Analysis

Netanyahu Throws IED at Defense Chief Bennett, but It Could Be a Dud

Looming election throws caution into the wind, but the jabs and gung-ho rhetoric can’t conceal the almost unanimous support for a deal with Hamas

File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister Naftali Bennett, November 2017
Emil Salman

Netanyahu outdid himself this week. On Tuesday, public broadcaster Kan reported that in “private conversations,” the prime minister was putting the responsibility for the escalation in Gaza on Defense Minister Naftali Bennett. This week also brought the first attacks on Bennett by cabinet ministers and Knesset members from Netanyahu’s Likud party, even though Bennett has only been defense minister for three months.

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In addition, as Netanyahu recalled this week somewhat jokingly at a meeting with Likud members, Bennett got the job as part of a political maneuver concocted by the prime minister himself. It was meant to thwart any possibility that Bennett might join a coalition government headed by Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz.

It’s hard to feel much pity for the defense minister. But Netanyahu’s attempt to spring the Gaza trap on Bennett seems destined to fail. Ultimately, overall responsibility rests with the prime minister more than with the defense minister or the army. 

Bennett, who took office in November pedal to the metal, quickly fell in love (again) with the army. He found a common language with the military brass, and especially its chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi. It’s impossible to say similar things about his relations with his senior office staff, who are still desperately trying to turn his attention to a host of important issues.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi during a field visit, northern Israel, December 18, 2019
Ariel Hermoni / Israel Ministry of Defense

In this regard, Bennett has largely followed in the footsteps of Avigdor Lieberman and Netanyahu, who acted as caretaker over the last year. The three men shared a strong preference for dealing with the military and a short attention span regarding the ministry’s urgent problems.

However, the closer March 2 draws, the more pre-election pressure builds, which also impacts the minister’s relations with the army. When Likud breaks right, Bennett knows his party could seriously bleed votes. Last April, in the first election round, a similar maneuver left him and Ayelet Shaked without enough votes for a single Knesset seat. Only a rare second election rescued his party.

Since then, Bennett has made exceptional declarations and decisions, meant as a wink to the right. He called for annexing territories before the election, for example, despite U.S. opposition. This week, as Channel 12 reported, the minister also managed to enrage Israel's internal security service, the Shin Bet, by rescinding an administrative detention order against a right-wing extremist suspected of violence, only a day after signing it.

'The circus is over' 

In another incident less than a month ago, the defense minister’s office announced demonstrably political directives. Bennett instructed security forces in the West Bank to issue restraining orders against radical left-wing activists of Anarchists Against the Wall, and to use a heavy hand to disperse their demonstrations. Bennett announced that from now on the anarchists would receive similar treatment to right-wing activists suspected of crimes against Palestinian property, known as price-tag attacks, declaring that “the circus is over.” 

It was much ado about nothing. Until today, there has been no change in the directives to forces on the ground (in any event anarchist demonstrations are few and far between). However, the announcement from the minister’s office caused a stir in the chief of staff’s office. It was sent to Kochavi with a copy to the head of the army’s Central Command, Nadav Padan. The document portrayed a situation in which the minister was purportedly issuing a direct order to the command chief. The incident was in addition to a grudge over a prior meeting where, according to security sources, Bennett’s office summoned officers from the Civil Administration to a discussion about establishing a new Jewish neighborhood in Hebron, but didn’t see it appropriate to have the army represented. 

After the document was sent, the chief of staff’s office raised the matter with Bennett’s military secretary, Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter. Army sources said the conversation was intended to “refine the rules” rather than issue an official reprimand. Bennett and Winter are lifelong friends. They served together as fighters in a commando unit and as young officers helped set up another elite unit, Maglan. Later in his military career, Winter commanded the Duvdevan unit and the Givati brigade, leading it during the 2014 war that Israel fought in Gaza.

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

He is regarded as brave and talented, but also controversial, relating to some of his operational judgment, particularly his decisions in the battle in the Gaza town of Rafah that has been dubbed Black Friday – and also for other actions, including a commander’s message issued to Givati troops that talked of an operation as if it were a religious holy war.

Later it turned out that, without permission, on the eve of the fighting in Gaza, Winter spoke to his friend Bennett, at the time a member of the security cabinet, seeking to pursue a more radical line in the operation. Bennett had indeed better assessed the risk posed by the Gaza tunnels; but the conversation that Winter had with him infuriated Winter’s commanders. 

In the process, Winter became a hero and a symbol for the religious Zionist community. This earned him regular condemnation from the left. Netanyahu and Lieberman spotted the political value this provided them, and pressured then-army chief Gadi Eisenkot to promote him.  

When Eisenkot raised the possibility of appointing him division commander, most generals opposed the choice, chief among them his assistant at the time, Kochavi, who questioned Winter’s professional qualifications for the job.

A compromise was found in the end with Winter’s appointment as the defense minister’s military secretary. With Lieberman’s departure from the ministry, Winter stayed on working with Nanyahu alongside Avi Bluth, the prime minister’s military secretary.

When Winter was promoted to the role of commander of elite Division 98, Netanyahu, in exceptional fashion, posted his personal congratulations to Winter on his social network accounts. Kochavi himself had decided on the appointment, which is supposed to go into effect this summer. How did Moshe Dayan, an arny chief Kochavi admires, put it? Only a donkey doesn’t change his mind.

Then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan onboard a helicopter while touring army installations in the West Bank, September 1967.
Ilan Bruner/GPO

Talk of war, sue for peace

The public seems to understand that the Gaza issue is a problem with no simple solution. Nevertheless, the plight of Israeli communities near the Gaza border is viewed as a vulnerability for the Likud campaign.

With elections in the offing, all pretense of verbal restraint has gone by the wayside. Over the space of two days, both Netanyahu and Bennett hinted at Israel Air Force attacks in Syria, despite Israel’s declared policy of ambiguity. Netanyahu went even further when, in an interview on Tuesday with his favorite television station, Channel 20, he promised that he was preparing “a big surprise” for Hamas. If that is the case, the prime minister has carelessly provided the enemy with an intelligence warning.

In practice, the people involved on the Gaza issue – Netanyahu, Bennett and the army’s top brass – nearly unanimously support brokering a cease-fire agreement with Hamas, despite the Shin Bet security service’s specific objection over allowing Gazans to work in Israel. Within the Israeli defense establishment, no one is arguing in favor of a major operation to reoccupy Gaza right now, even if it is one of the possibilities that it must prepare for.

Although Israel has opted for a long-term cease-fire, the goal still presents two problems. Hamas isn’t happy with the pace at which economic restrictions are being eased in Gaza and as a result is continuing to encourage violence near the border fence – albeit in a restrained, controlled manner. And secondly, Netanyahu and Bennett aren’t comfortable making life easier for Gaza just prior to an election, because they are afraid of being seen as defeatists in the battle against Hamas.

Netanyahu speaks at a press conference, November 20, 2019
Ohad Zwigenberg