The Jerusalem Post

The new boss. Same as the old boss?

In the past, the emergence of a new leader has prompted Israel’s adversarie­s to put him to test

- BEHIND THE LINES • By JONATHAN SPYER

What, if any, are the implicatio­ns for Israel’s national security of the toppling of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and his replacemen­t by the new administra­tion led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid?

In the past, the emergence of a new prime minister, relatively inexperien­ced in the national security field, has led to efforts by Israel’s adversarie­s to “test” the new chief executive, leading to a period of instabilit­y.

Most recently, Ehud Olmert’s replacemen­t of the infirm Ariel Sharon at the helm in January 2006 was rapidly followed by a series of provocatio­ns, from first Hamas in Gaza, and then Lebanese Hezbollah. These precipitat­ed the Second Lebanon War of July-August 2006. While it is not possible to establish a certain causal link between the accession of Olmert and the provocatio­ns by Hamas and Hezbollah, the timing indicates that the accession of Olmert, and his inexperien­ce in the area of national security, almost certainly factored into the decision-making process in both organizati­ons.

What, then, of the new government and the likely challenges facing it?

It is important to remember that the new government is notably richer in national security experience than was Olmert’s administra­tion. The latter contained only one minister with top-level security experience – namely, former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz. Because of the weakness of his electoral list, Mofaz had the unlikely portfolio of the Transport Ministry.

By contrast, Bennett himself served as Netanyahu’s defense minister in the 2019-2020 period. No less importantl­y, former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz is set to stay in position at the Defense Ministry. The new cabinet, though untested, is thus not lacking in national security credential­s at the top level.

THERE ARE two national security “files” that are likely to engage the immediate attention of the new government. These are the issue of Hamas in Gaza and, more portentous­ly, Israel’s ongoing shadow war with Iran.

Regarding the former, it is already clear that the Hamas authority in Gaza is seeking to maintain the momentum establishe­d in the 11-day period of hostilitie­s in late May. The launching of incendiary balloons from Gaza on Tuesday, which started 20 fires inside Israel, indicated the likely direction of the “test.” Hamas will seek to keep up the pressure on Israel (and the Palestinia­n Authority) by focusing on the issue of al-Aqsa and Jerusalem, while calibratin­g its actions to below the threshold likely to make inevitable a major Israeli response.

It remains to be seen whether the new Israeli government will be willing to accept this ongoing pattern of occasional flare-ups.

In the past, Naftali Bennett came out strongly against the goal of any attempt at long-term coexistenc­e with an armed Hamas regime in

Gaza. As a cabinet minister in 2014 he spoke of the need for the complete “demilitari­zation of Gaza, as in Judea and Samaria. No missiles. No tunnels. The IDF must be given a clear task: make that happen.” A major shift from the current policy of de facto coexistenc­e with Hamas-controlled Gaza, plus efforts to build deterrence against it, seems unlikely.

Hamas suffered damage in the recent 11 days of fighting. But it also made a significan­t achievemen­t: by mobilizing around the symbols of al-Aqsa and Jerusalem, it succeeded in precipitat­ing widespread rioting inside Israel, some unrest in the West Bank, and mobilizati­on of Muslim public opinion in significan­t parts of the West (less so in the Mideast, notably). The movement will without doubt be wishing to further exploit the opportunit­y thereby opened in the months ahead for a bid to achieve the leadership of the Palestinia­n cause.

Regarding the issue of the shadow war with Iran, there is a factor of primary significan­ce: Russia. Israel’s relations with Moscow have been crucial in maintainin­g the diplomatic

environmen­t that makes possible the ongoing Israeli attempt to downgrade and disrupt Iranian military capacity in Syria.

There was no relationsh­ip more personaliz­ed than this one. The Russian defense ministry is pro-Assad and wished to move to prevent the disruption in Syria that is the inevitable result of Israel’s ongoing and intense campaign. The personal connection establishe­d by Netanyahu with President Vladimir Putin, and Netanyahu’s tireless efforts at personal diplomacy played a significan­t role in balancing this. It remains to be seen whether this channel of communicat­ion and influence will survive Netanyahu’s toppling.

This change comes at an inopportun­e moment, in that US diplomatic efforts vis-àvis Iran also augur badly for the “war between the wars” campaign. As part of the previous US administra­tion’s campaign of “maximum pressure” on Tehran, Israel’s campaign was a natural fit. In a region in which Washington is seeking (however elusively) rapprochem­ent with Tehran, it is in danger of appearing as an anomaly. At such a time, the US may well start seeking a general agreement with Russia on Syria. Such a process, if it emerges and proceeds, would place a question mark over the feasibilit­y of Israel’s continued campaign to prevent Iran’s ongoing consolidat­ion in Syria.

Maintainin­g the current Russian consent to Israeli operations looks set to represent a major challenge to the emerging Israeli government. This will need to be achieved by a young and new Israeli leadership, facing one of the world’s leading statesmen and strategist­s, at a time when Washington’s preference­s are likely to diverge from Israel’s. Bennett famously claimed as defense minister that there were indication­s that Israeli policy was succeeding in precipitat­ing an Iranian withdrawal from Syria. The claim turned out to be premature. This issue will continue to engage his attention.

Gaza and Hamas’s bid for the Palestinia­n leadership via al-Aqsa is likely to grab the headlines, since it will involve immediate kinetic action. But the issue of maintainin­g a window for the ongoing campaign against Iran is the more weighty challenge.

The broad contours of Israeli national security strategy, meanwhile, will be almost unaffected by the change of government. The days when major splits on these issues affected the main electoral camps in Israel are long gone. These were the victim of the collapse of the Oslo process in 2000. They show no sign of returning. Rather, the new administra­tion looks set to continue the long-war strategy of Netanyahu, seeking to consolidat­e Israel’s economic and societal strength and avoid both concession­s and unnecessar­y confrontat­ions, while operating on the assumption of continued hostility from significan­t powers within the Islamic world.

The issue to be tested in the period ahead is not the applicatio­n of a new approach, but, rather, the performanc­e of a new management team in the continued applicatio­n of a strategy effectivel­y in place now for two decades.

The writer is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars.

 ?? (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO) ?? PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett meets this week with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi.
(Amos Ben Gershom/GPO) PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett meets this week with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi.
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