Analysis

Shadow of Russian Plane Still Hangs: Israel Worries About Conflict in North, but Its Hands Are Tied

The strategic blunder caused by the plane's downing is far from over ■ Does the Israeli public agree with Bennett that lawyers are limiting the army's operations? ■ What the army warned about Culture Minister Miri Regev

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

In the Gaza Strip, which triggered Israel’s most recent political crisis, relative quiet actually prevailed this week. The intermediaries, members of Egyptian intelligence, asked Hamas for three weekends of quiet. During the first week the organization kept its promise. Last Friday, its security personnel were deployed near the border with Israel and prevented the demonstrators, many of them Hamas activists themselves, from approaching the fence.

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The positive influence of the fuel and money from Qatar is still being felt, with the most important improvement in the situation being the tripling of the electricity supply to the inhabitants. The Israel Defense Forces, accordingly, has lowered some aspects of the high alert in the south, but remains defensively pessimistic. The army units continue to train and to prepare for a possibility of escalation, which is liable even to mushroom into a large-scale operation next time.

The leaders’ interest is still focused on the northern front. As opposed to the possible impression left by Netanyahu’s speech this week, we are not facing an immediate danger of war. On the other hand, there is also a gap between the public’s awareness and the actual severity of the situation. Israel is still deeply mired in a complicated strategic situation: The downing of the Ilyushin plane by a Syrian defense system on September 17 infuriated the Russians, changed their conduct and reduced the IAF’s freedom of activity in the skies of Syria.

If previously attacks against Iranian arms convoys and bases in Syria were approved almost routinely, now any such activity – and the Israeli leadership has already hinted that several such attacks have nevertheless been carried out – is accompanied by a great degree of uncertainty. Russia is turning a cold shoulder to Israel. Even former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was unable to arrange a meeting in Moscow with his counterpart, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, and apparently IAF Commander Norkin also had a difficult experience there.

Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot lectured on Wednesday at a conference of the State Comptroller’s Office. “The crying that I hear about the loss of Israeli deterrence,” he said, “does not accord with the intelligence material that I read every morning about Gaza, Syria and Lebanon.” On all those fronts, it should be repeated, Netanyahu has until now shown caution and responsibility. That is an essential approach in order to prevent an unwanted war.

Bennett’s CNN maneuver

During his disastrous press conference at the beginning of the week, in which he threatened to resign from the government and changed his mind, Education Minister Naftali Bennett performed a CNN maneuver. A few weeks ago U.S. President Donald Trump inflated an incident with a CNN correspondent, thereby diverting discussion from the relative Republican failure in the midterm Congressional elections.

Bennett embarked on a frontal attack against an easy target – Maj. Gen. Sharon Afek, the military advocate general. He claimed that IDF soldiers “are more afraid of the MAG than of Yahya Sinwar,” the Hamas chief. When he was criticized, the following day Bennett supported his assertion by quoting parts of the statements of Maj. Gen. (res.) Yishai Bar, former president of the Military Appeals Court.

At a conference of the Israel Democracy Institute about the status of the IDF as a people’s army, Bar said he had advised former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi “not to bring the legal advisers into the war rooms.” I asked Bar the next day about what he said. His viewpoint is more complicated than that presented by the education minister. Throughout his years in the IDF, Bar vocally advocated strict observance of the rules of international law during combat in the territories. He also believes that this obligation must be imposed on the commanders during combat. The role of the legal advisers is to supervise, not to replace the commanders. Bennett wants more than that. In his statements he claimed in effect that the restraints imposed by the Military Prosecution on the soldiers prevent the IDF from winning at war.

According to a survey presented at the conference, the nation is moving in the direction of the education minister. The survey, conducted by Prof. Tamar Hermann and Or Anavi, examined the views of the Israeli public regarding values in combat, ranging from adopting punitive measures (home demolition, the death penalty for terrorists) to the rules for opening fire. As expected, the survey indicates substantial support for the punitive policy in the territories along with a demand to take more severe steps.

The political controversy is reflected in all its gravity, in the responses regarding the IDF’s conduct in combat. While those who place themselves on the left and the center fully support the views of the senior commanders, as they were reflected for example in the affair of soldier Elor Azaria (who was convicted of shooting at an incapacitated terrorist), the attitude on the right varies.

“On the right, and especially in the ultra-Orthodox community, there is an erosion and even an oppositional attitude to these viewpoints,” write Hermann and Anavi. Half of the right-wingers (47 percent vs. 48 percent) are opposed to prosecuting a soldier for looting, and a majority (53 percent) support killing a terrorist after he has been incapacitated and does not present any danger (in brief, the Azaria affair). Among the ultra-Orthodox, a sweeping majority opposes the declared views of the army on these issues.

And yet, they write, “On every issue in which the state institutions – the IDF, political leaders, the courts and the school system – opposed a specific method of operation,” that has an influence on the public. They add a recommendation: “The discussion should be conducted not only within the army, but in public forums as well, thus providing senior commanders with public support, which is essential for preserving public confidence in the army systems.” Bennett, who this week once again declared himself a suitable candidate for the job of defense minister in the future, apparently didn’t see the email.

While in the Israel Democracy Institute they argued about IDF values, at the training base in Tze’elim the fighters of the Kfir Brigade practiced occupying a Palestinian village. The complex, which includes tunnels and shafts, looks like the outskirts of the Palestinian towns in the Gaza Strip. At the entrance to one of the houses that he is supposed to search with his fighters, the platoon commander hears a recording of a crying baby. Now he has to make a decision: How should he enter the house, knowing that there are civilians there, and perhaps enemy fighters as well?

The senior officers at the site explain that the platoon commander has to take into account considerations such as proportionality and distinguishing between terrorists and innocent bystanders – and perhaps he can take over another house, which better serves his goal. In another scenario, a barrage was fired at the soldiers from inside a building in which there was a large number of civilians. Does the platoon commander summon a combat helicopter to drop a bomb on the building, or use precise sniper fire to silence the source of the shooting?

All these scenarios, like the rules of combat, are formulated by commanders. The legal advisers are not even in evidence. Although Kfir is the brigade in which Azaria served, its commanders seem very confident and expert at the rules of combat as they are dictated to them by their superiors.

Reckless Regev

The venomous attack by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev on former IDF chief and emerging politician Benny Gantz is evidence of the nature of the military atmosphere these days. During Operation Defensive Edge, Regev claimed in an interview with the Keshet broadcasting franchise, the former chief of staff called on the residents of the south to go out and pick anemones, and “Daniel Tragerman, the little boy, was killed.”

The connection between the two events is minimal. Gantz was expressing a future hope for quiet towards the end of the operation in the summer of 2014 (anemones actually grow in the winter and in Israel picking them is prohibited). Four-year-old Daniel Tragerman was killed in a mortar attack against his kibbutz Nahal Oz. Gantz, who was touring the area during the incident, was one of the first to visit the family.

Regev did not apologize, of course. To hell with the facts: After all, we’re living in the world of Donald Trump. She also ignored the identity of the prime minister who appointed Gantz chief of staff and was his superior during the frustrating days of Operation Protective Edge. Her attack was apparently related to the latest surveys, which indicate growing public support for appointing Gantz defense minister.

Gantz was often criticized on these pages during his tenure as chief of staff, mainly in connection with the IDF’s performance during Operation Protective Edge. It is doubtful whether the man who even now is extremely cautious about expressing even the slightest original idea will really fulfill the left’s dreams of a dramatic political change. If we measure chiefs of staff using the slogan with which the IDF approached the disengagement from Gaza – that it would be carried out “with sensitivity and determination” –  Gantz for the most part has demonstrated somewhat more sensitivity than determination.

And still, the former chief of staff has more integrity in his little finger than Regev has ever demonstrated. Only a few weeks ago, after a misogynistic remark from the Knesset podium by Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, she declared that she was mortally insulted and immediately received a warm embrace from the left and from women’s organizations.

Regev has not always been a model of sisterhood. In 2002 she served as the deputy of IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ruth Yaron. The two didn’t get along, to put it mildly. The head of the Operations Directorate, Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the most decent and compassionate member of the General Staff, was called on to decide. When Harel heard how Regev treated one of her subordinates, a female soldier in the unit, and what expressions she used, he made sure to remove her immediately from her position.

Regev had a soft landing. The “farm forum,” with which Regev had a close connection at the time (that is the period that has long since been erased from her memory, just like being a spokesperson for the disengagement), took her in. As a person on loan from the army in a new position in the bureau of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, she was appointed the coordinator of public relations for the Home Front prior to the second Gulf War. Later she returned to the Defense Ministry as the chief censor.

Two years later, when Dan Halutz, who had great political aspirations, was appointed chief of staff, she proudly returned with him to the General Staff as the IDF spokesperson. Halutz also lived to regret it. He told someone who visited  him on the eve of his forced resignation from the job, about half a year after the Second Lebanon War: The appointment of Miri was a strategic mistake.

At the time Regev was not very popular in the General Staff forum. Her frequent toadying, her self-advancement that was exceptional even in an environment filled with people elbowing to get ahead, her flexible attitude towards the truth – none of this made her popular with her fellow officers. Some even discerned her far-reaching ambitions. “You’re complaining about her now. Speak to us in 10 years from now, when she’s your children’s education minister,” they said at the time. In hindsight, it seems they underestimated her. She aspires to more than that.