By Ben Caspit
October 25, 2017
At the start of his Knesset faction's meeting on Oct. 23, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, the chairman of Yisrael Beitenu, dropped a bombshell. "As for the rocket fire in the north," he confided, "it was not 'leakage' but a deliberate attack by a local cell operated by Hezbollah. [Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan] Nasrallah personally gave an order to exclude the [Bashar] al-Assad regime. That is why I call on the Assad regime, which we consider responsible for everything that happens on Syrian soil, and on the Russian forces stationed there to restrain Hezbollah."
Liberman was referring to four rockets fired from Syrian territory into the Israeli-held Golan Heights on Oct. 21. According to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the rocket fire was not "leakage" resulting from fighting in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights between troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, but an intentional attack on Israel. Then the defence minister himself announced that the order to fire the rockets was given by none other than Nasrallah and that a local terror cell carried it out without Assad even knowing about it. Nevertheless, Liberman made a point of placing the onus of responsibility for restraining Hezbollah on Assad and his Russian allies.
Liberman's very public statement immediately became a major headline in Israel and throughout the Middle East. Tensions in the north hit new levels over the past few weeks and threatened to reach a boiling point. Liberman's comments were seen as a firm warning, directed squarely at Nasrallah's bunker in Beirut, as well as a serious escalation in the recent war of words between the parties.
The entire episode received a bizarre twist just a few hours later. It turned out that no one in the IDF was familiar with the information that Liberman presented to the microphones and cameras. While the IDF also believes that the rockets were fired at Israel intentionally, military intelligence has no information about a direct order from Nasrallah, an attempt to exclude Assad or the identity of the terror cell responsible for the rocket fire. Thinking that he was getting into a war of words with Nasrallah, Liberman actually found himself caught up in a war of conflicting versions with the IDF. The conflict died down quickly, without developing into an open fight, but the mystery remains: Where did Liberman get his information?
One senior defense official with a keen sense of humour suggested to Al-Monitor that Liberman's close ties with Moscow might have given him access to Russian intelligence. On the other hand, Liberman arrived at the faction meeting in the Knesset on Oct. 23 directly from a trip to Washington, where he held meetings with his American counterparts. Regardless, the defence minister said nothing more about the issue.
Behind these comments is growing criticism of the policies pursued by Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on all matters concerning the northern front. This criticism has been kept behind closed doors for the past few weeks. Security officials, military officers and occasionally even ministers expressed their discomfort with Israel's light trigger finger when it comes to military activity in Syria. They are even more uneasy about the fact that Israel is abandoning its traditional silence on the matter. The government is now quick to take responsibility for bombing runs and other military actions, with the prime minister himself sometimes issuing the statements.
On Oct. 22, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amiram Levin, a decorated war hero and former chief of the Northern Command, entered the fray. In an article he wrote for Yedioth Ahronoth daily and in ensuing interviews, Levin stated unequivocally that the government is dragging Israel to war. Levin wrote, “Measured military responses coupled with quiet diplomacy vis-a-vis the players on the northern front are the right thing to do. … But when they are accompanied by harsh words and populist statements, they become dangerous." In a radio interview, Levin added, "Our strength lies in our thunderous silence … in quiet diplomacy. … With it we can reduce the risk of war."
Levin was not alone. Former Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon seconded this. In an interview with Army Radio on Oct. 22, he said that Israel should not take responsibility for any actions in Syria. It is harmful, he said, and it encourages the opposing party to respond. "Less politics, more diplomacy," he said.
Ya'alon and Levin were referring, among other things, to an incident that occurred just a few days before, on Oct. 16, and was described in an earlier Al-Monitor article. In that incident, Syrian rockets were fired at an Israeli jet engaged in a photographic incursion over Lebanon. The Israeli air force destroyed the Syrian rocket battery soon after. Had that incident occurred a few years, or even a few months, earlier, Israel would not have taken responsibility for it. This time, however, Israel was quick to admit that it was behind the sortie, with Netanyahu stating that anyone who tries to hurt Israel “will be hurt in return.”
Ya'alon and Levin are not the only critics of the "haughtiness and arrogance" that have been spreading among the Israeli leadership recently. The same criticism could be heard in closed sessions of the Cabinet, from ministers who failed to understand the recent wave of recurring Israeli boasting. Similarly, it was voiced by security officials, who longed for the days when Israel preferred to act (according to foreign news sources), instead of talking and making all sorts of public statements. So far, these critics have kept their remarks discrete. The only people who dared to speak up were these two generals: Levin, who is not a part of the political establishment although he is identified with the Labor Party, and Ya'alon, who plans to run against Netanyahu in the next election.
Even within the Likud, the first murmurings of criticism are starting to be heard, particularly among the more veteran ranks of ministers and Knesset members. "If you want to shoot, then shoot. Just don't go talking about it," one source in the party told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity. The one concern that no one dares voice so far is that Netanyahu favours his personal political needs over Israel's security interests. The fact that he is drowning in criminal investigations has been forcing him to shine a spotlight on his achievements and to highlight his reputation as "Mr. Security." At this rate, said one senior political source to Al-Monitor speaking on condition of anonymity, by the time we have an indictment, we will have already descended into war. Right now I want to believe that Netanyahu is more afraid of war than he is of an indictment.
So far Netanyahu has earned himself a reputation for excessive caution on all security matters. He is thought to be a prime minister who avoids military adventurism, is wary of wars and who prefers to return home without taking any risks. Now that he is preparing for the fight of his political career, the big question is whether he is losing his innate fear of war.
Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel.