Tunnels, Kugel and War: Israel’s Young Right-wing Minister and His Secret Army Contacts

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Economy Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at Haaretz's Israel Conference on Peace, July 8, 2014. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The bickering about the Gaza war’s mixed results isn’t over, it simply changes form.

The latest incarnation is the feud between Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. During the fighting, Bennett led the cabinet opposition against what he considered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ya’alon’s limp approach to Hamas.

This time it was all made public: Ya’alon accused Bennett of populism, negligence and collecting classified information — and thereby breaking military regulations. Bennett, for his part, says Ya’alon is trying to cover up the foul-ups caused by his indecision during the war.

The Israel Defense Forces’ former chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. (res.) Avichai Rontzki, has also become involved in the controversy. Though he’s a colorful character in his own right, he has been accused by defense officials of passing along classified information to Bennett during the fighting. Rontzki says he’s unaware of any allegations; no one has spoken to him about it.

This complex tale began in late June; the bodies of the three murdered teens were found during the escalation that led to the Gaza war. Bennett said he sensed the impending danger from Gaza, based on information from his sources. But he said the cabinet didn’t seriously discuss the threat posed by Gaza’s tunnels.

He collected information from his contacts — top IDF officers, both in the regular army and reserves. He learned that the army only had a general plan for dealing with the tunnels, even though Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet security service knew of 32 tunnels.

On the night the teens’ bodies were found, Bennett suggested to Netanyahu that a ground operation be launched against the tunnels. This would be a response to Hamas for the kidnapping and murder, and a way to remove the threat to communities near Gaza.

Netanyahu didn’t accept the suggestion. A week later, Operation Protective Edge began, though the cabinet took 10 days before approving a ground offensive.

It was approved on July 18, only after the attack on Kibbutz Sufa revealed the extent of the tunnel threat. Two or three days earlier, Netanyahu and Ya’alon were ready to accept an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire as a way to increase legitimacy for Israeli operations in the future. Hamas refused, so a ground operation became an option.

Bennett believes that declaring a cease-fire before knocking out the tunnels would have been a disaster. He says the public and media didn’t understand his demands for a ground offensive. He wasn’t talking about retaking Gaza, but about dealing with the tunnels, which is what happened after the Sufa attack.

The tension between Bennett and the Netanyahu-Ya’alon duo, and to a lesser extent IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, continued throughout the war. Bennett blasted what he perceived as a fear of taking risks. Ya’alon thought Bennett (and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman) were pulling in dangerous directions; he also thought Hamas interpreted Israeli media reports on disagreements in the cabinet as signs of weakness, bolstering Hamas’ determination to keep fighting.

But Ya’alon also was worried about the amount of information in Bennett's hands that wasn’t available to other top people except Netanyahu and Ya’alon. During meetings it was clear that Bennett knew tiny details from intelligence reports and operational plans, which he hadn’t received through approved channels.

Army buddies

Bennett thought he had no choice. He’s a veteran of the Second Lebanon War, where, in the reserves, he fought as a company commander in an elite unit. And he has learned the lessons of the Yom Kippur War, so he didn’t want to fall into a fixed “conception” — the term for the mind-set before the Yom Kippur War. He refused to accept the military’s evaluations as holy writ without having access to alternative views.

A number of times during the war he hinted that he was being fed by independent sources. It seems he relied on friends around his age — commanders of brigades and special-forces units. Many of them served with him when he was a young officer in the regular army 20 years ago.

If Bennett did receive such information through an unapproved process “it is improper and very serious,” said a source close to Ya’alon. Cabinet members must receive lots of varied information, but within reason, sources close to Ya’alon said.

They said cabinet members showed up in the south during the fighting and uploaded pictures of themselves with soldiers, but they never requested a proper tour of units. Ya’alon’s response reflects his strict approach in trying to draw a line between officers and politicians.

In other times, such as when cabinet members objected to the expansion of fighting during the first Lebanon war, the media actually praised those who collected information and challenged the mind-set.

“Let them examine everything,” Bennett said on Tuesday, reacting to criticism from Ya’alon. “Finally it will be clear who pushed for us to deal with the tunnels, and who avoided a ground operation and tried to hide information from the cabinet.”

Ya’alon didn’t seem angry with all the officers who may have passed information on to Bennett without permission. As far as is known, the IDF hasn’t held an inquiry to figure out how much information might have leaked out.

Defense sources said Tuesday that only one source for leaks was found: Rontzki. He was thus banned from Southern Command headquarters, but no disciplinary action was taken.

Rontzki said he didn’t leak information to Bennett, and he didn’t know of any steps to keep him from Southern Command headquarters. Bennett also denies the claims. “Why do I need Rontzki? To know what the status of the units’ kugel is?” referring to the east-European Jewish casserole.

Politically, Rontzki is close to Bennett; they even established a movement together before Bennett took over Habayit Hayehudi. After the last Knesset election, Rontzki was appointed head of the Jewish Identity Administration, which operates under the  Religious Services Ministry. After completing his term as chief rabbi, Rontzki was awarded a position in the reserves in the Gaza Division. Recently he was transferred back to the military rabbinate.

Rontzki was often seen in uniform among the units and headquarters preparing for  operations in Gaza. What exactly he did there — and on whose behalf — nobody knows. His presence even angered his successor, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz, who felt Rontzki’s activities came at the expense of the rabbinate’s work.

This wasn’t the first time Rontzki entered the political storm. In 2008 and 2009, Haaretz described his efforts to expand the military rabbinate’s authority onto the Education Corps’ turf. He viewed himself as the biblical priest accompanying the troops into battle.

Rontzki has received support from a number of religious Knesset members, but he has irked senior officers along the way — and drawn criticism from the left. Peretz has reduced the number of conflicts with politicians and officers outside the military rabbinate — even if the tension isn't completely gone. Now it turns out that Rontzki is still stirring controversy a long time after he left the regular army.

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