to The New York Times’ revelation that among the hundreds of top-secret Pentagon documents that were leaked through esoteric gaming chat groups was one related to the internal political unrest in Israel.
The document originated from the CIA’s March 1 intelligence briefing. Its headline blasted, “Israeli Mossad Encourages Protests Against New Government Over Proposed Judicial Reforms.”
The body of the report read, “In early to mid-February, Israeli Secret Intelligence Service (Mossad) leaders advocated for Mossad officials and Israeli citizens to protest against the new Israeli Government’s proposed judicial reforms, including several explicit calls to action that decried the Israeli Government, according to signals intelligence.”
Beyond the fact that the U.S. is spying on Israel and concerning itself with Israel’s domestic politics, two things are significant about the report. First, while news reports from the CIA’s reporting period of early to mid-February already exposed that Mossad’s leadership was tolerant, if not supportive, of the left’s efforts to overthrow the Netanyahu government, the CIA report claimed that the leaders of Israel’s primary espionage service were organizing those efforts. In other words, the CIA was claiming that Israel was in the midst of an insurrection or coup organized at least partially by its security services.
The Mossad denied the CIA report, but it’s hard to know what to think. The Mossad has a record of disloyalty. In 2012, it was revealed that two years earlier, then-Mossad Director Meir Dagan flew to Washington and informed his CIA counterpart Leon Panetta that Netanyahu had ordered the Mossad to prepare to strike Iran’s nuclear installations. Dagan had already refused to obey Netanyahu’s order.
While uncertainty surrounds the veracity of the current report, it shows us that the U.S. believes that the anti-government protests are being organized by the top leaders of Israel’s security apparatus. And apparently acting on this CIA-based conviction, President Joe Biden and all his senior aides have been openly supporting the opposition and its efforts not merely to block Netanyahu’s governing coalition’s efforts to pass legislation that would place modest limits on the now limitless powers of Israel’s Supreme Court and its attorney general. They seem to support the protest’s now explicit goal of toppling the government itself.
All of this would be terrible under any circumstances. But in Israel, internal developments always impact strategic realities. For the past several weeks, Iran’s media have trumpeted statements by Israeli opposition leaders and retired generals presaging Israel’s imminent collapse and calling for IDF soldiers to refuse orders to serve.
Citing these statements, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Hossein Salami, along with various Hamas and Islamic Jihad commanders and preachers, have given speeches declaring that Israel is falling apart and its destruction is imminent and calling for their jihadist forces to prepare for victory.
On Sunday, Dr. Mordechai Kedar, one of Israel’s premier scholars of the Arab world, seemed to bring it all home when he published a dire warning in the Makor Rishon newspaper. Kedar set out what many in the Arab world assess to be Iran’s plan for war against Israel in granular detail.
Briefly, the plan Kedar set out involves a mass missile onslaught against Israel by Iran’s proxies in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Yemen. Those attacks, which will deplete Israel’s Iron Dome missile inventory, will be carried out in tandem with acts of cyber warfare targeting vital command and control and civilian targets.
Simultaneously, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in Judea and Samaria will carry out sabotage, mob violence and terror throughout Israel, Judea and Samaria.
Following on the heels of these assaults, ground forces from Lebanon and Gaza will invade Israel and assault Jewish communities in accordance with Hezbollah’s operational plans that were widely published several years ago.
Kedar’s report was quickly disseminated to WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms, inducing panicked discussions throughout all quarters of Israeli society.
This brings us back to Netanyahu’s seemingly anodyne press conference in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu’s one substantive announcement was that he is retaining Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Netanyahu’s office had announced his intention to fire Gallant two weeks earlier after Gallant gave a primetime speech excoriating the government’s judicial reform program while Netanyahu was in London.
Notably, Netanyahu stood alone on Monday evening. Under normal circumstances, when a prime minister gives a briefing at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, he is flanked by the senior IDF and national security brass along with the defense minister. At a minimum, given Netanyahu’s announcement that he is not following through with his plan to fire Gallant, Gallant could have been expected to join Netanyahu at the press conference. We don’t know what his absence signals. What we do know is what Netanyahu said, and no less important, how he said what he said. Together, they lead us to Netanyahu’s purpose and why he was willing to forego Gallant’s presence Monday night.
Rejection of refusal to serve
Netanyahu in his remarks emphasized three points: his predecessors’ incompetent management of Israel’s security challenges; the unity of purpose shared by all Israelis to defend the state from its enemies; and the unanimity of national rejection of refusal to serve.
At the outset of his prepared remarks, Netanyahu placed the blame for Israel’s enemies’ current sense of empowerment on the shoulders of the Lapid-Bennett government. He explained that by forming a government dependent for its existence on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Ra’am (United Arab List) Party, the previous government took no action to fight Hamas’s growing military capabilities in Gaza and Lebanon until after it had fallen in a no-confidence vote and elections were called.
Netanyahu condemned the gas deal that then-interim prime minister and current opposition leader Yair Lapid concluded with Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon days before the Nov. 1 Israeli elections. That deal, which saw Israel surrender significant portions of its sovereign and economic waters and a natural gas field to Hezbollah in exchange for absolutely nothing, was supported and defended by the IDF despite the self-evident danger it poses.
Judged by its substance, the apparent purpose of Netanyahu’s assault on the previous government’s weakness was twofold. First, he wanted to remind the public how we arrived at the current moment, where Hezbollah, Hamas and their Iranian bosses believe they can attack Israel with impunity. And second, Netanyahu wanted to implicitly remind the IDF and Mossad senior brass of their own role in facilitating the irresponsible and destructive gas deal.
In light of the leaked CIA report, and the leadership role retired generals have played in fomenting the anti-government insurrection over the past three months, Netanyahu’s decision to speak from the heart of the national security establishment in Tel Aviv rather than the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem was central to the message of national unity-of-purpose he sought to deliver to Israel’s enemies. Over the course of his half-hour press conference, Netanyahu repeatedly returned to the theme that Israel’s enemies are misreading Israel’s united determination to defend the country from all aggressors. His laconic rendition of the steps the IDF has taken under his government’s orders was geared towards driving home the united seriousness of purpose and the IDF’s acceptance of governmental authority and power. Netanyahu repeatedly asserted his own authority and responsibility for protecting Israel. At one point he made this point explicit. “It is my responsibility,” he said.
The third and most pronounced message Netanyahu communicated Monday evening was the illegitimacy of refusing to follow orders. When asked about his effort to reach an agreement with the political opposition regarding judicial reform, Netanyahu responded that he has two goals vis-à-vis his work with the political opposition.
First, he said, he seeks to negotiate an agreed-upon plan to limit the powers of the Supreme Court. This is a goal, he said, that a large majority of Israelis support.
Second and clearly more important when judged by Netanyahu’s rhetorical fervor, Netanyahu said that he intends to reach—and indeed, he claimed, he has already achieved—consensus on the “absolute rejection of the refusal to serve.” Netanyahu repeated this point multiple times throughout his remarks.
This final point more than anything else he said drove home the identity of Netanyahu’s main target audience. That audience was not the jittery public, although addressing its concerns was important. Netanyahu’s main audience was the security brass from whose headquarters Netanyahu spoke and whose absence at the rostrum was impossible to ignore.
Bearing in mind Kedar’s warning and Netanyahu’s own (less dramatic but relatively detailed) recitation of the nature of the coordinated assault Israel is already experiencing, it appears that the purpose of Netanyahu’s press conference was to gently but firmly assert his authority over the generals by forcing them to contend with the real threats facing Israel.
For years, Israel’s generals have stated publicly that the gravest threat facing Israel is the divisions within Israeli society. By repeatedly making these statements, and then standing foursquare with the left and pushing its policies from within the security apparatus, Israel’s military leadership wasn’t repairing those divisions. They were stoking and exacerbating them. The consequence of their actions and statements has been the unprecedented statements over the past three months by reserve pilots and members of the IDF’s critical technology units refusing to serve under the government.
Netanyahu’s highlighting the fact that the public as a whole rejects the legitimacy of refusing to serve facilitated his assertion of his own governing authority over the recalcitrant generals. By setting out the threats Israel is now facing, and rightly asserting the all but universal rejection of refusal to serve, Netanyahu was telling the generals that Israeli society isn’t divided on core issues. It is united. The primary threat Israel faces is Iran, not domestic disunity. And under Netanyahu’s leadership, whether Gallant is defense minister or not, the IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet and police are required to make defending Israel against Iran and its proxies their top and indeed their only priority.
Caroline B. Glick is the senior contributing editor of Jewish News Syndicate and the host of the Caroline Glick Show on JNS. Glick is also the diplomatic commentator for Israel’s Channel 14 as well as a columnist at Newsweek. Glick is the senior fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Center for Security Policy in Washington and a lecturer at Israel’s College of Statesmanship.