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
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.