What began as a resounding ultimatum on Thursday afternoon ended as an embarrassing U-turn on Monday morning. Government ministers from the Habayit Hayehudi party returned to the warm embrace of the prime minister with their tails between their legs. Benjamin Netanyahu perhaps has lost some of his deterrence power against Hamas and Hezbollah recently, as Naftali Bennett himself claims, but he remains as strong as ever when facing his coalition partners.
Bennett and his colleague, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, didn't sound at all convinced about the clear and present security danger that Netanyahu suggested on Sunday. And yet, the coalition will survive for now, resting upon a razor-thin majority of 61 Knesset seats.
The education minister, who certainly was operating from a politically inferior position, offered an alternative to his steadfast demand to succeed Avigdor Lieberman in the Defense Ministry. He and Shaked, Bennett claimed, would make sure the government adopts a tougher security line with Israel's enemies from now on.
We'll see. Given the way Bennett subjugated himself to Netanyahu, who once again comes across as a political magician staying two steps ahead of his rivals, it's doubtful whether Bennett maintains much political bargaining power. The two press conferences, fewer than 24 hours apart, primarily demonstrated the difference between Netanyahu and his main political right-wing rival. It is simply no contest.
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Bennett – whose opening words created the mistaken impression that he was heading toward resigning – came across as someone who is still not ready to take on the most senior positions.
Perhaps because he was stuck in a politically inferior position, Bennett opted to lash out at the military advocate general, Gen. Sharon Afek.
Israeli soldiers, the education minister explained, are more afraid of Afek than they are of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. Not only is this assertion not true, but Bennett also violated his own declared policy of not making ad hominem attacks against Israeli military officers.
Over two years after the Azaria affair, the public damage of which remains significant, Bennett chose to act like MK Bezalel Smotrich, like the last of the ultra-Orthodox Zionists. It was no coincidence that Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit immediately reacted sharply, rejecting Bennett's assertion.
Criticism of the Israeli army, or parts of it, is welcome and legitimate, but a government minister cannot hint that the prosecutors in uniform are sticking a knife in the soldiers' backs.
When security gets political
Netanyahu's “just not elections” speech on prime-time TV Sunday night had a clear military hue. The prime minister convened reporters, who weren’t allowed to ask questions, at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv. He spoke about his first day as defense minister and went on without a pause, speaking in what was a rather emotional tone for him, to a recitation of his combat record: about his service in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit; about his late brother, Yoni, hero of Entebbe; and about the time he was almost killed during fighting at the Suez Canal.
Netanyahu had a clear message, as political commentators quickly noticed: The perils to Israel’s security are great, and there’s no telling whether bringing down the incumbent government might lead to collapse of the right wing in elections. That failure (and the disaster that would ensue) would be the responsibility of the ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, whose selfishness could destroy the coalition. The defense portfolio, Netanyahu was essentially saying, will stay with him. The ministers of Habayit Hayehudi can quit the coalition but they should realize the implications of such a move.
But the impression the premier created, and not for the first time, is that his perception of the gravity of current defense-related circumstances is colored to a large degree by his own political concerns. He sought to convey that the situation is absolutely dreadful; that hard times are ahead; that there is sensitive information that he knows but cannot divulge in public now; and that we will all have to make “sacrifices” (one can only imagine how parents of soldiers in combat units felt about that statement).
That doesn’t really mesh with his jetting around the world in recent months on state visits, his frequent speeches about Israel's excellent strategic situation, or with the fact that just two weeks ago he himself was seriously thinking of calling for early elections – for his own convenience.
For his part, Avigdor Lieberman, who just quit as defense minister, has openly sneered at Netanyahu’s reasoning and claims there is nothing to the hints that Israel is on the brink of war for reasons not known to the voting public.
Defense officials admit that the present situation is complex and rife with dangers. But in contrast to Netanyahu, they do not identify dramatic changes in recent weeks that, as the prime minister says, override the previous political considerations in favor of bringing the elections forward.
The conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip does engender widespread frustration, accompanied by public criticism about the manner in which the Palestinians manage, time and again, to raise the threshold of their violence without incurring any especially heavy Israeli retaliation.
Under directives from politicians, the Israel Defense Forces is also preparing for the possibility of escalation that will necessitate a military campaign in Gaza. But the fundamental considerations remain unchanged: Neither Netanyahu nor the top army brass want war with Hamas and Israel will have difficulty initiating a wide-ranging campaign as long as Egypt, its close ally, is still working hard to achieve a long-term cease-fire with the Palestinians.
On Israel’s northern front, the situation truly is complicated. The incident in which a Russian jet was shot down two months ago has severely constrained the Israel Air Force’s room to maneuver. Russia’s all-but-indifferent view of Israel’s attacks in Syria in previous years was replaced by an angry tone and threatening conduct. The Israeli defense establishment is also worried about the rising interest Russia has been evincing vis-à-vis Lebanon, and the possibility that Iran will step up its efforts to build assembly lines for rockets for Hezbollah within Lebanon, taking advantage of the emerging Russian aerial umbrella there.
Worrying developments in the north do restrict Israel’s moves in Gaza to a degree, out of a fear of having to fight on two fronts at once. But insofar as is known, at this time, these trends do not boil down to a concrete Israeli decision to pursue any planned action in Lebanon that could deteriorate into total war in the north.
Israel, as the prime minister knows perfectly well, is maneuvering under complicated circumstances, but it seems as if the drums of war accompanying his speech Sunday night have more to do with the political risks Netanyahu is facing, than any immediate emergency on the security front.