Analysis

The Perfect Framework for Israel's Settler Party to Quit Netanyahu's Government

All Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett needs now is a Netanyahu indictment; the PM is trying to position himself as an irreplaceable super-statesman – investigations and Gaza war reports be damned.

Illustration: Galant and Ashkenazi swing ahead of Ya'alon and Gantz as Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu fly over.
Amos Biderman

This will be the last weekend that we are occupied with the state comptroller’s report about the Hamas tunnels in 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. Next week, it will disappear from our lives. Occasionally, it will pop up in the form of an interview or speech by one of the war’s heroes, or antiheroes, before fading back into oblivion. Yallah, let’s move on.

For most of the public, it’s already old news. Fussing over the tunnels and shafts is perceived as a “bubble” thing, a media obsession. The south has been calm for two-and-a-half years, people there are prospering, tourism is flourishing. Hamas is being restrained. Everyone knows about the underground passages that infiltrate Israel. All we can do is place our faith in the subterranean barrier that’s now being constructed.

That’s pretty much the bottom line. There will be tunnels, because there are tunnels. In the south and the north, too. Israel has to live with that threat just as it lives with the threat of tens of thousands of missiles, some of them accurately aimed, and with numerous other threats, on the ground, in the air and at sea.

During the Israel Defense Forces’ operation in the Gaza Strip in July-August 2014, and right afterward, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the target of most of the criticism from the right – and of praise from the left – for not listening to the warmongering of right-wing cabinet ministers, led by Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman. Then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon escaped criticism; he was Netanyahu’s shadow and seemed more like his military secretary. Now it’s Ya’alon who is under fire, together with the chief of staff at the time, Benny Gantz.

Today, too, even after the report was published, we should be grateful to Netanyahu and Ya’alon for not heeding the insane calls to enter the Strip and “crush Hamas.” It’s a pity that the state comptroller didn’t see fit to note that.

Seven months after the longest military campaign in IDF history – 51 days – Israelis went to the polls. Netanyahu emerged with a major achievement of 30 Knesset seats, almost on his own. Two-and-a-half years later, the report on the operation is not likely to generate a critical mass of opposition that will pull the carpet from under his feet. The great danger for him lies in the criminal investigations that have been launched against him. The premier would be happy to replace those investigations – including the one concerned with the purchase of submarines, which was officially launched this week, though he is not a direct target of it – with reports that review his performance in office.

No one expected that State Comptroller Joseph Shapira would heap praise on the three managers of the 2014 military operation. But his language was sharper than anticipated, and he undoubtedly bared his teeth. A malicious and baseless rumor attributed this fact to the political leanings of the son of Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Beinhorn, head of the state comptroller’s defense division. Beinhorn’s son is a member of Habayit Hayehudi, whose leader, Naftali Bennett, got a barely passing grade in the watchdog’s report for pushing, nagging and not relenting until Netanyahu and Ya’alon ordered the IDF to deal with the tunnels.

A decade or two ago, a report like this had the potential to end, or at least seriously harm, the political career and ambitions of its victims. Not anymore. We’ve grown tired, inured. The collective perception of the 2014 operation was fixed in place when it ended: It wasn’t seen as a defeat, but not as a victory, either. The left was pleased that we didn’t get bogged down in the Gaza quagmire. The right gritted its teeth because Hamas fired missiles until the very last minute. And then everyone went back to business as usual.

Netanyahu’s mission now is to remove the report from the public agenda. To that end, he is trying to create a political-international-global agenda that posits him as an irreplaceable super-statesman. His junkets to far-flung places and visits with the leaders of world powers are intended to persuade Israelis that he’s the be-all and end-all. In one swoop, during February and March, he will have met with Donald Trump in Washington, Vladimir Putin in Moscow and Xi Jinping in China, while dropping in at two friendly courts, Singapore and Australia, along the way.

To his credit, let it be said that there are no other world leaders who enjoy such a status. Certainly not leaders of countries with a population that’s the equivalent of a statistical error in the population registries of global giants like China, the United States and Russia. But it’s clear to Netanyahu that the police interrogators and personnel of the state prosecution who are working with them on Cases 1000, 2000 and maybe also 3000 will not drop the mountains of evidence that are piling up on their desks in order to applaud him admiringly. Anyway, they are not the target of his efforts; he’s aiming at public opinion and at the attorney general, who will have to make the final decisions in these cases. The deeper the investigations, the more he’ll be in the air.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull share a laugh during the signing of agreements between the two countries in Sydney, Feb. 23, 2017.
Dean Lewins, AP

No success like failure

“They call this a failure?” Moshe Ya’alon asked. The former defense minister – perhaps the official most scathed by the state comptroller’s report – then added, “What we wanted, we achieved. A long period of quiet, Hamas deterred, its abilities damaged, and the problem of the tunnels has no solution even today. I look at myself in the mirror,” he continued, “and I have no regrets. We did not lose. Two-and-a-half years of quiet – that says it all.”

Ya’alon admitted to me that the report’s conclusions were damaging to him. How damaging, he cannot say. “I will cope,” he said, and promised that as far as he’s concerned, the last word has not yet been spoken. He has no intention of ignoring Shapira’s “political and populist” document. He will fight for his good name, for his reputation as a judicious, responsible figure in the security realm.

It’s not certain that keeping the issue on the agenda will serve Ya’alon politically, however. Some issues are best swept under the carpet. But then he has never been suspected of acting on the basis of pure political logic. Almost everything he’s done since he resigned from his post last May has subverted his political raison d’etre.

After the report was made public, Ya’alon released a three-minute video response. Behind him hung three portraits: on the left, Ze’ev Jabotinsky; to the right, Menachem Begin; and behind him, half hidden, David Ben-Gurion. The setting was the message. These are the constituencies Ya’alon is appealing to: a security-minded, liberal, moral and sane right wing, and the descendants of the historic Mapai, the forerunner of today’s Labor.

For a long time, Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid has been trying to recruit Ya’alon to his party, to be No. 2 on the slate and candidate for defense minister in a Lapid government. If not him, then former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Whoever says “yes” first will win the prize. To date, Ya’alon has rejected all of Lapid’s tempting offers. Privately, he speaks of him with disdain, calling him “packaging without a product,” “hollow” and the like. Ya’alon has also twice publicly rejected Lapid’s offer, out of hand. A zig-zag would show him to be an opportunist.

That was before the watchdog’s report. It’s not certain that Lapid’s offer still stands. In the bourse of the generals, the shares of Ya’alon & Gantz fell this week, even if they didn’t necessarily crash. Ashkenazi’s political-market value rose, as did that of Housing Minister Yoav Galant (Kulanu), a former head of IDF Southern Command and the nemesis of the three former chiefs of staff. Galant let loose with blistering criticism against the performance of Ya’alon and Gantz in the 2014 war, while letting the prime minister off the hook. Galant, the man who was almost chief of staff, upgraded his standing and scaled down the distance he’ll have to cover to make it onto Likud’s security slate in the next elections.

Ya’alon sounded angry, insulted and frustrated this week. He believes Shapira was guided by populist motivations in his decision to address the tunnels issue; having done so, the comptroller was doomed to finding himself in thrall of the version of events he heard from Naftali Bennett.

Ya’alon: “When I heard that he’d decided to examine [the tunnels issue], I knew that people who tried to harm the prime minister and me during the operation would do the same with the state comptroller. I went to him, sat across from him and told him, ‘I have been young, and now am old. If there [was indeed] a failure here, a serious state commission of inquiry, with experts, needs to examine what happened.’ I knew where it was leading, and what I feared came to pass. He fell into Bennett’s trap.”

According to Ya’alon, when he testified, Brig. Gen. (res.) Beinhorn and two attorneys from the comptroller’s office asked him “banal” questions. The major, substantive issues – the leaks from the security cabinet, the fear of getting stuck in the Gaza mire, the political considerations, the broad view, the nature of the decisions made by him and Netanyahu during the operation – were of no interest to them. Only the bombing of the shafts and so forth. Ya’alon heard the voice of Bennett coming out of the throats of his interviewers.

Then Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon touring a Gaza tunnel in 2013.
Alon Basson, Ministry of Defense

“I never once heard Bennett talk about political considerations relating to the overall, regional, world picture,” the former defense minister said. “From Arye Dery [in the current security cabinet, but not in the previous one], yes. People used to talk about the ‘strategic corporal’? Naftali Bennett is, maybe, the strategic company commander.”

The state comptroller did a sloppy job, Ya’alon asserted. “He has no idea how a military campaign is managed. There’s a reason why war is called an ‘art.’”

I reminded him that Joseph Shapira had been a district judge and, as such, is skilled when it comes to listening to different accounts and separating the wheat from the chaff, truth from falsehood. “What is there to judge here?” Ya’alon retorted. “There are some comments [in the report] that are correct, and there are things that are politically biased. Yair Lapid, who was then a member of the security cabinet and praised us for our leadership, is attacking Bibi, not me. Yoav Galant, who wasn’t in the security cabinet then, is attacking me, not Bibi. What’s not clear here?”

I asked him what he thought about the comptroller’s remark that Netanyahu and he hadn’t done enough to examine a political alternative that would have prevented a war. That idea is surely something Shapira certainly didn’t get from Bennett. “He heard that from Tzipi Livni,” Ya’alon replied scornfully. “There is no political option, there wasn’t one then, so there was nothing to discuss.”

You are assailing Bennett and his colleagues, I told him, but you want to be prime minister. With whom are you going to form a government, who will be in your security cabinet? The same people you claim leaked information, spoke in two voices and damaged the holy of holies.

“There’s a question of leadership here,” Ya’alon explained. “Would it have happened under [Ariel] Sharon? Under [Yitzhak] Rabin? They would have immediately fired anyone who behaved like that,” he said, referring to Bennett’s penchant for leaks.

Interesting that he mentioned Sharon favorably. It was Sharon who ended Ya’alon’s tenure as chief of staff and replaced him with a family friend, Dan Halutz, so he would oversee the withdrawal from Gaza. In his autobiography, Ya’alon wrote that the “disengagement,” and indirectly his dismissal, were born out of the sin of the investigations that were then under way against Prime Minister Sharon, at the time. Back then he didn’t speak of Sharon in leadership terms, but in terms of corruption and nastiness.

I asked Ya’alon whether he intends to run at the head of a party or join an existing one – Lapid’s, presumably. “I am deploying for the most challenging option, of forming a party and leading it,” he said. “I am creating a structure, dashing from one parlor meeting to another, more than seven days a week. As for the future, time will tell.”

Simmering on the right

Naftali Bennett did not do “I told you so” cartwheels of joy in the wake of the good-conduct citation he received from the state comptroller. He let the media do the work. In poker terms, the report completed something like a royal flush for him, the strongest and rarest sequence: the land-expropriation legislation enacted by the Knesset, the non-mention of the two-state idea in the Netanyahu-Trump meeting, the appointment of new justices to the Supreme Court by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked from his party (they both this week vehemently denied rumors of growing tension between them), and now the report. In the polls he’s improving his positioning as an alternative candidate to lead the right wing in a post-Netanyahu era, and his party is also gaining strength among the public.

Seemingly, the ideal infrastructure for leaving the coalition has been created. What Bennett needs now is a decision to indict Netanyahu and the latter’s resignation. That will thrust Likud into a huge tailspin and electoral distress, as a result of which Habayit Hayehudi could gain in an election.

If you think about it, Bennett’s party has nothing more to gain in the government. Shaked appointed three conservative judges to the Supreme Court, but the constitutional reforms that undermine the status of that court, which she’s outlining in her speeches, will not see the light (or dark) of day as along as Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party are part of the coalition. She also appointed an attorney general whose skullcap generated hopes within her constituency. Those hopes were dashed in light of his position on the deplorable “regularization law,” which retroactively legalizes Jewish settlements on privately owned Palestinian land, to which one more stigma was attached this week. That occurred following reports in Haaretz and on Channel 2 News about the personal, prima-facie criminal interest that one of the law’s major sponsors, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi), has in its enactment.

Bennett continues to do what he’s done in the Education Ministry during the government’s 21 months in power. He didn’t come with a cohesive agenda to begin with. Another year there won’t earn him significant points. If a war erupts in the south this summer, as Housing Minister Galant is warning – he believes Hamas will want to exploit the advantage of the tunnels before the subterranean barrier blocks their effectiveness – it’s Lieberman who will run the show.

An operation by Israeli forces to evict residents from several homes in the Israeli settlement of Ofra, February 28, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Grumbling is beginning to be heard from the settler and national-religious grassroots over what’s shaping up as a continued construction freeze in the territories, and questions are being asked within Habayit Hayehudi about the necessity of staying in the government. Influential rabbis who hitherto were in favor of the party staying in the coalition are sounding less determined in internal conversations. Tweets in this spirit were sent out this week by two of the party’s Hayehudi MKs, Smotrich and Shuli Moalem-Refaeli. The latter usually coordinates with the party leader.

The sky-high expectations the settlers entertained from Trump are gradually dissipating. They see no change on the ground. They hoped for La La Land but got Nah Nah Land. Netanyahu is telling them no agreement has as yet been struck with the new administration about new construction in the settlements, and that none is likely to be reached.

At bottom, they feel that they are simply experiencing more of Barack Obama, only with rhetoric that’s more pleasing to the ear. The thousands of new housing units that were approved by Netanyahu and Lieberman a few weeks ago are just a ploy. Almost all of them are planned for the consensual settlement blocs and the others are pawns in formal, bureaucratic games of advancing from stage 2A to stage 2B and the like. In short, shuffling papers.

If we add to all this the evacuation and demolition of the illegal settler outpost of Amona and the same fate that befell nine illegally built homes in Ofra, the bastion of the settlers aristocracy – it’s no wonder things are starting to simmer. A new settlement for the Amona evacuees isn’t yet visible on the horizon, and there are complaints about that, too. Smotrich this week urged his party’s MKs, on their group WhatsApp account, to boycott the coalition on votes starting next Monday, until the government authorizes construction in all the settlements.

The ideological argument in favor of leaving the coalition is being mooted by the settlers’ website Arutz Sheva (aka Israel National News) and in the religious-Zionist weekly Besheva. They say that if Habayit Hayehudi is now part of a government that is de facto freezing construction in the settlements and effectively validating that edict, it is losing its moral right to demand construction from another, future government. Sometimes external pressure is more effective, a senior party figure says.

Bennett hears the voices and sees the sights and feels the tremors. In the meantime, he’s dragging his feet. He’s doing a Bibi on them, something he learned from the premier. But he can’t fudge forever, and as for a balm for their pain, he has none to offer.