Israel’s president warns: Security decisions are politically motivated

The latest decisions made by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett against Palestinian trade have not been meant to stop rocket fire from the Gaza Strip or calm the situation in the West Bank, but to impress his voters.

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

@shlomieldar

Topics covered

israeli elections, cattle, palestinian authority, agriculture, reuven rivlin, gaza strip, naftali bennett, trade

Feb 11, 2020

Once in a while, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin takes a stance, criticizes political and diplomatic decision-making in Israel and speaks sharply against phenomena of incitement and violence toward various populations in Israel. In his direct and courageous statements Rivlin wishes to return Israel to the path of sanity and reason, and for this he receives an outpouring of vitriol — from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the last extreme right-wing activist. In 2017, they even called him a “Nazi convert” and dressed him in a keffiyeh; in 2014, a photo appeared with him wearing an SS uniform

Remarks he made Feb. 10 are proof that he has had enough and that he is worried about how decisions are being made by the political leadership. In a speech he gave at a conference attended by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Aviv Kokhavi and a forum of senior officers, Rivlin hinted that the political leadership is moved by political calculations and did not hesitate to goad, calling on the senior security leadership to “navigate this enormous ship called national security wisely, responsibly and fearlessly,” and say what they think “without fear of what they’ll say, what they’ll tweet … without interference from people with irrelevant considerations.”

The president’s opponents will certainly claim that this time he went too far and in effect called on the chief of staff and IDF leaders to oppose the directives of the political leadership if they think that an “unwise” decision was made for political reasons. But what are IDF officers, foremost among them the chief of staff, supposed to do, when every day they are handed a decision that reeks of politics? Refuse to execute it? Protest? Tweet like Netanyahu or Defense Minister Naftali Bennett do?

As of Feb. 9, Israel is preventing the Palestinian Authority (PA), by Bennett’s decision, from exporting agricultural products through Jordan. The products — olive oil and dates — worth 50 million Israeli shekels ($14.6 million), are supposed to reach markets in Jordan and Turkey. This restriction joins another restriction imposed by Bennett last week to stop exporting agricultural products from the West Bank to Israel.

The decision of the defense minister to start an “economic war” against the PA came in response to its boycott on the import of calves from cattle growers in Israel. In December 2019, an agreement was reached between Israel and the PA on a quota of calves to be bought, but the PA again decided to ban the import of calves. Israel sees the boycott as a violation of the economic agreements set down in the Paris Protocol, but totally ignored the fact that economic agreements cannot continue to stand in isolation from collapsing diplomatic agreements.

Bennett’s economic trade war is the result of another war — Bennett’s war against Netanyahu. Since he was appointed defense minister in November 2019, Bennett is doing nearly everything he can to prove that he will not disappoint the settlers, so that they would vote for him instead of for the Likud. Assuming that Israel does believe that the boycott on the sale of calves by the PA does constitute a violation of the economic agreements, taking an economic step of collective punishment in order to placate Israeli cattle growers is irresponsible. The Israeli security establishment is engaged in calming the situation in the Palestinian territories and then Bennett comes and declares economic war on the Palestinians. Does this have anything to do with the election set to take place in three weeks? It seems it does. According to the minister’s view — who does everything to appease his settler voters — how could it be that Palestinians unilaterally decide not to buy calves from Israel?

By the way, Bennett has no problem with unilateral decisions when they come from his direction, including on more essential and impactful issues than the sale of cattle. Unilateral annexation, illegal construction of West Bank outposts, unilateral seizing of private Palestinian land, expulsion of Palestinians from their homes unilaterally to defend settlers — all is allowed as Bennett sees it: in the name of security, with the aim of erasing the idea of two states for two people from the lexicon. Bennett sees it as an existential threat to Israel.

In Bennett’s view, Israel is the sovereign on both sides of the 1967 border. The West Bank territories are part of the territory of the Land of Israel, and the Palestinians must act and obey the security commands Bennett concocts in his office. Warnings from the security establishment apparently have nothing to do with him; apparently they don’t worry him. Not regarding policy in the West Bank and not regarding the Gaza Strip. 

Without a clear Israel policy toward Gaza and Hamas — yes to an arrangement, no to an arrangement — and without intent to take drastic steps in order to “restore deterrence toward Hamas,” as Bennett demanded before he was appointed defense minister, the political minister at army headquarters decided Feb. 2 to stop the supply of cement to Gaza. This is another (allegedly) logical step that can be explained as an attempt to pressure Hamas, but defense ministers before him also did the same — so there is nothing new, nor efficient about it. Thus, in order to be original, Bennett decided in addition to define 500 Palestinians from Gaza with permits to work in Israel as forbidden from entering Israel for security reasons. These permits were issued after great pressure the IDF exerted for months on the political establishment and the Shin Bet in order to ease the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Since Netanyahu’s right-wing Cabinet was not able to make such a decision, it was decided to work around it and issue these job seekers without proper security clearance “trader permits.” Now, Bennett is working around that. Since canceling these quotas requires the Cabinet to meet, the simplest thing for him to do is to declare these 500 workers a security threat.

On Feb. 9, the Gisha organization sent Bennett and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, retired Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon, a letter of protest that claimed that drawing an arbitrary list in order to deny work permits is a prohibited and illegal collective punishment. According to the organization, not only does it create further harm to Gaza’s economy, the arbitrary designation of those denied permits as “security denied” also harms their good name and could thwart their chances to receive trader permits in the future. 

It is doubtful that Bennett truly believes that these steps would lead to stopping the launch of rocket fire and explosive balloons from the Gaza Strip. If he did, one could argue about the efficacy of his decisions on their merits. It is more likely that the president is correct in calling for decisions “without interference from people with irrelevant considerations” in the army’s operations. In other words, Bennett’s decisions were not meant to stop rocket fire or calm the situation in Gaza, but to impress his voters. 

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