Swords of Iron

The IDF Reservists Fighting in Gaza Will Fight Netanyahu After the War

On Aug. 14, 2006, a United Nations-brokered ceasefire went into effect and ended the Second Lebanon War and 34 days of fighting between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorist organization.

While the battles inside Lebanon were over and the Israel Defense Forces had pulled back to Israeli territory, for many of the Israeli reservists—around 100,000 were called up then—their fight was not yet over.

Thousands of them set up a tent city opposite the Knesset and declared that they would not move until the prime minister at the time, Ehud Olmert, resigned. While it would take two-and-a-half years for Olmert to finally leave office, the reservist protests forced him to establish a state commission of inquiry which found him personally responsible for the failures of the war.

The events of 2006 are being revisited among the current crop of IDF reservists deployed in the south against Hamas and in the north guarding against potential threats from Hezbollah. Many are contemplating a similar course of action, this time aimed at toppling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“What happened in 2006 will be nothing compared to what will happen this time,” warns one reservist, speaking on background.

Even as the war in Gaza rages on, it is widely anticipated in Israel that its conclusion will usher in a political upheaval. Despite personal responsibility acknowledgments from top military officials, including the IDF chief of staff and heads of intelligence agencies, Netanyahu, Israel’s leader for the greater part of the last 15 years, has refused to offer any kind of mea culpa.

The discontent among reservists is further fueled by Netanyahu’s attempts to shift blame to the security chiefs. Two weeks ago, on the same night that special forces were covertly sneaking into Gaza to rescue a captive soldier, he tweeted that the head of the Shin Bet and the head of Military Intelligence had misled him about the threat from Hamas.

“Contrary to the false claims: Under no circumstances and at no stage was Prime Minister Netanyahu warned of Hamas’s war intentions,” read the tweet. In the morning the public broke out in anger and Netanyahu deleted the tweet.

Then about a week later he again placed the blame for the war on the IDF, saying that the protests by some reservists earlier this year against his judicial overhaul led Hamas to think that Israel was weak and that an attack would succeed. Again, Netanyahu was forced to apologize.

“There will be a political shakeup after the war,” one member of Knesset told me. “Netanyahu is unlikely to go willingly but the protests and civil unrest might be too much for him to bear.”

While the reservists plan to protest, they will be joined by hundreds of thousands of other Israelis, many veterans of the eight months of weekly protests against the government’s judicial reforms. They will be joined by many right wingers who are turning away from Netanyahu due to his latest conduct and the failures that led to the Hamas invasion.

One recent poll showed that if elections were held today, Netanyahu’s Likud Party would implode and fall from 32 seats in the Knesset now to just 19. The National Unity Party, led by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, would emerge as the country’s new leader, going from 12 seats now to 41.

Three potential scenarios could emerge post-war. The first involves a significant group of Likud Party Knesset members withdrawing their support from Netanyahu, demanding his resignation, and potentially aligning with the opposition to force his exit.

There is little doubt that Likud members are fed up with Netanyahu who led them through five elections over the last five years, but they have yet to officially rebel. This war, and particularly the intelligence and tactical failures that led to it, have Likud members talking differently today.

The second option is that Netanyahu’s coalition starts to crumble and under pressure from their voters, some of the other parties in the government demand an election. Some cracks are already evident. One of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party’s ministers said this week that there will be no alternative to moving up the date of the next election once the war is over.

If there is an election, the stage seems set for the return of familiar faces like former prime minister Naftali Bennett who has hinted that he plans to run in a future election and former communications minister Yoaz Hendel, who is currently leading special forces in combat in Gaza and is also said to be considering a future run.

One new candidate is expected to be Yossi Cohen, the former head of the Mossad, Israel’s equivalent of the CIA. Cohen has been enjoying the media spotlight and has not hidden his desire to one day serve as prime minister.

Within Netanyahu’s Likud Party, there are a number of would-be successors. These include Israel’s current ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan, Minister of Economy Nir Barkat, a former hi-tech entrepreneur, and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who is popular among the Likud rank and file.

And then there is the third option: Netanyahu remains unwilling to step down and adept at quelling any rebellion within his party and coalition. Reports of his staff scouring through past cabinet meetings for evidence to deflect blame onto security chiefs indicate a leader ready to fight for his political survival.

Much hinges on the outcome of the war. A decisive victory for Israel, coupled with the release of hostages, could potentially alter public opinion towards Netanyahu. Whether he can navigate this complex political terrain remains uncertain, but in the tumultuous landscape of Israeli politics, anything is possible.

Yaakov Katz is a Senior Fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), a former editor of the Jerusalem Post and the author of three books on Israeli military affairs, most recently Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power.

Published by NewsWeek