Israel’s defense minister not focused on defense

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has made several controversial decisions that evidently serve his political agenda but not Israel’s security.

al-monitor Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett arrives to attend the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 2, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar


Topics covered

gaza, tel aviv, israel defense forces, qasem soleimani, us-iran tensions, naftali bennett, threat

Jan 9, 2020

On Jan. 6, the head of the Institute for National Security Studies, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, presented President Reuven Rivlin with his think tank’s annual strategic assessment for Israel and index of the security threats it faces in 2020. This year’s report by the leading Tel Aviv University institute, rated among the top 50 in the world in the field of security and international relations studies, was presented three days after the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

The document was completed prior to Soleimani’s killing, but the institute updated it, saying the targeted strike against Soleimani bolstered its assessment about the likelihood of an escalation and the need for Israel to decide on a new security strategy. The assassination creates a new context and could potentially generate a strategic change, the extent of which it is too early to predict, the researchers wrote. The implications of the killing for US policy on Iran’s regional activity and possible Iranian retaliation must be examined in-depth, they added.

Although the document does not specifically say so, the cautious phrasing essentially indicates that the report’s authors — former senior defense officials — believe Israel could find itself under Iranian attack. The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, said much the same thing in a Dec. 25 speech, noting that Iran’s policies had become more aggressive, toward Israel, too. “There is a possibility that we will face a limited confrontation with Iran and we are preparing for it,” Kochavi said.

But despite the growing Iranian threat, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett is mainly busy with rehabilitating his political career, crushed in two successive 2019 elections. As I described at greater length in a previous article, he is dealing mostly with minutia. Bennett’s strange recent appointment as interim defense minister has restored him to the leadership of the New Right party and pushed aside his political partner Ayelet Shaked. He now seems convinced that his office in Tel Aviv’s IDF and Defense Ministry compound is designed more for furthering his political career and less for dealing with the existential threats to the state.

During the campaign for the April 2019 elections, in which voters handed his party a crushing defeat and did not even give it sufficient votes to get into the Knesset, Bennett starred in an embarrassing video clip filmed on Tel Aviv’s eponymous Rabin Square, named after the prime minister assassinated at the site. Bennett was shown holding a dove and trying to teach it how peace can be achieved while ensuring security for the state. His ongoing video series continues in the same vein, but this time the star is the minister of defense of the State of Israel. He no longer needs to hold a dove; he has the IDF general staff as props and extras. A series of recent decisions he made has generated great anger among top defense officials, who believe he is causing heavy damage to the delicate balance achieved over the years in Israel’s security conception.

In his most recent video posted Jan. 1, Bennett is seen holding a pen, with the camera catching him “by chance” engaged in a dramatic signature. “Hello everyone,” he says, “I have just signed an order deducting funds for 32 families of terrorists.” In December, Bennett announced the deduction of some 150 million shekels ($43 million) from taxes Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority (PA) as punishment for the regular payments it makes to the families of Palestinians or their families who carried out terror attacks against Israelis. Just two months ago, Israel finally resolved the crisis generated by a similar government decision in early 2019, which led the PA to the brink of collapse.

However, Bennett was apparently not satisfied with this latest offset, perhaps because the polls did not indicate any significant improvement in his party’s standing with voters. His latest brainwave, according to a Jan. 7 report in Haaretz, would have Palestinians crossing the border fence from Gaza into Israel classified as “illegal combatants.” He is also reportedly seeking to push through legislation allowing their indefinite incarceration in order to increase the number of Gazans in Israeli jails and use them as bargaining chips in future negotiations on the return of soldiers’ bodies and the Israeli civilians being held by Hamas.

These so-called “border thieves” whom Bennett wants to treat as combatants are mostly a few dozen youths aged 14 to 17 who cross into Israel each year with no malicious intent. The direr the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the greater their numbers. The IDF defines the main reason for their infiltration as “misery”; the teens wait along the border for an IDF patrol, cross the fence and wait for the soldiers to pick them up and send them to jail — preferable to the misery in Gaza.

None of these teens can serve as a true bargaining chip. On the contrary, they have essentially escaped the Hamas regime and are considered [by Hamas] traitors who have fled to enemy territory. After their questioning in Israel and return to Gaza, they can expect lengthy Hamas interrogations and jail time. The illusion that Bennett could keep them hostage and thus force Hamas to hand back two soldiers’ bodies and several civilians is a deception and a vain promise to the bereaved and worried Israeli families. Bennett is cynically using them for his political needs when he provides them with a smidgen of unrealistic hope.

In July 2019, Israel’s former point man on the issue of missing and captured soldiers, Lior Lotan, predicted that the Israeli civilians and the bodies would not be handed back within the framework of a long-term deal with Hamas. "It will never happen,” he emphasized. The former official in the Prime Minister’s Office said the government was misleading the public by creating the impression that return of the bodies and civilians would be part and parcel of the so-called Israel-Hamas “arrangement” being hammered out under Egyptian mediation. Israeli security officials are convinced that a separate prisoner exchange deal would be required, one which Israel would make worthwhile for Hamas by handing over large numbers of its members jailed in Israel and the bodies of those Palestinians killed — certainly not in return for teen border infiltrators who fled Gaza.

In light of the growing US-Iran tensions and its impact on Israel, which could find itself attacked by the Iranians or their proxies, Israel needs a defense minister who does not busy himself with minutia while the country faces an existential threat. Meanwhile, Bennett is sitting in the defense minister’s chair like a kid with a new toy. Israel might end up paying a heavy price.

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