Four days separated Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s “girl with scissors” remarks and the feeble backing he received from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a photo-op at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. When he wants to, our prime minister is the first to respond to things via tweets and Facebook posts and, as we’ve noted, he’s fast to grab credit for work done by other ministers. But this time he chose to keep silent while Eisenkot absorbed verbal artillery blasts, primarily from deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely and ministers Yisrael Katz and Gilad Erdan – all Likudniks.
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There’s no doubt that Netanyahu enjoys seeing Eisenkot being raked over the coals. In the past year, the chief of staff has become a media darling. He projects integrity, judiciousness, rationality, courage and a rare directness. The remarks he makes in public usually run counter to the winds blowing from the Prime Minister’s Bureau. Eisenkot had no compunctions about saying that the nuclear agreement with Iran has its positive aspects – for which Netanyahu, if he could, would have demoted him to private second class.
Eisenkot’s self-evident and so very necessary statement (“I wouldn’t want to see a soldier empty his magazine on a 13-year-old girl who’s holding scissors”), which clarified the rules of engagement, drew the ire of parts of the right wing. Netanyahu, who made a strategic decision after the last election to try to win the hearts and minds of the hard right, did not initially back Eisenkot for fear of losing maybe a tenth of a percent of support in a settler lookout consisting of two mobile homes on a windswept West Bank hilltop. But when the premier’s right-wing compass, Naftali Bennett, gave Eisenkot his full backing – he felt sufficiently confident to declare that the attacks on the chief of staff represented “political goading and misunderstanding.”
This is hardly the first time that Bennett has marked out the path for Netanyahu. That also happened after the Jewish terrorist attack in Duma last July, after the deputy interior minister, Yaron Mazuz (Likud), made racist remarks about Arab MKs, and after the mayor of Ashkelon declared that he would not allow Arabs to work in his city. In all these cases, Netanyahu, who makes a point of not looking less right-wing than Bennett, opened his mouth only after the latter spoke out. “Netanyahu speaks Bennettese,” people in Bennett’s party say. “He’s trying to crush us and drag us down to three or four Knesset seats.”
The prime minister’s behavior with regard to Eisenkot reflects a broader and more significant phenomenon. Under Eisenkot, the IDF has assumed the role of the sane, moderate policy voice at a time when the frenetic right-wing government is wreaking devastation in every corner. The army, which is generally perceived as gung-ho, has assumed the lead in urging relief for the grim distress of residents in the Gaza Strip, for fear that one day soon all that suffering will blow up in Israel’s face – and in the army’s, too.
The IDF is suggesting that the building of a port in Gaza and the advancement of a diplomatic process might calm the situation among the Palestinians. The political and diplomatic establishment, however, is scoffing. The army is becoming a nuisance, a piece of shrapnel in the posterior. If this were election eve and Eisenkot were about to conclude his term, he would be getting the “appropriate treatment” from Likud’s top people, at the instructions of the boss. As long as he’s two elections away from political life, they will get on his case from time to time, but only to warn and needle him – not to go in for the kill.
Best friends forever
In the period of the previous government, the Haredim (the ultra-Orthodox), who were in the opposition, lambasted the two members of the now-forgotten alliance of ‘bros: Finance Minister Lapid and Economy Minister Bennett. The latter, who is Orthodox, was savagely excoriated in the Haredi press, particularly the Ashkenazi media outlets.
In the nine months of the current government’s tenure, however, not a trace remains of the bad blood between the Haredim and the national-religious public. Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) doesn’t recognize Lapid’s existence and treats him as just so much fetid air, but his relations with Bennett are thriving. Bennett’s ministry is supportive of the Haredim and doesn’t bother them with such trivialities as core-curriculum subjects.
On Tuesday the two conducted a joint tour in Arad, whose mayor, Nissan Ben Hemo, is identified with Yesh Atid. The city has a strong community of Gerer (Gur) Hasidim, whose representative is Litzman. They claim that Ben Hemo is leaving them high and dry budget-wise, in an effort to make them leave the city or at least to decrease its power to draw others from the Gerer community.
Litzman wanted to signal to the mayor that times have changed. He brought the education minister along and the two spent hours visiting secular, national-religious and Gerer schools. The message was clear: There are new bosses in town. At every opportunity they complimented each other. “A superb education minister,” Litzman said of Bennett, who reciprocated with, “You are one of the best health ministers Israel has had.”
Obviously, there was more to the joint visit than meets the eye. Arad was only an excuse. Bennett has set himself a goal in this government: to warm up relations with the ultra-Orthodox parties as much as possible. He’s looking to a future day, one in which he will succeed Netanyahu as leader of the right-wing camp. And, like Lapid, he understands that there can be no government without the Haredim.
That scenario is so far nonexistent in the political cards or in the polls, but it’s definitely lodged in Bennett’s mind. As we know, he is into exits. He makes plans, puts together teams and spurs competition. And not only should Mayor Ben Hemo heed the lesson taught by Bennett & Litzman – Prime Minister Netanyahu should as well. Things are happening right under his nose.