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After Netanyahu, Israel’s Bennett revives paralyzed security Cabinet

Contrary to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who sidelined and paralyzed the security Cabinet, Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett turns it back into an essential link within the decision-making process.
Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at their first working meeting since the establishment of the new government, Jerusalem; June 16, 2021.

For 12 years, Israel’s security Cabinet was the near-exclusive domain of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That's now about to change from one extreme to the other.

On June 16, the “government of change” approved the new security Cabinet in a telephone poll of the government. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will now head what is considered to be the most prestigious and important decision-making body forum in Israel, consisting of nine men and three women. The prime minister will be joined by Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, Justice Minister Gideon Saar, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, Transportation and Road Safety Minister Merav Michaeli, Internal Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, Minister of Housing and Construction Zeev Elkin and Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana.

Bennett’s office announced that the new security Cabinet would convene every Sunday, right after the weekly Cabinet meeting. This is a big change, especially compared to the last few years, when Netanyahu hobnobbed the body, emptying it of any meaningful responsibility and convening it infrequently. He preferred to keep security affairs close to his chest and to make decisions in consultation with the heads of Israel’s security apparatus. The only reason he ever convened the security Cabinet was when there was a political exigency or some legal obligation. In the previous government, most security and diplomatic decisions were made by Netanyahu and Gantz, who held the position of defense minister — a position he still holds.

The Cabinet is expected to convene June 20, at which time they will be joined by the chief of staff and the other heads of the defense establishment. It will include briefings and a discussion to set policy in dealing with Hamas in the Gaza Strip — a front that has started heating up again over the past few days.

In practical terms, Bennett’s decisions regarding the security Cabinet will restore the aura that surrounded the institution up until the Netanyahu era. It will also allow a new generation of politicians to accumulate the experience and knowledge of the sensitive fields under its purview — something that did not happen in the last few years.

What is interesting about the current security Cabinet is that most of its ministers belong to parties identified with the right. These include Bennett, Liberman, Saar and members of their parties, who adhere to a more hawkish view of security matters. Their views are sharply different from those of the left-wing parties, such as center-left Labor Party leader Michaeli and left Meretz head Horowitz, who advocate a renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians in order to achieve a two-state solution. Although the members of the new government have said that they do not intend to deal with controversial issues, it is only a matter of time until the most volatile of these issues will come up, often without any warning. The tensions within the Cabinet could lead to friction down the road.

This could happen if tensions escalate on one of two fronts — Gaza or Lebanon — and of course, in response to the formulation of government policy regarding the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran. For over a decade, there was a single person who set and directed policy with full force, and who presented it in international and regional arenas — former Prime Minister Netanyahu. Now, the leadership baton is being handed over to a new generation of leaders. They will bear this enormous responsibility, and they will be the ultimate decision-makers over whether Israel goes to war or not.

Over the last few days, Netanyahu tried to disparage the new security Cabinet, claiming that it posed a threat to Israel’s security. To press his argument, he cited the Cabinet’s make-up, inexperience and the fact that some of its members identify with the left. In his first speech to the Knesset as leader of the opposition, Netanyahu warned that Bennett will not have the courage to flex his muscles when dealing with the US president on the Iranian issue, that he will not be able to oppose pressure to freeze construction in the settlements and Jerusalem, and that he will restrict the Mossad’s covert operations. "I will be happy to be proven wrong,” Netanyahu told the Knesset plenum, “but as soon as the United States reenters the nuclear agreement, the new government will not approve any meaningful actions in Iran to prevent its continued rearmament.”

The picture that Netanyahu drew was intended to intimidate the public by evoking its fears of the change. It does not, however, reflect the real situation. For one thing, the new security Cabinet includes three former defense ministers — Gantz, who was also chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Liberman and Bennett himself. They know exactly what the security Cabinet does, and have been granted exposure to sensitive issues and top secret information as part of their job.

Gantz is the most experienced member of the group. He served in the IDF for decades, and he led huge operations, many of them alongside Netanyahu — most recently, Operation Guardian of the Walls in the Gaza Strip. He also has an in-depth understanding of the diplomatic front and excellent relations with the US administration. In fact, he still maintains relationships with senior US officials from his days serving as the IDF’s military attache in Washington from 2007 to 2009. Furthermore, seven of its members have already served in security Cabinets in the past — Bennett, Lapid, Gantz, Liberman, Saar, Shaked and Elkin.

The big question now is where Bennett will want to lead Israeli policy in matters of foreign affairs and defense. Will he be able to implement his policies in the relatively short time (two years) allotted to him as prime minister, before he steps down and Lapid takes over?

Bennett is considered bold and creative. He is seen as someone who is willing to take risks. All of these qualities served him well as a young high-tech entrepreneur and politician. On the other hand, one senior defense figure who worked with Bennett when he was minister of defense told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “He is rash and lacks caution, and this is not good when dealing with sensitive security issues. If he wants to prove that he is bolder than Netanyahu or to signal his right-wing credentials, it could in ways that are less than beneficial.” Nevertheless, the way that the new government is made up of two equal partners, Lapid will have veto power over every decision. This means that Bennett will be very limited, when it comes to rash diplomatic decisions or military adventurism.

During his long tenure in office, Netanyahu showed extra caution and pragmatism in all matters concerning the use of military force. He avoided going to war, and only launched two major operations in Gaza after his policy of containment collapsed. Most important of all, he did not attack Iran despite all his threats.

The new security Cabinet is assuming responsibility for dealing with the dame threats on various fronts, headed by the Iranian nuclear threat, which is considered existential. With the progress being made on the agreement, Bennett and Lapid will have to determine government policy on the issue very soon. This time, however, it will only be presented to the US administration after discussing the matter with all members of the security Cabinet and reaching a joint decision with them.

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