Analysis

Bennett Is Trying to Outflank Netanyahu and Ya’alon

The premier and defense minister attacked the education minister this week, but failed to address the content of his criticism.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaking at the INSS conference in Tel Aviv, January 20, 2016.
Chen Galili / INSS

The altercation between Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon that dominated the agenda midweek is a mix of disagreement in principle and political motives. It appears that Bennett is trying to reposition himself as a challenger of the security consensus, in part from within political considerations. He has his eye on the weakening of the government’s standing in light of the difficulty in finding solutions to the continuing wave of Palestinian terror, is outflanking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the right and thereby eroding the defense minister’s public image, which he presents as suffering from conceptual stagnation in face of the new challenges.

Netanyahu and Ya’alon, in their sharp responses to Bennett’s speech at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, tried to keep the discussion in that arena: emphasizing the low social-media reader comment-like nature of Bennett’s statements, reminding the audience of Bennett’s part in the shared responsibility as a member of the government and the cabinet and accusing him of disloyalty to those bodies of which he is a member.

Netanyahu claimed that Bennett steals all his best ideas from him at cabinet meetings, the latest Prime Minister’s Office-speak for “the first to have identified.” Ya’alon, in the closing speech of the conference, did not mention the education minister’s name but described him as childish and recalled the stormy arguments in the cabinet concerning the last war in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014.

What Ya’alon and Bennett didn’t do was confront the criticism itself. And indeed, Bennett does have something of a case. The charge that Israel is having difficulty finding a new answer to a completely changed regional reality and to new threats has already appeared here and in other places – and more than once.

The education minister couched his remarks in the language of high tech and warned against a conceptual collapse like what happened in giant concerns such as Nokia, Kodak and the Encyclopedia Britannica because of unforeseen technological developments that left them without relevant answers. It appears that Bennett is right about this in his diagnosis and his warning, even if in his speech he did not present an alternative solution.

A further point worth pausing over is the structural weakness of the cabinet, which is felt most strongly in the current government. On other occasions Bennett has described the cabinet as a kind of “Truman Show,” isolated from the outside world where every move is dictated from above. The prime minister and defense minister control the agenda and mostly dictate a conservative approach. The other ministers serve mainly as a rubber stamp for what is described as specific operational moves, between the wars, about which they actually know very little.

Issues of principle – for example, the Locker report on a reform of the defense budget and the Israel Defense Forces’ huge acquisitions deals – for the most part are not discussed in depth and there is no real attempt to examine long-standing axioms.

If now and then an original idea does come up, like the proposal to build an artificial island opposite the coast of the Gaza Strip, which Intelligence and Atomic Energy (and Transportation and Road Safety) Minister Yisrael Katz is trying to promote, it is shunted aside because of opposition from Netanyahu and Ya’alon.

The Israeli media have a tendency, which is perhaps understandable in light of the regional threats, not only to embrace the IDF but also to glorify its capabilities. This week Bennett did precisely what the press does too little of, and challenged the basic assumptions in the defense realm. Along the way, he also raked in political profit.

There is no doubt that the education minister knows exactly which of the defense minister’s buttons to press. This week, too, Ya’alon would have gladly confined him to base over the Sabbath, like an obstreperous officers’ training course cadet.

Bennett made sure to emphasize his positive opinion of Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and to aim his arrows at his colleagues in the government. This of course is a more comfortable position with respect to the public (Israeli public opinion greatly dislikes direct criticism of the army), but it is also interesting in the context of the recent harsh attacks Habayit Hayehudi MKs and rabbis of the chief of staff’s decision to remove the Jewish Identity Branch from the IDF Rabbinate.

Eisenkot, who also spoke at the INSS conference, raked in compliments in the media for a balanced and open presentation of the current military situation. It’s lucky that the law mandating a cooling-off period for retired generals before they can enter politics has already been passed; otherwise Eisenkot’s speech might have angered someone in Jerusalem. In the meantime, one can wager that the chief of staff will go back to maintaining a low profile and considerable time will pass before we hear another comprehensive speech from him.

Iran or ISIS

The discussions at the conference gave prominence to the repercussions of a new regional problem, the success of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), to some extent at the expense of an older threat, the one from Iran. Eisenkot spoke of “very impressive military accomplishments” on the part of ISIS in the fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Other speakers urged the United States to wake up and recommended that it lead a more aggressive coalition that will extirpate ISIS from its assets on the ground before it brings about the complete collapse of the remnants of the existing order in the Arab world. Even the phrase “World War III” was uttered in this context.

President Reuven Rivlin spoke in detail about the danger posed by ISIS in its influence on young Arabs in Israel, even if at the moment this is a matter of small numbers.

Eisenkot, who stressed the undermining of regional stability because of the Arab volatility, described the Vienna agreement to rein in the Iranian nuclear program as a combination of risks and opportunities.

Ya’alon put greater emphasis on the Iranian threat and even said that in a choice between the unfortunate alternatives of a victory for the Iranian alliance that supports the Assad regime in Syria and a victory for ISIS, he prefers the latter alternative (and still, amazingly, the argument in principle managed to be conducted without derogatory briefings behind the scenes and without anyone in the army considering a probe of the frequent-flier points accumulated by the defense minister’s wife or his bureau chief’s wife).

The truth is that Israel does not need to decide whether the Shi’ite-radical threat or the Sunni-jihadist threat is the more dangerous. From its perspective, the two axes are equally threatening and it must prepare, for now mainly on the defensive level, to deal with them both. This is a question directed more at the American administration, which apparently has already decided on its answer in the fact of its choosing to sign the Vienna agreement and to begin to relate to Iran as a partner in its moves in the region.

Israel, which has hardly any say in the strategic moves in the Middle East, will not have the privilege of ignoring either ISIS and Al-Qaida or Iran and Hezbollah.

On Wednesday, the Shin Bet security service reported that it had arrested a Palestinian cell in Tul Karm that was operated by Hezbollah and is said to have been recruited over the Internet by Jawad Nasrallah, son of the organization’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, no less.

Over a decade ago, when the Palestinian Authority and Fatah nearly crashed as a result of the reoccupation of the West Bank in Operation Defensive Shield, Israeli intelligence estimated that Hezbollah was responsible for more than 80 percent of the plans for terror attacks in the West Bank. This connection faded over the years, both because Hezbollah changed its focus to its efforts in the Syrian civil war and because of the PA’s improved security control in the West Bank.

It is interesting that Hezbollah is now once again recruiting Palestinian activists, despite the rift between Shi’ites and Sunnis and the explicit condemnation most of the Palestinian factions have voiced at the slaughter of Sunnis in Syria being carried out by the Assad regime, with Hezbollah’s help. Apparently the Palestinian arena is still conducting itself under rules of its own.

However, Hezbollah is a marginal player in what is happening now in the West Bank. The main potential for a move liable to change the nature of the conflict there from an intifada of individuals in stabbing and vehicular attacks into an armed uprising lies with Hamas.

In an unusual interview to the American magazine Defense News this week, Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj said that in recent months his people thwarted about 200 terror attacks on Israelis in the West Bank. Faraj aims mainly at actions against Hamas cells, a danger the PA has been worried about ever since Israel uncovered and arrested a network of a number of Hamas activists in the West Bank in the spring of 2014. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his people are concerned about two possible developments: major Hamas attacks against Israel, in combination with an effort to topple the PA regime in the West Bank.

Apparently the interview was intended to help establish Faraj’s status as a possible successor to Abbas (perhaps as part of a group), an issue that is gradually becoming less of a taboo in Ramallah. On Thursday, a cartoon in the Hamas organ already depicted Faraj as a jailer saluting Netanyahu while a Palestinian family watches the two of them in despair from behind bars.