Saturday’s decision to issue restraining orders against radical left-wing activists is probably the responsibility of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s the one who appointed Naftali Bennett – no doubt a talented man – to the role of defense minister in a caretaker government between Israel’s second and third elections within a year.
Netanyahu is also the one who last week threatened to boot Bennett from the Defense Ministry if he didn’t respond to his pressure to join forces with parties right of Likud ahead of the March 2 election. When the prime minister is treating a ministry in charge of human lives as a political tool, you can’t blame his minister for acting in a similar way.
Since he became defense minister in November, Bennett, who knows he’s on borrowed time, has been acting like a man possessed. Every few days his office releases a statement highlighting his efforts. It’s not just threats to retaliate against the Palestinians in Gaza (threats that don’t seem to have impressed Islamic Jihad) or a plan to get Iranian forces out of Syria. He’s striving to please potential voters as the head of the Hayamin Hehadash party – and chief among them are the Jewish settlers.
Quick pace, short meetings
Here’s a partial list of the steps declared by the defense minister in recent months: delaying the return of terrorists' bodies to their families; arresting civilians entering illegally from Gaza as “illegal fighters”; declaring that he will establish nature reserves in the West Bank where the presence of Palestinians will be limited; using the army in his campaign to take over Area C in the West Bank; and appointing an adviser whose main job is to organize this effort.
The General Staff is struggling to keep up with a defense minister who seems to be on uppers. Many of the decisions are based on short meetings without planning the groundwork. It should be noted, however, that Bennett also surprises sometimes by signaling he can go a different way. He has expressed support for easing financial restrictions on the Strip; last week he allowed the evacuation of buildings in an outpost of radical settlers near Yitzhar in the West Bank.
But he broke all records, at least for now, Saturday night in his office’s detailed statement. Bennett has instructed the army’s Central Command, the Shin Bet security service and the police to issue restraining orders against left-wing activists, banning them from the West Bank.
Bennett is specifically targeting arrested left-wing activist and Haaretz employee Jonathan Pollak, saying his move is designed to balance steps being taken against right-wingers who have damaged Palestinian property (the so-called price tag attacks). He has instructed the security forces to act rigorously to disperse left-wing protests in the West Bank. Bennett concluded with the statement that “the party is over.”
The minister’s political games
But in his office, the party is just starting. How much is Bennett breaching common rules? First, the defense establishment had never issued a warrant on political grounds like the ones Bennett is presenting now – balancing enforcement between the radical right and the radical left. Second, he’s ordering a personal warrant against Pollak, even though he has failed to convince the Shin Bet to determine that there’s evidence proving that the journalist is dangerous.
The Shin Bet’s division handling Jewish suspects hasn’t played the minister’s political games; it said that it doesn’t have such evidence and that the police are welcome to re-arrest Pollak if he protests violently.
Third, and this may be the most important part for military chief Aviv Kochavi, Bennett is acting as if he were the direct superior of the Central Command chief (and thus the representative of the state on the ground), Nadav Padan. In practice, the minister must coordinate this move with the chief of staff, Kochavi, and inform him of his intentions.
Fourth, the order to be tough on the anarchists is also a breach of procedure and could be dangerous. The handling of protests should depend on how they develop in the field. But what will Bennett do when a Border Police officer interprets this directive as a green light to fire rubber-tipped bullets at Israeli protesters and takes someone’s eye out?
The statement makes you doubt whether the defense minister thought through the political, legal and operational repercussions of his decisions. Netanyahu’s eternal caretaker government continues to toe dangerously close to the edge when it comes to the Palestinian territories. It risks increasing tensions with the International Criminal Court in The Hague by highlighting actions in Area C and by exploring a proposal to annex the Jordan Valley.
This last statement isn’t some election campaign trick. On the other end of these sentences is an army that must preserve its standing and continue to act according to the rules. Bennett is making blatant political use of the army while completely ignoring the chain of command and publicly overstepping the chief of staff.
Kochavi has been very cautious so far, maybe too cautious, in his relations with the politicians above him. Saturday night’s events are a sign that it’s time to tell the defense minister: Enough is enough.
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