Israeli Parliament Gives War Power to 2 Top Leaders
Posted May 2, 2018 4:50 p.m. EDT
JERUSALEM — As Israel faces rising tensions with Iran, Syria and Gaza, its Parliament passed a new law allowing the prime minister and defense minister to decide alone whether their nation will go to war.
The legislation, which comes after multiple attacks inside Syria widely believed to have been carried out by Israel, makes it much easier for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to declare war. Although the new law restricts the use of that power to “extreme circumstances,” it has provoked domestic criticism for concentrating it in the hands of just two people.
The law is “nothing less than insane,” said Ofer Shelah, a legislator from the centrist Yesh Atid party, which sits in opposition. “I am deluged with calls from experienced security officials who are shocked, and rightfully so,” he wrote on Twitter.
The measure, an amendment to the Basic Laws that serve as Israel’s constitution, passed Monday night by a vote of 62-41 in the 120-seat Knesset. The vote was initially overshadowed by Netanyahu’s dramatic, televised news conference the same night in which he presented evidence that he said proved that Iran had been lying about its efforts to build a nuclear weapon.
The presentation, based on a cache of stolen Iranian documents, capped a long campaign by Netanyahu to kill the international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program. President Donald Trump faces a May 12 deadline to decide whether to pull the United States out of the agreement.
And it comes amid an escalating shadow war with Iran.
Airstrikes on a suspected missile storage site near Hama, Syria, on Sunday which destroyed a cache of missiles and killed at least 16 people, many of them Iranians, were reported to have been carried out by Israel. Israel is believed to have conducted several previous attacks in Syria on assets belonging to Iran and its allies, and is bracing for promised Iranian retaliation for a strike on an air base in Syria last month.
The new law would not necessarily change the procedure for those airstrikes, which Israel has not acknowledged. What approval may be required for these strikes is not public information.
But it could give Netanyahu more latitude to broaden the hostilities into open warfare.
The law was not written with the current skirmishes with Iran in mind, according to one of the architects of the reform, and applies to any prime minister and defense minister, not just the current ones.
Still, critics note that Netanyahu is under investigation in multiple corruption cases and is fighting for his political future, and the current defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is a political hard-liner with little security experience. Those issues could raise questions about their motivations should they decide to take Israel to war.
The law reduces the approval required to go to war from the full Cabinet to half of the much smaller security Cabinet under most circumstances. But a provision was added late in the process to give that authority to the prime minister and defense minister in “extreme circumstances.”
“The last-minute addition giving authority under extreme circumstances to the prime minister and defense minister on their own appears to be out of order,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, head of the national security and public opinion project at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “It is not appropriate to Israel’s constitutional system of government.”
The law does not define what constitutes “extreme circumstances.”
Previously, Israeli leaders had to seek the approval of the full Cabinet to go to war, or even to embark on a military action that was likely to lead to war. But in recent years, governments have swelled to up to 30 ministers. Advocates of the new law say that with the larger Cabinets, that system has become unwieldy. However, some experts also said that the law may have little practical effect since the prime minister and defense minister were unlikely to go to war without strong political backing and the support of the military and security agencies, which have proved in the past to be cautious.
“A government cannot go to war, no matter what the law says, without a national consensus,” said Shlomo Avineri, professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
That Netanyahu’s motives could come under suspicion because of his legal troubles only strengthens the need for public and political support, Avineri said.
“Obviously a prime minister under investigation is limited by the kind of choices he can take, and they will be scrutinized even more than usual,” Avineri said, adding that in such a case, “the necessity for broad support is even wider.”
Several analysts pointed to an episode in 2010 when Netanyahu and his defense minister at the time, Ehud Barak, were eager to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities but were stopped from doing so by the Israeli military, which said it lacked the ability, and by the opposition of the broader security establishment.
While that example suggests that Israeli leaders would not go to war without broader support, the following year, Netanyahu and Barak wanted to strike Iran again and were stopped when two ministers balked at the idea, Barak later said.
Under the new law, they may have had a freer hand to attack Iran. A committee was established in 2016 to formulate recommendations to improve the workings of the Cabinet. Headed by Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser and a major general in the reserves, the committee recommended giving the authority to go to war to the more select political-security Cabinet, which by law numbers at least seven members and not more than half the members of the government.
Amidror said in an interview that Netanyahu was “happy with our recommendation,” but that the newly amended law went beyond that. Netanyahu argued that the law’s requirement of a quorum of the security Cabinet could lead to paralysis in an emergency, Amidror said.
He said that only then did Netanyahu push for the power to be vested in the prime minister and defense minister.
Amidror insisted that the timing of the new law was coincidental and had nothing to do with the current tensions.
“I was behind it so I know for sure there is no connection,” he said. “In Israel, any timing is bad timing.”