Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not lying and or exaggerating when he told the nation on Nov. 18 that Israel was facing one of its most complex defense challenges. He was right in telling his coalition partners, “We are in an intensifying battle” and berating them for being irresponsible by threatening to quit the government at such a time. He urged them to set aside personal and political considerations.
Israel is indeed facing a security challenge that requires its elected officials to act responsibly and to set aside personal and political considerations. But the solution requires a change in leadership.
The complex security challenge is not lurking on Israel’s northern border. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Oct. 18 that Russia cannot force Tehran to pull its forces out of Syria, and Netanyahu himself explained on Nov. 19 to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Russia would be unable to stop Iran’s military activity on Syrian soil by itself. Both leaders hinted that the key to removing Iranian forces from Syria is in US hands, but President Donald Trump has not shown any inclination to sink into this quagmire, not even for his good friend in Jerusalem. Therefore, based on the fairly certain assumption that Netanyahu does not wish to clash with Russia, the ill winds are unlikely to blow from the direction of Syria nor from Lebanon.
On Nov. 20, Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot said during a tour of the Syrian border that Iran had been far less successful than it had hoped in transferring precision weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Israel Defense Forces, he added, “will continue acting to thwart these efforts while preserving the security situation in the north for the long term out of dedication to the protection of the citizens of the State of Israel.”
Since the most recent cease-fire was reached with Hamas on Nov. 13, calm appears to have been restored to the Gaza Strip. Hamas is reining in the violent demonstrations along the border with Israel and Eizenkot is reining in the security cabinet ministers. Military affairs commentator for Haaretz Amos Harel reported Nov. 16 that Israeli officials believe the restored calm will also enable progress in contacts on a long-term cease-fire deal with Hamas.
The real and justified security concern emerges from unusually harsh and candid testimony by Nadav Argaman, head of the Shin Bet security agency, to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Nov. 6. Argaman said the apparent calm in the West Bank was “illusory.” Hamas is trying “with all its might” to carry out terror attacks in the West Bank under instructions from the group’s offices in Gaza, Turkey and Lebanon, he said. This year, Argaman added, Israel had foiled plans by 219 local Hamas cells in the West Bank, compared with 148 in 2017 and 114 in 2016. “This reflects the high threat potential posed by local terror activity and explains why the calm in Judea and Samaria is illusory,” he said. “Hamas views the West Bank as a central arena for terrorist activity in support of its campaign for the right of return and also for advancing broader interests within the Palestinian system.”
The nature of these interests was made clear on Nov. 9, when Qatar transferred $15 million to Hamas in Gaza and cash-strapped Iran allocated millions of dollars for the families of Palestinian “shahids” (assailants killed in acts against Israelis). The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center views Iran’s financial aid as a means to intensify its influence on the Palestinian population of Gaza while sending a message to the Sunni and Arab world that Iran is helping the Palestinian struggle against Israel.
Criticism of Netanyahu’s blind rush to reach a long-term deal with Hamas without holding out for significant concessions by the organization emerges between the lines of Argaman’s testimony. Stabilizing Hamas' rule in Gaza, especially after the achievements it recorded in the latest round of resistance against Israel, strengthens its standing also in the West Bank, governed by its rival the Palestinian Authority. In return for its close security coordination with the Shin Bet and the IDF, all the PA gets are more Israeli settlement outposts in the West Bank, more Palestinian homes razed, the violation of the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites and a freeze of negotiations with Israel on its demand for independence.
The binary approach of the right-wing government leaves Israel with only one choice: war or deal. There is no third option of a comprehensive diplomatic agreement. Currently, the ministers are vying to rattle their sabers the loudest, criticizing the cease-fire with Hamas and calling for a tough hand against it. Education Minister Naftali Bennett has positioned himself at the head of this group after being forced to withdraw his ultimatum to quit the government and agreeing to stay in order to “let the IDF win” in the next round with Hamas. His colleague, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, assured Israelis, “We are closer than ever — since the devastating disengagement plan — to control of parts of the Strip, or all of it,” referring to Israel’s 2005 pullout from the Gaza Strip. Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Galant, who was next in line to speak at the Nov. 21 Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference, took over the seat vacated last week by the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. Referring to Yahya Sinwar, he said the days of the Hamas leader in Gaza “are numbered" and "He will not see out his days in an old-age home.” The retired general nonetheless added, “War is the last option.”
What, then, is the nature of the first option? Can anyone utter the word “peace” in Israel these days without being condemned as a leftist supporter of the New Israel Fund? When did we last hear the term “permanent status arrangement” with the Palestinians? Where has the “regional option” gone? Now is not the time for illusions. Show a bit of responsibility. Even the prime minister said, “We are in an intensifying battle.”
Israeli leaders have long invoked defense and security issues to counter peace efforts. Some 17 years ago, Netanyahu was unknowingly recorded explaining how do so. In return for agreeing to the 1997 Hebron Agreement on withdrawing Israeli forces from several parts of the West Bank, he extracted a promise from the Clinton Administration that Israel reserved sole right to designate the military sites (and the settlements) exempted from the redeployment, Netanyahu said. For example, Netanyahu convinced the Americans that the entire Jordan Valley section of the West Bank was a security zone, a “military area.” “At that moment,” Netanyahu bragged, “I put a stop to the Oslo Accord.”
The biggest challenge Israel is facing these days, just as it did 25 years ago, is diplomatic-strategic, not military, in nature. In this respect, the continued rule of the political right is the problem, not the solution.