Benjamin Netanyahu chose to mark his entry into the defense minister’s office in Tel Aviv on Sunday with a pale imitation of Winston Churchill’s “blood, sweat and tears” speech. He promised Israelis a difficult time on the security front, one that would require “sacrifice”; hinted that Israeli soldiers would need to fight; he announced that he has a plan and reassured us that he knows what to do.
It’s as if he sought to apologize: You didn’t like what happened in the Gaza Strip last week? Wait, we haven’t finished the job. Many parents of soldiers undoubtedly headed straight to their medicine cabinets after this speech.
The new defense minister began his remarks by recapping his career as a security expert, from his days as a fighter in the army’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit to making national security decisions at the highest level – responsibly, judiciously, wisely and with the fear of heaven – during his 13 years as prime minister.
The implicit message was: What an abyss yawns between me and the man who occupied this office until three days ago. What an enormous gap there is between me and the person who is now demanding that I give him the job due to personal ambition and political considerations.
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In Sayeret Matkal, the commando unit in which he served, he undoubtedly learned how to lay traps for fools. That’s what he tried to do Sunday night to two of his partners in the governing coalition – Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), who is interested in snap elections, and especially Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi).
After this speech, no one should envy Bennett and his party colleague, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. They undoubtedly had an uneasy night contemplating the resignations they plan to submit to the Knesset Monday morning.
Shaked, to put it mildly, seems less eager than Bennett to quit the government immediately because of the prime minister’s refusal to appoint her party’s leader as defense minister. Netanyahu laid a beautiful trap for them Sunday night. He wove a web of arguments around them meant to undermine in advance all their justifications for resigning and forcing early elections. Let’s see how they get out of it.
Resigning may well prove to be a colossal political mistake. Rightists, upon whom Bibi’s speeches work like magic, won’t accept it. But on the other hand, returning to their harness with their tail between their legs would show that the threat was a rash, childish act to begin with.
The feeling in the prime minister’s bureau is that Kahlon is softening. He’s no longer up on the barricades. If he doesn’t order his party to vote in favor of dissolving the Knesset on Wednesday, Bennett and Shaked will face an even greater dilemma, but their decision apparently won’t change. Habayit Hayehudi, or at least part of it, is on its way out, and Israel is about to embark on an election campaign.
It was fascinating to watch Netanyahu, with his semi-apocalyptic expression, explaining that dissolving the government at this time would be a display of terrible irresponsibility. This is the man who tried to dissolve his government twice, but was foiled by his partners. The first time, we may fondly recall, was in March 2017, over the broadcasting company saga. At the time there was no security threat – it was the Norwegians trying to establish themselves in Syria, not the Iranians; Hamas had beaten its swords into plowshares and Hezbollah had joined the World Zionist Organization.
The bottom line is that if Israel is marching toward war in the south, in the north, or both, it doesn’t matter if it is managed by a transitional government or a government that enjoys a Knesset majority – so long as it is perceived as a war of no choice.
The preliminary decision to dissolve the Knesset, which will almost certainly be made Wednesday, could be considerably delayed in the Knesset House Committee, which is controlled by Likud. Committee chairman MK Miki Zohar said Sunday that his concern for the country’s security won’t let him pursue the legislative process leading toward actual dissolution. But it seems as if he was thinking primarily of his own job security as the next elections approach.