Support From All Sides Makes Bennett a Future Candidate for Defense Chief

The compromise reached by Netanyahu and Bennett will save the coalition and strengthen the security cabinet, but the risk of war – which has to do more with top officials' judgement – still remains.

Bennett and Netanyahu, November 26, 2015.
Moti Milrod

The somewhat forced compromise between Habayit Hayehudi and the Likud party, reached Sunday night in the last minute, should not void the weight of demands made by Minister Naftali Bennett to strengthen the security cabinet.

The events of the past week, up until Sunday night's agreement allowing the confirmation of Avigdor Lieberman's appointment as defense minister, may also give an indication of what's coming – the difficulties expected in the work of the new right-wing coalition.

The basis for Naftali Bennett’s demand to increase the security cabinet’s profile is his deep distrust for the way security decisions are made. This lack of trust is aimed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and even more at the incoming defense minister, Lieberman.

But it’s also aimed at the long-standing tradition of prime ministers and defense ministers in cahoots with the heads of the security agencies, who often seek to limit the information the security cabinet receives. Bennett is also disappointed with the performance of the National Security Council.

One of Bennett’s arguments is that there is no military secretary advising the security cabinet. Overall, his criticism of the security cabinet’s weakness, its lack of information and its inability to digest the information it does receive are supported, even if off the record, by other members of the panel.

At the end of last week, a forum of former ministers, comprised of politicians from various political camps who convene periodically at the Israel Democracy Institute, issued a letter of support for Bennett’s demands. And the reports by investigative committees and the state comptroller over the past decade bolster Bennett’s arguments about the decision-making process and the security cabinet’s weakness.

The Winograd Report on the 2006 Second Lebanon War was scathingly critical of how the decision was made to launch that conflict. That report stressed the NSC’s inefficacy but noted that the security cabinet was also emasculated because decisions were made by small, unofficial forums that met in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office.

IDF Spokesman's Office

Then there was the state comptroller’s report on the seizing of the Gaza-bound aid ship the Mavi Marmara in 2010. It stated that the decision-making process under Netanyahu took place “with no orderly staff work that was summarized, documented and coordinated.” It said Netanyahu only convened a debate among his confidants “on the spot” with no preparation and without involving the agencies girding for the flotilla’s arrival.

In the case of the 2014 Gaza war, as was reported in Haaretz, the state comptroller’s draft report states that the security cabinet was denied crucial information before the conflict erupted and was given only a partial picture throughout the fighting.

The most blatant information gap related to the attack tunnels dug by Hamas under the Gaza border into Israel. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon were aware of the gravity of the threat, and of Israel’s limited intelligence on Hamas’ plans. They knew that the military only had sketchy plans for dealing with the danger. But most of the security cabinet knew nothing.

Only during the week of the escalation in early July 2014 did the security cabinet begin addressing the tunnels seriously. On Sunday Army Radio has reported that during internal military discussions after the war there was serious criticism of the army’s preparedness to deal with the tunnels. Officers also mentioned the gap between progress in destroying the tunnels and what was told to the public. Once again, members of the security cabinet have only learned of this debate now.

It is doubtful that the compromise reached overnight will actually strengthen the work of the security cabinet, as Bennett suggests. The bolstering of the security cabinet could only bring some balance to decisions taken mainly by the prime minister, defense minister and the IDF chief of staff. And in any case, it's the replacement of Ya’alon with Lieberman, not the weakness of the security cabinet, that is most worrisome.

The risk of war, which could break out without any planned Israeli initiative as has happened a few times in the past 10 years, is linked more to the quality of top officials’ judgment than to the decision-making structure. Even though the Winograd Report seems to state otherwise, the main problem with the Olmert government’s running of the 2006 war wasn’t procedural. It was leaders who turned out to be inexperienced, careless and didn’t think things through.

Despite Bennett’s principled demands, we can’t ignore the political context. The considerable support he’s getting from those who agree with his requests, as well as from those who want to bring down the government, is strengthening his position as a potential defense minister in the next round. Together with his vow to defend the lives of the soldiers and his declaration that he seeks nothing for himself or his party, Bennett tried to score points by choosing to confront Netanyahu on a fundamental security question.

When he first ran at the head of Habayit Hayehudi in 2012-13, his military background played a central role in the campaign. His message to young secular voters was, if you rely on us kippa-wearing officers in battle, there’s no reason not to rely on us in the Knesset. It was a strategy that served him well, and now it took him further – presenting him as a future defense minister candidate – at least until he folded under the risk of being accused of bringing about the collapse of the right-wing coalition.