Challenges in Gaza, Lebanon Await Bennett, but Also a Chance to Repair Netanyahu's Failures

Israel's new leadership faces an immediate challenge in the form of right-wing Jerusalem march, but other security and political issues may be much more daunting and depend heavily on ties with the White House

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinians gather during a Hamas rally in Gaza City last week.
Palestinians gather during a Hamas rally in Gaza City last week.Credit: Felipe Dana / AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

During its first days, the Bennett-Lapid government will have to deal with two security and political minefields inherited from the previous administration: The Flag March, which is scheduled to take place Tuesday in a limited framework in Jerusalem’s Old City, and the unauthorized outpost of Evyatar south of Nablus, which the army will apparently be ordered to evacuate.

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But for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, more significant strategic challenges are expected going forward. These challenges concern all the main arenas in which Israel is engaged: Iran, Syria and Lebanon, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And in all these arenas, the power that Israel will demonstrate and the room to maneuver it will have will largely depend on its relations with the U.S. administration.

During his 12 consecutive years in office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu achieved great success from his perspective on the Palestinian channel, along with serious failures on the Iranian issue, which he refuses to admit.

Netanyahu took full advantage of the developments around him – the Arab Spring followed by the rise of the Trump administration in the United States – to completely put an end to the diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. He was dragged into military operations in Gaza against his will, and in only one case – Operation Protective Edge in 2014 – did the operation approach a full-scale war. In the West Bank, despite his tense relationship with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the PA continued to act as a defense subcontractor for Israel and has helped it foil Hamas attacks. Netanyahu’s known caution with regard to military moves, along with the effective functioning of the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service, made his tenure much quieter than the decade before it, which was marked by the second intifada and the Second Lebanon War.

Netanyahu also took advantage of the international community’s declining interest in what was happening in the territories. On his watch the number of settlers in the West Bank increased by another 200,000 (though most of this was a result of natural increase, mainly in ultra-Orthodox cities). No new settlements were added, but almost no outposts were evacuated either, and some older outposts were legalized.

Throughout the period, the influence of settler leaders increased in the Likud Central Committee and in the corridors of the government. This has translated into a steady stream of funding and influence on decision-making. It is unlikely that this will change under the new government, either: Naftali Bennett grew in the political flowerbed of Gush Emunim, while Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar are identified with strengthening the settlements. The left-wing ministers in the unity government have no real chance of thwarting anything that will be secretly agreed on by the settlers, the right-wing ministers and the army.

Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett at the Knesset on Monday.Credit: Emil Salman

Netanyahu, however, failed to fulfill his ambitions regarding the Iranian nuclear issue. Despite the self-praise in his speech in the Knesset Sunday (and the farewell interview of outgoing Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen, on the “Uvda” program on Channel 12), it’s hard to argue with the facts: Iran is much closer to a bomb today than it was in 2009, when Netanyahu returned to power. Former U.S. President Donald Trump did respond to Netanyahu’s pressure and withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, but the economic sanctions renewed by the Americans and the covert actions attributed to Israel did not stop the progress of the nuclear program. On the contrary, there is reason to believe that they spurred the Iranians to violate the agreement.

The Mossad’s brilliant theft of the nuclear archives from Tehran may have made a great impression on Trump, but it did not affect the course of the project. This can be seen as a classic example of Netanyahu’s weaknesses: belligerent rhetoric that isn’t supported by actual results.

Bennett’s weakness

Bennett’s primary weakness is his relatively limited experience. A few years of cabinet membership and another six months at the Defense Ministry, much of which was marred by stupid quarrels initiated by Netanyahu, are not enough to fully prepare a person for the weighty responsibility involved in leading a complex state like Israel.

Netanyahu was criticized for his venomous speech in the Knesset, in which he claimed that our enemies were pleased with the new government. But it is difficult to rule out a scenario whereby one of the neighbors – most likely the Palestinian factions in Gaza – will seek to test the new government soon. The fact that it is made up of parties that are sharply diverse ideologically, and for the first time includes an Arab party, further complicates the situation.

Another question mark is the relationship with the United States. The Trump administration was terrible to American citizens, as evidenced by its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But Trump made a real contribution to the image of Israeli power in the region. Iran and Hezbollah were careful to avoid direct friction with Israel, not least because they did not know what kind of open check Trump had signed for Netanyahu to use against them.

The relationship between Joe Biden and Netanyahu, as the latter indirectly admitted in his Knesset speech Sunday, was much cooler. Biden was quick to embrace Bennett, calling him immediately after the government was sworn in. Contrary to opposition claims, it’s hard to imagine the experienced president pressuring the young prime minister to advance the two-state vision. Nevertheless, the relationship will be nothing like Trump’s absolute support for Netanyahu.

The most pressing issue on the new government’s diplomatic agenda is the Gaza Strip. The cease-fire reached through the Egyptian mediators merely called for quiet in exchange for quiet; so far, no content has been added to the understandings. The previous government kept some of the restrictions at the Gaza border crossings in place, in an effort to expedite a solution to the problem of the Israeli prisoners and MIAs. Without a broader arrangement, Gaza will soon ignite.

The Evyatar outpost last week.Credit: Moti Milrod

Bennett has already stated that he will maintain Netanyahu’s policy regarding Iran. In practice, Washington is moving toward signing a renewed nuclear deal and Bennett is less invested in the fight against it than his predecessor. The reasonable assessment is that Israel will protest the agreement, but will otherwise restrain itself (and it is very possible that this is what Netanyahu would have done as well). The critical security challenge that may fall on Bennett, Lapid and Gantz, perhaps as early as next year, concerns Hezbollah’s precision weapons project. Once the organization has the industrial capability to manufacture precision weapons on Lebanese soil, Israel will face a burning dilemma: Should it destroy these capabilities and risk war?

In the midst of an economic crisis, the government will have to deal with growing budgetary demands from the military, both to fill the armaments depots after the last round of fighting in Gaza and to realize Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi’s ambitious multiyear plan. Bennett will soon have to make two senior appointments: first, a new national security adviser and then, towards September, a new Shin Bet chief.

But the new government heralds an opportunity to repair the prime minister’s relations with top security officials. The fact that Netanyahu managed to quarrel with almost all the security agency heads who served under him, most of whom came out against him publicly after retiring, indicates the depth of the rift. Bennett begins from a completely different starting point, one that is far more positive.