On May 10, Israel launched its fourth war on Gaza, a territory it had blockaded since 2007. This study examines Israel’s decision-making that led to the war, the role of its military establishment, the reasons for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to wage the war, and the positions of the different political forces in the country.
Israel’s Decision-making in War
Israel’s Basic Law stipulates that the government has the authority to declare war or to pursue widespread military operations that could lead to war. Amended in 2018, the law allows for a committee of ministers—a smaller political-security cabinet—to make such decisions.1 This cabinet consists of the prime minister and the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, finance, internal security, and justice, in addition to other ministers the premier may choose to appoint, so long as the total number does not exceed half the number of the entire cabinet.
Israel’s present government consists of 12 ministers and six observer ministers, half of whom are from the Likud Party and its allies and the other half from the Blue and White Party and its allies.2 In addition to the ministers and the government’s legal advisor, military and security leaders—specifically the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as well as the commanders of land, sea, and air forces—attend the cabinet’s meetings. Other attendees include the commanders of the different fronts, the chief of military operations war room, chief of military intelligence (Aman), director of domestic intelligence (Shabak), director of external intelligence (Mossad), and the chief of national security. During times of war, up to 35 participants may attend. Once a decision to go to war is reached, the prime minister, defense minister, and chief of staff monitor operations to achieve the cabinet’s objectives.
The prime minister—currently Netanyahu— enjoys broad powers and is entrusted with many responsibilities; the government becomes his own cabinet. He leads its operations, heads its meetings, decides its agenda, and enjoys the power to dismiss ministers. The premier’s resignation would mean the resignation of the entire government. He also appoints the heads of Shabak and Mossad and controls the committee for national security that provides him with analyses, recommendations, and policy alternatives.
The Basic Law of the Israeli army considers it the army of the state, one under the authority of the government, and the minister of defense is in reality the minister of the army. The chief of the general staff (COS) is the highest ranking officer in the army (Israel has no commander-in-chief of the armed forces). The COS is subject to the authority of the government or the smaller political-security cabinet, which essentially makes the entire government the commander-in-chief. In fact, the COS can refuse an order to launch a war from the defense minister or prime minister if the political-security cabinet has not decided to pursue such an action. The extent to which the defense minister has authority on war decisions depends on a number of considerations, among which are his/her experience and political power within the government. She/he is not the commander of the army and cannot issue orders. The chief of staff has a pivotal position and may sometimes play a decisive role in decisions leading to war. The military institution under the COS remains the most essential in making military and strategic decisions through Aman (the military intelligence), which interprets the situation and provides recommendations to the political-security cabinet. The COS also plays a role in articulating what needs to be done in official and unofficial meetings and consultations with the prime minister and minister of defense.
War Preparations against Gaza
Over the last few years, Israel has paid special attention to discovering and destroying tunnels in the Gaza Strip. In 2017, it began building a meters-deep concrete underground wall along its 65- kilometer border with the strip, fitted it with warning systems, and completed it in 2019. In 2018, Israel constructed a wall on its Mediterranean coast to separate its water from that of Gaza and during the last few years, it deployed advanced technology for tunnel detection, especially along its border with the strip.3
Over the last decade, the IDF also paid particular attention to cyber operations and information gathering, especially in the asymmetrical war between Israel and resistance factions.4 In 2009, the IDF had established the Cyber Command in Military Intelligence’s Unit 8200 and developed it to a great extent during Aviv Kochavi’s tenure as director of Aman, between 2010 and 2014.5 Since becoming chief of staff in early 2019, Kochavi expanded the role of cyber technology in information gathering for a list of targets that would be bombed in Gaza in case of war, like tunnels and the infrastructure and residence of the resistance factions, leaders, and cadres. This is in addition to its work during operations and coordination with Shabak for aerial raids.
Netanyahu’s Reasons for Waging War on Gaza
The missile attacks directed toward Jerusalem in support of al-Aqsa Mosque and Sheikh Jarrah residents by Hamas and the other Palestinian military resistance groups in Gaza came as a big surprise for the Israeli army. The original assumption among Israel’s security apparatuses was that Hamas and others would not initiate rocket attacks deep into Israel for a cause unrelated to Gaza and the siege on it. While rockets launched toward Jerusalem did not cause major damage and Israel was quite capable of containing their impact and retaliated, Netanyahu found a golden opportunity to wage war on the Gaza Strip for purely political reasons. War gave him a strong card to pressure opposition right-wing parties in order to thwart their attempt at forming an alternate government. The assault on Gaza also raised the level of racist practices against Palestinians inside Israel in an unprecedented fashion.
During the three days prior to the war on Gaza, Netanyahu fed racist feelings by allowing ardent right-wing Jews to demonstrate in Jerusalem and by encouraging them to attack Palestinians there. He also authorized the Israeli police to invade the Al-Aqsa Mosque and compound. His political interest in waging war coincided with increasing racism and hate toward Palestinians in Israeli society. In addition, it also fed the army’s desire to regain deterrence and destroy the resistance forces’ infrastructure in Gaza without having to pay a heavy price. The political-security cabinet’s decision to go to war thus had three specific objectives: 1) to strike the resistance’s combat capabilities, especially rockets; 2) to destroy its ability to rebuild said capabilities; and 3) to restore overall deterrence in Gaza.6
The Positions of Israel’s Political Parties
All political parties in Israel, both inside the ruling coalition and among Netanyahu’s opponents, supported the aggression against Gaza. An atmosphere of racist hatred against Palestinians had prevailed in Israeli society before the assault and intensified during it. Media outlets even began to agitate publicly against Palestinians inside the Green Line, to call on the Israeli police to suppress them, and to justify the attacks on them by fascist and right-wing Jewish organizations.
On the third day of the war, Yamina Party leader Naftali Bennett—who had been trying to form an alternate government with Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid Party—announced that he renewed his communications with Netanyahu’s Likud to form a wider right-wing coalition.7
The political-security cabinet’s acceptance of the cease-fire was met with different reactions across the political spectrum. While the current coalition partners supported the decision and defended it, the opposition to Netanyahu was critical while being careful to assert support for the army. Although he supported the cease-fire and praised the army for achieving its aims, Yair Lapid—Netanyahu’s strongest opponent—forcefully criticized the prime minister for his failure “on all fronts.” He said that Netanyahu failed in fortifying people’s homes, in his media war with Hamas, in securing the return of Israeli prisoners and remains of dead soldiers, and in destroying the Palestinian organization. He accused the government of “keeping Hamas’s authority in Gaza alive so that it could weaken the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.”8
Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu Party, and Gideon Saar, leader of New Hope Party, criticized the cease-fire. Saar claimed that it “negatively impacts Israeli deterrence” against Hamas and other Palestinian factions in Gaza and cannot stop their re-arming. He asserted that the cease-fire agreement is a political defeat for Netanyahu’s government and that Israel would pay dearly in the future.9 It was obvious that the extreme right-wing segment of the Israeli political scene wanted to continue the war while Netanyahu wanted to show that the cease-fire was unconditional by continuing repression in Jerusalem, especially at the Al-Aqsa compound. He also began a systematic and comprehensive punishment campaign against Palestinian activists, citizens of Israel, who led protests or called for demonstrations inside Israel.
Israel waged its war against Gaza with the same strategy it had used on multiple occasions in the past. It relied on its air superiority to conduct a destructive campaign against a list of targets, mostly civilians inside cities and refugee camps. Nevertheless, Israel failed to stop rocket attacks deep into its territory and to assure its deterrence against the Palestinian resistance. Even if Israel had rejected conditions for the cease-fire, it failed to place any conditions on the resistance and to stop Palestinian protests and demonstrations in the West Bank and inside the Green Line during the war.
* This article was originally published in Arabic on May 24, 2021 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.
1 An amendment on April 30, 2018, granted sole power to declare war to the prime minister and the defense minister in special cases. But following protestations from different groups and trends, this change was rescinded on July 17, 2018. See Mahmoud Moharib, “War Decision-Making in Israel: A Struggle over Authorization, Roles, and Authorities,” Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, June 11, 2018, https://bit.ly/3uofeBj (in Arabic). For information on the Basic Law, see “Basic Law: The Government,” Israeli Knesset, https://bit.ly/348k4I9 (in Hebrew).
2 Current political-security cabinet members are Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz, Amir Ohana, Gabi Ashkenazi, Yisrael Katz, Yuli Edelstein, Michel Biton, Aryeh Deri, Amir Peretz, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, Alon Schuster, and Yoav Galant (who rotates his membership with Meri Regev; when one is a full member, the other is an observer).
3 Amos Harel, “Tunnel destruction in the south: the Israeli army gradually eliminates Hamas’s strategic weapon,” Haaretz, December 10, 2017 (in Hebrew).
4 Gadi Eizenkot, “Cyber in the Israeli army,” Cyber, Intelligence, and Security 2, no. 3 (December 2018): https://bit.ly/3fKHCrL (in Hebrew).
5 For more information, see Aviv Kochavi and Eran Ortal, “Aman’s mission: constant change in a changing environment,” Bein Haktavim 2 (July 2014): 9-57, https://bit.ly/3fJOzt6 (in Hebrew).
6 Ron Ben-Yishai, “This time the army knows what it wants to achieve,” Ynet, May 11, 2021, https://bit.ly/2T9DCcJ (in Hebrew).
7 Michael Hauser Tov, “Bennett: alternate government no longer possible. Lapid is mistaken,” Haaretz, May 13, 2021, https://bit.ly/2TcDOrQ (in Hebrew).
8 Moran Azoulay, “Lapid: ‘The army succeeded and the government failed. Do not ignore Biden’s request to end the operation,’” Ynet, May 20, 2021, https://bit.ly/3vhHdDV (in Hebrew).
9 Michael Hauser Tov, Jonathan Liss, and Almog Ben Zachary, “Saar about the cease-fire: embarrassing political failure for which we will pay,” Haaretz, May 20, 2021, https://bit.ly/34fCkiw (in Hebrew).