The Great Unknown: How Will Bennett and His Cabinet Deal With Washington and Iran?

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid at the Knesset on Sunday.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid at the Knesset on Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

On Sunday, moments before he officially became the leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu tried to persuade Knesset members that his replacement, Naftali Bennett, would endanger Israel’s security. He argued that Bennett would not be courageous enough to flex his muscles while confronting the American president on the issue of Iran, that he would not be able to oppose the freezing of new construction in the settlements and in Jerusalem, and that he would tie the hands of Mossad in its covert operations.

“I’d be happy to be proven wrong,” said Netanyahu at the session, “but from the moment the U.S. returns to the nuclear accord with Iran, the incoming government will not approve significant operations inside Iran to prevent its continuing armament.”

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The outgoing prime minister boasted to the lawmakers how just a few days earlier he had clarified to the U.S. defense secretary that “if we have to choose between friction between the U.S. and Israel or the removal of an existential threat to Israel, the latter would prevail.” Bennett, in his estimate, is incapable of doing this. “He has no international standing, he has no credibility, abilities or information. He has no government or [policy] that would allow him to pose a real opposition,” claimed Netanyahu.

A senior official mocked these words later in the week, given Netanyahu’s conduct in the face of the nuclear accord. “In contrast to the previous round in 2015, Netanyahu didn’t do that much this time to foil the return of the U.S. to the accord. He didn’t give a speech in Congress, he didn’t confront Biden or flex his muscles. Israel under Netanyahu came to understand that the accord is a fait accompli, and is counting on receiving a generous compensatory package from the U.S.,” said the official.

The Bennett-Lapid government has not yet had to face the tests mentioned by Netanyahu and has not shown whether it will act with resolve and boldness against Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, or whether it will adopt a more moderate stance. The composition of the security cabinet was approved Wednesday evening in a phone referendum among cabinet members.

It will consist of 12 members, including three former or incumbent defense ministers, two former foreign ministers and one former army chief-of-staff. Six of them have already been security cabinet members in previous governments: Bennett, Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Avigdor Lieberman, Omer Bar-Lev and Gideon Sa’ar. They are part of this cabinet as stipulated by law. Ayelet Shaked was part of this cabinet in her capacity as minister of justice, and is now returning to it as part of the coalition agreements. Ze’ev Elkin, who will be part of the security cabinet, is an experienced cabinet member who has logged many hours as a cabinet member, an observer or as head of the Knesset Foreign Relations and Security Committee.

The cabinet’s classified meetings will include lesser-experienced figures as well, such as Labor chief Merav Michaeli, Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz and ministers Yifat Shasha-Biton and Matan Kahana. The power differential between the parties is tilted and is intended to achieve parity between the two blocs forming the government, so that Bennett and Lapid can veto each other’s proposals.

Netanyahu and Biden at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2016.Credit: Michel Euler/ AP

“It’s true, there aren’t many former defense officials in the present security cabinet,” admitted someone familiar with its workings. “It’s a less experienced security cabinet, but that’s the nature of a change in government.”

A former cabinet member, Tzachi Hanegbi, figures the Bennett government will find it difficult to pound on tables in critical matters. “Regarding Iran, where a confrontation between the U.S. and Israel is expected, I believe that the three leading members, Bennett, Gantz and Lapid, have no desire to confront the U.S. administration with the same intensity and sense of mission that characterized Netanyahu,” he told Haaretz.

Another security cabinet member who left his post this week, preferring to remain anonymous, commended Bennett’s worldview but expressed doubts as to whether he could execute complex maneuvers. “Bennett is bold and creative by nature but I believe the level of his boldness will be much lower given U.S. positions, and those of Gantz and Lapid will be much more important,” he added.

One professional who knows the outgoing and incoming security cabinet members well told Haaretz, “It’s possible that the new cabinet will actually exhibit over-eagerness. The new cabinet has several adventurous members. This includes Bennett, who has to prove himself and who’s demonstrated an eagerness for battle in the past; the extremist Lieberman, Sa’ar who is extremely right-wing, and even Yamina’s Matan Kahana. In contrast to the image portrayed by Netanyahu in recent days, he was actually a moderating influence in cabinet meetings. In many cases he was the most pragmatic person in the room. It was Netanyahu himself who decided not to attack Iran at the time.”

Netanyahu did not intend to convene the last session of the security cabinet several days before the swearing in of the new government. He had to do so following the demands of then-Justice Minister Benny Gantz and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. The prime minster wanted to allow the holding of the Jerusalem Flag March, in contrast to police recommendations, and the two reminded Netanyahu that the only forum authorized to overturn a police decision on this matter was the security cabinet.

In the end, members of the outgoing cabinet rolled this hot potato into the lap of the Bennett-Lapid government, which allowed the parade to take place on Tuesday. The decision was taken without convening the new security cabinet, despite the growing tensions around the march. Netanyahu tried this week to convince the public that the security cabinet during his tenure was a professional, focused group. But people who participated in its sessions said it convened no more than 10 times during the entire term. Many of these meetings took place during the recent fighting in Gaza.

“Netanyahu’s cabinet was not effective; it was awful,” remembers one professional who participated in some of its sessions. “At first it included 20 ministers and four observers. There are entire cabinets that are smaller than that. It was later reduced a bit.” Another significant reason the cabinet was not convened very often is that this was the year of the epidemic, in which there was relative quiet.

“Although not much leaked from the cabinet this year, you can’t hold sensitive security-related discussions in such a forum,” said the source. Many topics, such as the debate on investigations by the International Criminal Court, were shifted to more limited forums. After the senior ministers would make a decision, it would be brought for the cabinet’s approval.

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