Who Will Steer Israel's Security Ship When the Next Government Is Set?

The new government, cabinet and even defense minister should rely on the experience of existing and former heads of the security branches.

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IDF soldiers observing Gaza in August, 2014. The war was barely mentioned.Credit: Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is used to winning elections based on one campaign issue only: security. Specifically, the voters’ sense of their own safety.

Netanyahu won two elections – in 1996 (after a wave of Hamas bombings on buses) and in 2009 (after the Second Lebanon War and the quick, partial "fix" in the Gaza Strip following Operation Cast Lead) – primarily because citizens felt they could not trust his political rivals to handle national security policy properly. His third, hard-pressed victory of 2013 was the same, with voters looking on with concern at the tumultuous conflicts engulfing the Arab states bordering Israel.

The one time he lost, in 1999, the election campaigns revolved (much like the current ones) around questions related to the prime minister’s character. Voters’ personal feelings of revulsion led to Netanyahu being booted out of office. If Netanyahu loses on Tuesday, it’s not because the public doesn’t believe what he says about Iran, but mainly because of the stark dissonance between the rising costs of living, which have sparked complaints from the majority of Israelis, and recent revelations about his hedonistic lifestyle.

Netanyahu’s attempt to keep the conversation about security – in particular, his incessant recital of the list of threats: Iran-Hamas-Islamic State – has apparently not achieved the results he had hoped for. These remarks reached their height in the wake of the recent state comptroller report on the housing crisis, when Netanyahu stressed that he was fully focused on the Iranian nuclear program. His statements were perceived as passing the buck, a direct continuation of the inaction in many fields that characterized his latest term in office.

Former Israeli security chiefs have managed to identify Netanyahu’s weak point, and launched a comprehensive attack against him. Meir Dagan, Yuval Diskin and members of the Commanders for Israel's Security movement have accused Netanyahu of failing both vis-a-vis the Iranian nuclear project, and with respect to Hamas in Gaza. This attack itself wasn’t exactly devoid of demagoguery (and it’s doubtful, for example, that a left-wing government would have destroyed Hamas completely during last summer’s war), but it demonstrated that this time around, Netanyahu has a large, soft underbelly, and is vulnerable in a few areas.

Unfortunately, Dagan’s mention of the latest Israel Defense Forces operation in Gaza was one of the only times that subject came up during the campaign season. With 73 Israelis killed, massive Palestinian civilian casualties in Gaza, the IDF’s mediocre performance during the operation, and questions concerning the army's preparedness for a future fight against Hezbollah – none of these issues were discussed during the campaigns. Instead, we saw pictures of candidates from every party wearing leather jackets and spouting useless slogans, the Israeli flag flapping in the wind at their back.

Like the question of negotiations with the Palestinians, discussions on other security issues didn’t make much of a mark beyond mutual finger-pointing.

Zionist Camp’s lead in the polls during the last week have increased the number of possible coalition scenarios – completely shuffling the deck in terms of who might be the next defense minister. At first it seemed that current Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon would retain the post, or that Naftali Bennett would get the nod in the event of a narrow right-wing government. Now, all bets are off. Ya’alon’s chances have dropped as the list of possible contenders gets longer and longer.

In the event of a unity government, the job could fall to Netanyahu, Herzog or other candidates, including Tzipi Livni, Amos Yadlin, Yoav Galant, and the list goes on. Whoever forms the next government should remember one thing: The defense portfolio, like the finance portfolio, should not be handed out based on political deals determined by what seems to be the most urgent issue at the moment. Those who wish to prevent the appointment of an inexperienced minister, like Amir Peretz before the Second Lebanon War, should think twice before filling the post.

A new government, cabinet, and perhaps new defense minister are even more dependent on the experience of the heads of various security branches in the months just after the coalition is formed. In this scenario, the experience and responsibility of IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Gadi Eizenkot, Mossad chief Tamir Pardo and Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen are especially important. Until the new defense minister learns the ropes (if it’s not the more experienced Ya’alon), these three will have to steer the ship to a great extent.