Netanyahu Rivals Team Up Against the Prime Minister for Israel’s Elections

Centrist candidates strike an alliance in a bid to unseat the prime minister

If elected, Benny Gantz, a retired Israeli army chief, and Yair Lapid, a former TV anchor turned parliamentarian, agreed to take turns at running the country, they said in a statement Thursday. Mr. Gantz would serve as prime minister for the first 2½ years, and Mr. Lapid would take over for the rest of the four-year term.

The agreement between the centrist politicians is a result of several weeks of discussions amid questions over whether the two men could put aside their personal ambitions to unite against Mr. Netanyahu.

It also comes at a vulnerable moment for Mr. Netanyahu, who is expected to be indicted on corruption charges later this month. He will have a chance to defend himself in a hearing before charges are formally filed, and he has vowed to stay in power and to fight them. He doesn’t have to resign unless convicted. Mr. Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing..

Opinion polls project a tight contest, but some indicate that Mr. Gantz’s Israel Resilience party and Mr. Lapid’s Yesh Atid party could together secure more seats in Israel’s parliament than Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud.

“The new ruling party will bring forth a cadre of security and social leaders to ensure Israel’s security and to reconnect its people and heal the divide within Israeli society,” the parties said in a statement.

The two parties also said they would add former Israeli army chief Gabi Ashkenazi to their slate. Mr. Ashkenazi is seen as an important player in attracting votes from the right, which will be important if Messrs. Gantz and Lapid are to unseat Mr. Netanyahu.

Both Mr. Gantz and Mr. Lapid are running as anti-Netanyahu candidates, while emphasizing a commitment to addressing social problems in Israel like education, housing, health care and traffic.

They have struck a more moderate tone than Mr. Netanyahu on handling relations with the Palestinians. Before the agreement, Mr. Lapid’s camp said it was unsure whether Mr. Gantz supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, citing at least one in his party who has opposed it in the past.

Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party said the election would be a choice of “either a left-wing government of Lapid-Gantz with preventative support from the Arab parties, or a right-wing government with Netanyahu at its helm.”

As an alliance became more likely, Mr. Netanyahu issued statements and videos painting Mr. Gantz and Mr. Lapid as weak and leftist, while describing himself and his party as strong and right.

.. Israeli politicians must submit their party lists to Israel’s Central Election Committee by Thursday. Those lists must disclose whether the politicians will run as one ticket.

.. “For the first time since 2009 we have a competitive race for the premiership,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute. “The main question is whether this new list can lure or be attractive enough for some center right and soft right voters. This is probably the question that will determine the outcome of the election.”

Mr. Gantz entered politics late last year, brandishing his security credentials but saying little about his policy positions to try to lure a broad swath of the electorate. He has consistently polled second to Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party.

Mr. Lapid’s party finished second in the 2013 elections, the first contest after it was created, but has slid in the polls ever since. Mr. Lapid served for a year as the finance minister in Mr. Netanyahu’s government.

What if the FBI Had Probed Obama?

By the bureau’s Trump standard, he looked like an agent of Iran.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation reportedly opened a counterintelligence investigation in 2017 to find out if President Trump was a Russian agent. What if the FBI had similarly looked into whether President Obama was an agent of Iran?

Counterintelligence agents would have examined the target’s personal and professional networks. The FBI investigated at least four Trump campaign figures for supposed ties to Russia. Only one, Mike Flynn, worked in the administration, and for less than a month. The Obama administration had a few senior officials with personal ties to Iran.

Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett was born in the Iranian city of Shiraz and reportedly led back-channel talks with the Iranians in 2012. Secretary of State John Kerry’s daughter quashed right-wing rumors that her Iranian-American husband’s best man was the son of Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. But under the FBI’s Trump procedures, that denial might have made her suspect. A month after Trump adviser Carter Page publicly asked then-Director James Comey for an interview to clear his name, the FBI obtained a warrant to wiretap him.

As Mr. Trump’s desire for improved relations with Russia raised eyebrows at the bureau, a 2008 article written by John Brennan—who went on to serve as White House counterterrorism adviser and Central Intelligence Agency director—advocated a grand bargain with Iran. In 2009 the Obama White House conducted secret negotiations with Tehran.

Mr. Obama later sidelined Project Cassandra, an investigation of illicit trafficking networks employed by Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese franchise. Launched in 2008, the investigation was run by a multiagency task force, including the FBI itself. Then for 18 months in 2014-15, the Obama White House gave the Iranians $700 million a month in sanctions relief. In January 2016, Mr. Obama sent Iran another $1.7 billion in cash. The administration also had a habit of leaking news of Israeli strikes on Iranian arms convoys and depots in Syria.

All these Obama actions are easily explained: Inducing Iran to sign a nuclear agreement was the former president’s top foreign-policy priority. I believe this pro-Iran policy was disastrous. But it wasn’t collusion or treason or any of the other crimes of which Democrats and their media allies have accused Mr. Trump.

The FBI’s suspicions about Mr. Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin were reportedly piqued by, among other things, a May 2017 television interview in which he said he fired Mr. Comey for the “Russia thing.” He’s also staged a series of brazenly public events where he professed his hopes of warmer ties with Vladimir Putin. Like Mr. Obama’s pro-Iran policies, Mr. Trump’s hope for better relations with Russia was anything but clandestine.

Yet critics of the Russia investigations are wrong to suggest the attacks on the president and his associates reflect the increasing tendency to criminalize policy differences . It has nothing to do with policy, for Mr. Trump’s Russia policy has been as hard-line as that of any post-Cold War administration, including Mr. Obama’s. The FBI’s motive for investigating Mr. Trump looks more like pure politics.

This Man Must Decide Whether to Indict Israel’s Netanyahu

As an election approaches, Avichai Mandelblit, Israel’s low-key attorney general, is under intense pressure from both the prime minister and the public

When Avichai Mandelblit first considered an offer to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration in 2013, he told Israel’s prime minister that he’d accept if he could finish his doctorate and stay out of politics, aides to him say.

Mr. Mandelblit managed to earn his Ph.D. in law. But now as Israel’s attorney general, he is at the center of one of the country’s biggest political storms.

Following two years of corruption probes targeting Mr. Netanyahu—and a recommendation by Israeli police to charge him with bribery, fraud and breach of trust—Mr. Mandelblit is weighing whether to indict his boss. He must also decide whether to do so ahead of April elections the Israeli leader called early to run for a fifth term. Mr. Mandelblit’s decision could come as soon as February.

At the heart of the political drama are two men who have responded to the crisis in starkly different ways. Mr. Netanyahu has used angry bluster and a public campaign to cast doubt on the corruption charges and his handpicked attorney general. Mr. Mandelblit, like the dogged doctoral student he once was before his 25-year career in the legal branch of Israel’s military, has avoided the limelight and burrowed into the legal merits of the corruption charges, say friends and colleagues. A decision to indict a sitting prime minister would be unprecedented and could upend Israeli politics.

“He basically holds Israel’s political destiny in his hands,” said Shalom Lipner, a scholar with the Brookings Institution think tank who worked for several prime ministers including Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Mandelblit’s role is especially delicate because he also serves as the government’s top legal adviser, which means he’s both advising Mr. Netanyahu and judging him for alleged crimes against the state.

Notably, the two men continue to hold private meetings. Those have been the subject of several court challenges, including one from a government watchdog group that petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court last year to halt them. The country’s top court rejected it, saying Mr. Mandelblit can be trusted to maintain “a ‘Chinese Wall’ between his various responsibilities.”

.. But their working relationship hasn’t stopped the embattled prime minister from attacking the investigation. Recently, Mr. Netanyahu has released a series of videos urging Mr. Mandelblit not to announce any decision to indict him ahead of the April 9 elections, saying such a move would unfairly sway the outcome.

Mr. Netanyahu has also launched a slick social media campaign playing down some of the allegations—that he traded favors for better news coverage—by comparing bribery without money to soccer without Argentine player Lionel Messi or celebrity Kim Kardashian without her husband, the rapper Kanye West.

“What are they talking about when they say bribery? About money? About envelopes? About bank accounts? About Greek Islands? Not at all! They are talking about favorable coverage,” said a visibly upset Mr. Netanyahu in a prime time televised speech earlier this month.

Protesters, alleging that Mr. Mandelblit is delaying a decision to benefit his boss, have gathered outside his home every Saturday since late 2016, booing his name alongside effigies of Messrs. Netanyahu Mandelblit and the other major players in the probe— billionaires, media moguls and witnesses—all in prisoners’ garb. His father’s grave was recently vandalized and he has been the subject of threatening graffiti.

Netanyahu thought that by bringing the election ahead he would pre-empt Mandelblit and win the election and then deal with the legal issues after it,” said Anshel Pfeffer, author of “Bibi, The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.” “But since Mandelblit does not seem to be intimidated it’s now becoming a major issue.”

Politically, it is more complicated. Even if he’s indicted, Mr. Netanyahu is still favored to win the elections, with recent polls showing his supporters saying he can still manage Israel’s economy and protect the nation’s security. But Mr. Netanyahu’s challenge would be finding coalition partners willing to form a government with him if he’s indicted. He would get the chance to defend himself in a pre-indictment hearing before charges proceed.

The stress of the job shows. Mr. Mandelblit’s hair, once light red, has noticeably grayed.

The Man Who Humbled Qassim Suleimani

An interview with Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, Israel’s chief of staff.

“We struck thousands of targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit.”

So says Gadi Eisenkot about the Jewish state’s undeclared and unfinished military campaign against Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon. For his final interview as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces before he retires next week, the general has decided to claim responsibility and take at least some of the credit.

Eisenkot’s central intellectual contribution in fighting that campaign is the concept of “the campaign between wars” — the idea that continuous, kinetic efforts to degrade the enemy’s capabilities both lengthens the time between wars and improves the chances of winning them when they come. He also believes that Israel needed to focus its efforts on its deadliest enemy, Iran, as opposed to secondary foes such as Hamas in Gaza.

“When you fight for many years against a weak enemy,” he says, “it also weakens you.”

This thinking is what led Eisenkot to become the first Israeli general to take Iran head on, in addition to fighting its proxies in Lebanon and elsewhere. And it’s how he succeeded in humbling, at least for the now, Qassim Suleimani, the wily commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, which has spearheaded Tehran’s ambitions to make itself a regional hegemon.

.. “We operated under a certain threshold until two-and-a-half years ago,” Eisenkot explains, referring to Israel’s initial policy of mainly striking weapons shipments destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. “And then we noticed a significant change in Iran’s strategy. Their vision was to have significant influence in Syria by building a force of up to 100,000 Shiite fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. They built intelligence bases and an air force base within each Syrian air base. And they brought civilians in order to indoctrinate them.”

By 2016, Eisenkot estimates, Suleimani had deployed 3,000 of his men in Syria, along with 8,000 Hezbollah fighters and another 11,000 foreign Shiite troops. The Iranian funds flowing toward the effort amounted to $16 billion over seven years. Israel had long said it would not tolerate an Iranian presence on its border, but at that point Syria had become a place in which other countries’ declaratory red lines seemed easily erased.

In January 2017 Eisenkot obtained the government’s unanimous consent for a change in the rules of the game. Israeli attacks became near-daily events. In 2018 alone, the air force dropped a staggering 2,000 bombs. That May, Suleimani attempted to retaliate by launching “more than 30 rockets toward Israel” (at least 10 more than what has been previously reported). None reached its target. Israeli responded with a furious assault that hit 80 separate Iranian military and Assad regime targets in Syria.

Why did Suleimani — the subtle, determined architect of Iran’s largely successful efforts to entrench itself in Iraq, Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon — miscalculate? Eisenkot suggests a combination of overconfidence, based on Iran’s success in rescuing Assad’s regime from collapse, and underestimation of Israel’s determination to stop him, based on the West’s history of shrinking in the face of Tehran’s provocations.

“His error was choosing a playground where he is relatively weak,” he says. “We have complete intelligence superiority in this area. We enjoy complete aerial superiority. We have strong deterrence and we have the justification to act.”

“The force we faced over the last two years was a determined force,” he adds a little scornfully, “but not very impressive in its capabilities.”

Eisenkot seems to feel similarly about Hezbollah and its longtime leader, Hassan Nasrallah. The group had devised a three-pronged strategy to invade and conquer (even if briefly) at least a part of Israel’s northern Galilee: building factories in Lebanon that could produce precision-guided missiles, excavating attack tunnels under the Israeli border and setting up a second front on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

So far, the plan has failed. The factories were publicly exposed and the tunnels destroyed. Israel continues to attack Hezbollah positions on the Golan, most recently last month against an intelligence position in the village of Tel el Qudne (also previously unreported).

“I can say with confidence that as we speak Hezbollah does not possess accurate [missile] capabilities except for small and negligible ones,” he says. “They were hoping to have hundreds of missiles in the mid- and long-range.”

That means Hezbollah is unlikely to soon start another war with Israel. Suleimani has pulled his forces back from the border with Israel and withdrawn some altogether. The resumption of U.S. sanctions has also put a squeeze on Iran’s ability to finance its regional adventures. Israel also thought it had won a reprieve of sorts when John Bolton indicated the U.S. would not quickly withdraw from Syria, thereby obstructing Iran’s efforts to build a land bridge to Damascus, though that reversal seems to have been reversed yet again.

Iran may now turn elsewhere. “As we push them in Syria,” Eisenkot says, “they transfer their efforts to Iraq,” where the U.S. still has thousands of troops. Thanks to Gadi Eisenkot, at least we know the Iranians aren’t invincible.