Prime Ministers, Policy And Polls
By Amir Oren
For the next four months, Israel will have its third Prime Minister since June 2021. The government of Naftali Bennett imploded, forcing early elections, and until November 1st the position, in effect in caretaker mode, will be held by Yair Lapid, a former broadcaster with little to no national security experience, somewhat between Ronald Reagan – before he was Governor of California – and Volodimir Zelenskiy. Israel must be very confident in its ability to take on any challenge, if it no longer needs to fall on the likes of a Ben Gurion or a Rabin.
The Bennett-Lapid transition, within the same cabinet, comes on the eve of President Biden’s visit to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Riyadh. Whoever Israel’s PM happens to be, some positive developments are expected, including having CENTCOM officially launch, under its aegis, a regional air defense cooperative framework in which Saudi Arabia would be the most prominent Gulf state to co-exist, via its military, with the Israel Defense Forces.
Before Bennett resigned, Biden was careful not to upset the Israeli political apple cart. Now that he is free of this constraint, the U.S. President could ignore Israeli pressures regarding the return to the 2015 Nuclear deal with Iran and the re-opening if the American Consulate-General to the Palestinian Authority. In both instances, Bennett and Lapid echoed the policy line announced by their bitter rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, whether because they agreed with it or were afraid of being attacked as “soft” – which they were, anyway. Now Biden could focus more on his own foreign policy goals and domestic political concerns, including the price of oil, with one reason for its hike being the sanctions on Iran’s exports. In effect, American and Israeli motorists and other consumers have been paying more due to Donald Trump’s, and Netanyahu’s, misguided actions.
Lapid will bask in the glory, fleeting as it is, of an international statesman welcoming the leader of the free world who doubles as Israel’s guardian angel. Netanyahu sought to portray himself as unique in the major leagues of Kings, Presidents and Prime Ministers, going so far as to drape his Tel Aviv party headquarters with huge portraits of himself next to Vladimir Putin. That was before the war in Ukraine. The poster is now nowhere to be seen.
This is political propaganda, as distinct from policy platforms, and in the national security domain, the military, intelligence and security (though not the diplomatic) career corps carries much more weight than in other Western democracies not so threatened. It is therefore an extremely important moment when the time comes, every three to four years, to appoint a Ramatkal, the Hebrew acronym for Chief of General Staff – not a staff officer, but a Commander with absolute power within the IDF, though of course serving the civilian authority of the cabinet.
Former Ramatkals, such as Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, went on to become prominent politicians, but even while still on uniform their opinions, presented to ministers, Knesset and public, could help or hurt the government. Politicians thus have a double incentive to cautiously choose among serving Major Generals one who would first go along with the military implications of their policies and then stay out of politics as contenders for top spots, at least for a while.
After the Yom Kippur War Dayan, as Defense Minister accused of negligence, claimed he objected to the appointment of Gen. Dado Elazar as Ranatkal, but was over-ruled by Prime Minister Golda Meir. The law was then changed so as to give the Defense Minister priority in selecting the next Ramatkal, though the full cabinet, led by the Prime Minister, may reject him. This tempted Prime Ministers to keep the Defense portfolio for thenselves, but when they could not, reluctantly accepted the Defense Chief’s nominee.
The current Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, himself a retired Ramatkal, does not know whether he will serve in the government to emerge from the elections (or not, leading to yet another round) and in what position, so he is in a hurry to bring forward a selectee to take over from Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, whose term ends at the turn of the year. Gantz has interviewed three candidates and his obvious favourite is Kochavi’s current deputy, Herzi Halevi. He started the process a few short weeks before the fall of the Bennett government, giving rise to objections by political intersta (including Netanyahu) and legal experts, who would rather wait for November. Too late, responded Gantz, as political instability may still be the order of the day in Jerusalem, and this key position must be decided and the transition process – a cascade, indeed – launched.
An interim solution could be a short extension of Kochavi’s tour, if he is willing to put off his retirement. It will soon be determined by the Attorney General. In any event, Halevi’s views are not thought to be fundamentally different from Kochavi’s, as regards the build-up of the IDF and its employment. One notable idea Halevi holds is that Israel pre-empt Hezbollah not only when there are certain indications of imminent attack by the Shiite Lebanese group, Iran’s proxy, but also during periods of heightened tensions, when the raiding parties of Hezbollah’s Radwan Force could be so close to the border as to race towards an Israeli village, occupy it for a couple of hours and televise their short-lived local gain as victory, before being ousted at heavy costs for both sides.
This is but one example. There are probably others pertaining to Iran, Gaza, Syria and the West Bank. Whatever the front or the contingency, the General Staff headed by the Ramatkal will be held accountable by a civilian population bracing for barrages of missiles, rockets and drones.
For the first time in Israel’s history, there have recently been more elections than wars. Come November, there may not emerge a stable government, but the IDF, along with Mossad, Shabak and National Police, will be expected to keep carrying the burden. (End)