Benjamin Netanyahu's government coalition may be heading for a breakup just eighteen months since he took office – and not only over a policy or other foul-up, but because it was hit by a loose cannon which came out of the blue.
At least one Israeli government has sunk under the political and emotional weight of security scandals. The most notorious occurred in the 1960s, when governments led by the larger-than-life founders of Israel David Ben Gurion, Moshe Sharett and Levi Eshkol were swept away by what became known as the Lavon Affair (named for the officiating Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon).
An Israeli undercover operation in Cairo turned bad and the Egyptian security authorities rounded up a number of Israeli military intelligence agents and Egyptian Jews who belonged to an Israeli spy ring. Some were executed, others given long prison sentences.
Those governments did not fall over this fiasco but were crushed by the intrigue and false recriminations which tore the ruling Mapai (Labor) party apart. One faction of politicians and intelligence officers forged documents to incriminate their rivals in the misfortune.
To this day, half a century later, it is not known who ordered the disastrous Cairo operation. But the infighting fragmented the party irrevocably and paved the way to Mapai's fall from power and the rise of the opposition Likud. Since then, government in Jerusalem has swung between the two camps.
The prime minister whose government may be on the skids today is Likud's Netanyahu.
Routine jockeying turns ugly
What happened was that some fairly routine jockeying by a small group of generals for the top post of chief of staff after Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi ends his tour of duty early next year was hit by a wild card called the Galant Document. It was named for a leading contender, GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant and is said to outline in detail a campaign for bringing Galant the desired job, raising his loyalists to plum positions and smearing his rivals.
The document itself has never been released. Aside from establishing that the logo belonging to a PR firm was forged, its content appears to vary depending on where its copies turned up.
One reposed in the chief of staff's drawer for weeks without him taking any action. This week, he handed it to the police who have been called in to the get to the bottom of the mystery.
Ten days after the document first appeared, it is beginning to look as though its author may never be discovered – a feature shared with the Lavon Affair.
Another shared feature is the widening circle of officers, active and reserve, political wheeler-dealers, journalists, media figures, politicians and publicists drawn relentlessly into the scandal.
Theories as to the author's motives vary from hour to hour. Was the document drummed up by the Galant campaign to boost his chances or by his rivals to discredit him? How many hands tampered with how many copies?
Netanyahu lays a safety net under his rule
Until Wednesday, Aug. 18, Netanyahu kept his feet out of this murky pond. But as more revelations unfolded, people started asking why the prime minister was not getting a grip and halting the rot of intrigue and acrimony taking hold of the military and defense establishments – especially at a time that Israel may well have to prepare for its most crucial war against Iran.
As the political fallout and sense of drift gained, the prime minister summoned the defense minister and chief of staff and told them to put an end to the preoccupation with the Galant document affair and get back to concerted work for national security.
This intervention was not masterful enough to have much effect.
But on the quiet, Netanyahu has taken three steps to spread a safety net under his government in case his coalition breaks up, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports:
1. He is talking secretly to opposition Kadima leader Tzipi Livni to persuade her to join his government.
2. He is keeping his distance from his erstwhile senior partner, the Labor leader and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whom he has begun referring to in private as "someone who has become a burden."
3. Because he would like to be rid of Barak and not lose Barak's party, Netanyahu and Livni are trying to organize a Labor revolt to oust the defense minister as its chairman.
4. This step was revealed Thursday night, Aug. 19 just before we closed this issue: The attorney general and police commissioner received strict instructions to release an interim report on their probe stating that no member of the general staff, the IDF or the defense ministry was found to be involved in producing or circulating the Galant Document.
The Attorney General accordingly gave the defense minister the red light to go back to the process of choosing the next chief of staff which was held in abeyance until the end of the inquiry.
The police were told to continue their inquiry until the author of the poisonous document, now proved to be a forgery, is identified.
If this proves to be a cover-up, which the free-and-easy Israeli media will soon discover, the crisis will rumble on after Chapter One was closed Thursday night.
For now, public confidence in the high Israeli command and the prime minister as a firm leader with a steady hand in national affairs has been seriously damaged.
Historically speaking, Israel takes many wasted years to recover from a malaise such as the one generated by the Galant Document.