Analysis

In Appointing Bennett as Defense Chief, Netanyahu Only Has One Thing on His Mind

Prime minister's choice was not guided by security considerations

FILE PHOTO: Netanyahu sits with Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Tuesday, August 30, 2016.
Abir Sultan,AP

For the past few days Naftali Bennett has been acting like a top soccer player just before the last opportunity to pass the ball. On the one hand, rumor had it last week that his and Ayelet Shaked’s sliver of a party were in preliminary talks to join a minority government headed by Kahol Lavan. On the other hand, Bennett made sure to leverage the rumor so as to raise his price in the negotiations that really interested him, to join Likud.

The pressure worked: Benjamin Netanyahu, persuaded that Bennett might go with Kahol Lavan Chairman MK Benny Gantz, gave him the defense portfolio. That’s the job the prime minister refused to give Bennett exactly one year ago, after Yisrael Beteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman stepped down, thereby accelerating the political crisis that has us stuck in seemingly endless elections.

Ideology played a minor role here, if any. Bennett wanted to survive and realized that his chances of making it through a third election, presumably in March, were slim. Moreover, he’s been dreaming of becoming defense minister for a long time. He had little respect for Moshe Ya’alon when he held the position, and had even less for Lieberman. If they could be defense minister, so could he. And if that meant switching parties for the fourth time in a year, so be it, even at the price of drawing closer to Netanyahu, after all the bad blood between them in recent years.

Netanyahu and Bennett made a cynical bargain, even for Israel’s extreme politics. The appointment is for the duration of the transitional government, by a prime minister whose mandate to form the next coalition was already taken away from him. What’s worse, Likud even said, in the statement it issued Friday, that Bennett had agreed that in the event a unity government or narrow right-wing coalition is formed, another person would be appointed defense minister.

This shows contempt for the office of defense minister, and at a time when Netanyahu is declaring from every possible stage that security threats have grown immeasurably, particularly from Iran. If indeed we are headed for trouble, why would Netanyahu appoint as defense minister a man with whom he has clashed regularly for a year, whose skills he publicly disparaged and to whom he adamantly refused the position in the past?

This looks like a rerun of Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister. Netanyahu also bad-mouthed Lieberman regularly before giving him the job in May 2016. It’s difficult, in fact impossible, to shake the impression that Netanyahu is only interested in aiding his own chances of survival, by reducing the already unlikely scenario of a minority government headed by Kahol Lavan. Netanyahu did not have a sudden epiphany in which he recognized Bennett’s understanding of security issues. He’s just trying keep Bennett out of Gantz’s embrace, with the goal of leading to a third election.

In any case, Bennett would be defense minister until June 2020, on the assumption that the next election is in March and it might be two or three months after that before a permanent government is installed. That is enough time for him to hang his picture alongside his predecessors in the hall outside the defense minister’s office.

What will he do in that time? That’s a different question. It should be said, to Bennett’s credit, that as a member of the security cabinet he occasionally expressed a healthy skepticism for the explanations and budget demands of the defense establishment. He sought additional information and intelligence ahead of critical meetings. In the case of the Hamas tunnels, during the 2014 war in Gaza, Bennett saw early on the lapses in the conduct of the mlitary leadership — Netanyahu, Ya’alon and Gantz — and pushed for more robust action to destroy the tunnels.

On the other hand, Bennett showed somewhat of a populist attitude in disputes over the rules of engagement in the Israel Defense Forces. This came out not only in connection to the Elor Azaria affair, in which the soldier shot and killed an already-incapacitated Palestinian assailant (and in which Lieberman, just before joining the government, took a more extreme line than Bennett), but also in his baseless comment only last year that Israeli soldiers were “more afraid of the IDF military advocate general than of Yahya Sinwar,” the leader of Hamas in Gaza.

The brass can expect a challenging time with Bennett, to put it mildly. This will be the first time that the defense minister is younger than the IDF chief of staff and all the generals. (Bennett is 47, Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, is 55.) Still, Bennett has slightly more military experience than a few of his predecessors, including Lieberman and Amir Peretz.

As a temporary minister, coming into office under unusual circumstances, Bennett will probably face a few leadership tests. Kochavi, with whom he will have to work closely, has relatively little experience working with politicians. Bennett and the transitional government can’t solve Kochavi’s most critical problem: the delayed defense budget, which keeps the army’s new multiyear plan in the deep freeze. But the new defense minister and the chief of staff will have abundant opportunities to discuss, perhaps to debate, a number of issues, from the attitude toward soldiers who have committed offenses in the territories to the response policy in the Gaza Strip.