Analysis

By Sending Top Security Official on Political Mission, Netanyahu Blurs Line Between Right and Wrong

Meir Ben-Shabbat denied his visit to a religious-Zionist leader had political content, but added he was pleased that putting off elections had 'prevented enemies from celebrating'

Head of National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat at Israel's Prime Minister of office, in Jerusalem, April 2018
Olivier Fitoussi

After the dust settles following the latest political upheavals – Avigdor Lieberman's resignation as defense minister, Habayit Hayehudi's threats to quit the coalition, and finally, the coalition's survival for the time being – what will be remembered is one side story that reflects another stage in the erosion of proper governance norms in Israel.

On Monday, Amit Segal reported on the Israel Television News Company about the late-night visit by the head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat, to Rabbi Chaim Druckman, among the leaders of the religious Zionism movement.

Netanyahu with Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, October 2018
Government Press Office

Thus the name of Ben-Shabbat, a dedicated, veteran public servant, also became dragged into the perpetual machinations surrounding the prime minister's office, its servants and its sycophants.

Their meeting cannot be dissociated from timing and context. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needed rabbis to prevail upon Naftali Bennett to forgo his plan to quit the coalition. Ben-Shabbat was sent to Druckman, his father-in-law and the most senior of the community's rabbis, to explain the security-related dangers that necessitate the coalition's endurance. The next morning, Bennett and Ayelet Shaked folded.

The National Security Council chief did deny in an emotional letter to his workers that the visit had political content, but he also wrote that he was pleased that putting off elections had prevented "our enemies from celebrating". The government and the state (actually, the prime minister and the state) – are one.

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For Netanyahu, as demonstrated at the press conference he held at the Kirya defense establishment headquarters in Tel Aviv this Sunday, security is political. His frame of mind affects the people around him too, and they accordingly blur the rules of what may and may not be done in their hush-hush missions.

That isn't all. It seems that against the weakness of his rivals in politics and in view of the genuine security-related difficulties that Israel faces, Netanyahu and his fans are increasingly convinced that only he's up to the job. If in his first days as prime minister, Netanyahu tended to accept the recommendations of the outgoing security chiefs about their successors, those days are long gone. Now Netanyahu is the one who calls the shots and displaying loyalty to him is of the utmost importance. 

This week the committee that vets senior appointments approved, without blinking, General Aviv Kochavi as the next chief of staff. Before quitting the Defense Ministry late last week, Avigdor Lieberman managed to push that through; but Netanyahu, as acting defense minister (though he could yet fall in love with the job and keep it after the next elections, depending on how great his victory is), will be choosing Kochavi's deputy.

FILE PHOTO: Former Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman visits an army drill in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near the border with Syria, August 7, 2018.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Lieberman's departure did leave Netanyahu with minimal room to maneuver – a coalition of 61 Knesset members, but it also relieved him of the wedge that the defense minister constituted between the prime minister and the chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot. At least until something goes wrong in Gaza and the army gets blamed again, the coordination between Netanyahu and Eisenkot is comprehensive and complete.

The Winter cult 

Meanwhile, a short and rather odd media campaign has been waged in the last few days in favor of Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter, the defense minister's military secretary. Winter seems to be the first officer since 1973 around who such a devoted cult of followers and fans has formed.

These have been straining to frustrate a plot by Eisenkot that they claim to have noticed, to temporarily abolish the role of military secretary to the defense minister, which would leave Winter's career heading stuck in a dead end.

In response, the IDF announced that Winter would be staying on the job. In practice, it is a little strange that Netanyahu needs two military secretaries; after all, when he held both jobs, Ehud Barak – whose supporters think didn't reach Netanyahu's ankles when he was prime minister – only needed one, a man named Gadi Eisenkot.
Well, logic isn't the strongest point in the eternal battle for Winter.

Paranoia and imaginary feelings of ethnic deprivation matter far more. This week's campaign somehow omitted the fact that Netanyahu could have appointed Winter, rather than Brig. Gen. Avi Bluth, as the prime minister's military secretary, when he interviewed him for the position a year ago, but he decided not to, for his own reasons. It happens.