Israeli Generals' Newest Headache: Defense Chief's Boasts About Killing Iranians

Military and defense officials have been taken by surprise on a near-daily basis by Naftali Bennett's statements, which are not coordinated in advance and sometimes run counter to Israeli security policy

Yaniv Kubovich
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Defense Minister Naftali Bennett talks to his military secretary, Ofer Winter, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 13, 2019.
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett talks to his military secretary, Ofer Winter, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 13, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Yaniv Kubovich

A string of statements, announcements and press briefings not coordinated with the army have created tensions between Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and the army brass, as well as the defense establishment in general.

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In some cases, the army became aware of Bennett's remarks just before they were published; in others his announcements even caught them unprepared. Some feel Bennett’s proclamations may damage Israel’s security, and his statements about “changing the rules of the game” are perceived as contemptuous to the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet.

Top army and security officials met recently at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv to discuss Bennett’s public statements, which have included threats against Iranian leaders, advancing Jewish settlement construction in Hebron and statements about changing the rules of the game vis-à-vis Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. During the discussion, the question of how to handle Bennett’s declarations, some of which officials in the room deemed irresponsible, arose. Some present at the forum even hypothesized that Bennett is attempting to belittle the defense achievements of former officials such as the previous IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot.

Bennett has often waxed critical of Israel's Gaza policy, which he believes is insufficiently harsh. Defense officials requested to leave such statements in the past to avoid friction with the incoming minister, and hoped that in time, Bennett would stop making such rogue moves. Yet Bennett's statements and announcements, some of which are categorically opposed to defense establishment positions, manage to take them by surprise on a near-daily basis.

Bennett was named defense minister on November 12, the same day Operation Black Belt commenced in Gaza with the assassination of Islamic Jihad leader Baha Abu al-Ata. On the first day, hundreds of rockets were fired at Israel. That morning, Bennett had already managed to tell the press that “Ata is an Islamic Jihad architect of terrorism who operated against Israeli civilians. He has been eliminated. We did it and won’t hesitate to act in the future as well.”

That morning, he added: “We send a clear message to all our enemies, on all fronts: anybody planning to harm us by day will never rest assured he will survive the night. You are and will stay in our sights.” Four hours later and less than 24 hours into his new job, Bennett issued another statement. This time he declared that under his guidance, “Israeli security forces will hunt down every terrorist until our children are safe.”

Three hours after that, Bennett issued yet another press release, this time a video clip in which he appeared at the side of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Gaza Division command center behind them. “We are in the second day of the operation in Gaza,” Bennett said, adding, “The accomplishments are good” because the “Islamic Jihad’s architect of terrorism has been eliminated and there is deterrence.”

The very next day, Bennett summed up the operation. Following a briefing with IDF and defense ministry officials at army headquarters, the minister told the press that “About 20 terrorists were eliminated in the last 48 hours.” He also said that the “new rules of the game are clear” and added that unlike in the past, this time the military could “operate with complete freedom, with no restrictions.”

Following the campaign, at a toast in honor of his new position, Bennett told the IDF General Staff, “I trust you, the chief of staff, and you, the members of the high command and IDF commanders, completely. I think that the level of the IDF and of the General Staff is very high. My impression is that you listen,” adding that they approached the operation with questions rather than declarations alone.

Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi politely answered, “We are glad to welcome you to the General Staff's table. The members of the general command are professionals of the highest degree, with vast operational experience. I trust them completely, as I do all the commanders in the IDF.”

The day after that toast, rockets were shot from Syria towards Israel. Early that morning Bennett declared that pursuant to the attack he would consult with Kochavi and senior defense officials in Tel Aviv. That day, he fired Zeev Zuk-Ram as head of the National Emergency Management Authority, appointing deputy Defense Ministry chief Roni Morano in his stead.

Empty bluster

Tensions between Bennett and senior defense officials escalated on November 20, after a wave of strikes following Syrian rocket fire at Israel. “The rules have changed,” Bennett repeated. “Anybody firing on Israel by day won’t sleep at night. That's how it was last week, and this week too. our message to Iran’s leaders is simple: You aren’t immune anymore.”

Israel’s defense chiefs didn’t appreciate hearing that the rules had changed or that from now on Iranians and Syrian targets would be hit as well. But the turning point that stirred resentment among the defense establishment was the conversation that a senior defense official had with reporters. “We have become accustomed to Israel not responding to certain events in the north in which it was attacked,” he said, adding that in contrast to the past, “this time we attacked Iranian targets.”

The press quoted the same official on Iranian deaths in Syria, saying “We showed the Iranians that we have the strength to respond forcefully… We know they have casualties and apparently dead as well.”

Defense officials suspect this source was Bennett himself, and feel that he’s indulging in gratuitous bluster. “They know who died on their side every time we struck. There’s no need to boast about it,” a source familiar with the details told Haaretz.

Last month Bennett mentioned Iran again. As mass protests spread in the Islamic Republic, Bennett called on technology experts worldwide to act together to “reconnect Iran to social media.”

Back to form

As December began, tension arose again after Bennett told the press that he had “approved starting to plan another Jewish neighborhood in the wholesale market area of Hebron.” Defense officials say the matter came up the week before in a routine weekly discussion, and it was met with resistance on the grounds that it could incite the volatile area.

The next day Bennett announced he’d brought a new weapon into the fray: “new economic persecution of terrorists.” For the first time, he said, “Defense Minister Naftali Bennett is activating an economic restriction order for members of terror organizations in Israel and around the world. For the first time, the State of Israel is activating personal economic tools against terrorists around the world.” IDF officials claim that the Intelligence Directorate has elements that have been doing exactly that for years, in addition to various sanctions and sometimes with the help of international agencies.

It seems that the mounting tensions of the past two weeks have led Bennett to take the hint and significantly scale back his announcements to the press. That is, until Sunday, when he resumed threatening Iran and declared that “Syria will become your Vietnam.” As for Gaza, the minister says, they understand his new equation, according to which “Our enemies will understand they can’t shoot at Jews anymore.”

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