Opinion |

The Gaza War: What’s Naftfali Bennett Bragging About?

The Israeli right-winger was one of the 2014 war’s biggest advocates, until the conflict came to a predictable end: a draw with many casualties.

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Ministers Ya'alon and Bennett at the Knesset, 2014.
Prime Mininster Netanyahu's Defense Miniter Ya'alon (R) speaks with Minister Bennett at the Knesset, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett is elated over the state comptroller’s report on the 2014 Gaza war. An “earthquake,” he gleefully calls it. Somehow, a few choice quotes from the cabinet meetings have magically been leaked.

Bennett is certain they make him look like a star. He was the first to identify the problem, he was the one who warned, who investigated, who pressed for action. He was the one who tried to push a hesitant prime minister, a cowardly defense minister and a weak army chief.

The comptroller appears to have bought Bennett’s narrative, and the media is falling in line. Once again, it seems there’s no limit to the chutzpah and cynicism of the education minister, head of the Jewish Brotherhood party. As this approach is neither educational nor very Jewish, two basic questions must be asked again: What led to Operation Protective Edge, and what did Israel seek to achieve with it? These questions are directly related to Bennett and the political camp he leads.

The second question is hard to answer because the operation’s objectives were constantly changing: Exact a price, restore quiet to the south, restore deterrence, weaken Hamas, knock out the rockets, neutralize the tunnel threat. The comptroller chose to focus in great detail on the final objective, which only arose during the operation.

This is a typical Israeli choice going back to the Agranat Commission that investigated the Yom Kippur War and the Winograd Commission that investigated the Second Lebanon War. It focuses on the micro military picture – the failures in intelligence, preparedness and equipment rather than on the overall strategic picture: Why did Israel embark on this campaign in which 73 Israelis and 2,200 Palestinians were killed (about half of them women and children), 4,500 rockets and mortar shells were fired into Israel, the south was paralyzed and abandoned, and Gaza was devastated?

If the comptroller really examined this question courageously, he’d discover a frightening answer: To a large extent, Israel was dragged into the war because of the settler right.

On June 12, 2014, yeshiva students Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah were abducted from a hitchhiking post in the West Bank. It was later learned that they were murdered the same night, but the search for them lasted 18 days. The search quickly widened into a military operation against Hamas in which the security forces arrested more than 400 Palestinians, including 50 prisoners freed in the Gilad Shalit deal and members of the Palestinian parliament.

A number of Palestinians were killed and wounded in the clashes that erupted during the operation. Organizations in Gaza launched rockets, and the army responded with airstrikes. The pressure to escalate the situation, to exploit it to put more pressure on Hamas, was led by the settlers and their emissaries. Habayit Hayehudi MK Orit Strock, a settler from Hebron, even boasted of how she dared to desecrate the Sabbath in order to call Bennett, who hastened to push the cabinet into action.

When the boys’ bodies were found, the country was plunged into mourning. Their joint funeral was a seminal political event at which an entire nation kneeled before the settler right and its agenda. President Shimon Peres spoke, party leaders offered eulogies, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared: “Hamas is responsible. Hamas will pay.”

Bennett looked ecstatic. That very evening he advised Netanyahu to launch a ground operation in Gaza in response. The next day, teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir from East Jerusalem was abducted and murdered. The trickle of fire from and into Gaza increased. Messages and intelligence assessments saying Hamas didn’t seek an escalation were of no use; the cries for revenge and the restoration of deterrence dominated the media and the public debate.

One week later, Israel embarked on a punitive war in Gaza. For the first time in the country’s history, a military campaign bore clear signs of a religious war waged in God’s name. Bennett, one of the war’s biggest advocates, kept pushing the cabinet to expand it, until the conflict came to a predictable end: a draw with many casualties.

Instead of conducting a reckoning with his constituency over the pointless death and destruction, he’s acting like he couldn’t be happier. What’s he so pleased about? What does he have to brag about?