So Far, So Good
By Amir Oren
July 12 is the anniversary of Israel’s so-called Second Lebanon War, an exaggerated name for a campaign far shorter and less intensive than the nation’s full-fledged military endeavours in 1948, 1967, 1973 and 1982. The 1956 Sinai Campaign and the 1969-70 War of Attrition along the Suez Canal could also qualify ahead of 2006.
Yet there is reason to recall that summer, 15 years ago, and not only because in retrospect many critics admit that at the time they judged too harshly the Israel Defense Forces’ performance against Hezbollah. A decade and a half on, the Northern front is quiet, though always on edge, and Lebanon is crumbling under the combined burdens of ineptitude, corruption and the Iran-backed Shiite militia.
Coming out of Lebanon in August 2006, disillusioned veterans, especially junior officers on active reserve duty, vowed in “never again” mode to enter public service, as elected or appointed officiald, in order to generate change. One of them was a 34-year-old Captain with enough money and leisure on his hands thanks to a successful business investment enabling him to exit hi-tech and enter politics. Naftali Bennet applied to the vacany job of Binyamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff as head of the Likud party, in opposition to Ehud Olmert’s government. It was, much like in business, an investment in a share whose price was low with a lot of growth potential.
Politically, it was a shrewd move, as Netanyahu and Bennett, with their American outlook and right-wing views, though a generation apart, with a similar elite special forces military background, seemed to have hit it off. Netanyahu has always been secular, but kept courting religious and orthodox power blocs as a way to cancel out the perceived center-left majority. Bennett was religious but not fanatic about it, able to appeal to secular voters, too, especially as he teamed up with an even younger activist, Ayelet Shaked, who signed on as Netanyahu’s executive assistant.
Thr problem was personal – Netanyahu’s wife Sara objecting to the arrangement under which Bennett and Shaked were hired. They left disillusioned and determined to come back and get even. Starting in 2013, when Netanyahu desperately needed them for his re-election, they did. Bennett was the leader of their party, but Netanyahu had to part with the crucial Justice portfolio, Shaked’s leave it or take it demand, in order to keep the Premiership he reclaimed in 2009.
Fast forward to July 12, 2021, with the many upheavals Israeli politics underwent in the intervening years fading out in the rear-view mirror. Early Sunday morning the unthinkable – though normal in every other democracy – happened: Netanyahu, with Sara and 30-year-old son on tow, actually moved out of the Prime Minister’s official residence, vacating it to the Bennetts, who have a two-year lease on the place until Yair Lapid takes over.
Netanyahu’s departure, depicted by his fans as an evil eviction, was important substantially as well as symbolically. There is now nothing temporary or surreal about the title “Prime Minister Bennett”. It’s a reality Israelis – and the world – are accepting as a matter of fact. Reality, not royalty. The Bennetts could be the nice and normal family next door or in the next block over. What one would expect in a Finland or an Austria – and what used to see in an earlier, more egalitarian Israel. No special aura, rulers who so not look down on the electorate, because they are only one link in a coaltion change.
Bennett’s eight-party alliance is fragile, but is held together by the super-glue of survival instincts. None of the components is overly satisfied, but being ousted by a Knesset vote in favor of a Netanyahu comeback or once again early elections would be much worse. They are not cohesive enough for any grand initiative. Managing the nation’s affairs in a businesslike manner, without being or aggravating the problem, is within their powers.
As a former paratrooper, Bennett seems to have hit the ground running. Earlier this week he announced two important appointments. He chose a 45-year-old PhD who has recently served as a Mossad Division Chief, Eyal Hulata, as his National Security Advisor and head of the National Security Staff. A Paratroop Brigadier-General, Avi Gil, will serve as Bennett’s Military Secretary and be promoted to Major-General, on par with all members of the General Staff save their superior, CGS Aviv Kochavi.
Hulata and Gil are not household names, but they are both well-respected in the defense establishment. Hulata, a technology whiz kid, is an expert on the Iran Nuclear complex, physically and strategically. He will help usher Israel into thr Biden era of improved relations with Tehran, provided all parties to a new version of the 2015 deal is agreed upon and complied with. Several retired Generals vied the National Security job and may have been right for it by virtue of their experience in intelligence and planning, but Bennett was wise to prefer a civilian younger than himself, who will neither look down on him nor compete for centrality in decision making with Foreign Minister Lapid or Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
As for Gil, a former Operations Officer for Paratroop Brigade commander Kochavi and now doctrine chief for the General Staff, his excellent relations with his uniformed boss will help to lessen the built-in friction in Civil-Military relations. The MilSec must also attend all audiences between the Prime Minister and the heads of Mossad and Shabak, the internal security agency, in order to forestall later arguments over the precise meanings of reports and directives. Another plus: in his doctrine position, Gil has served with another Paratrooper, incoming Director of Military Intelligence MG Aharon Haliva. In crisis, and in situations which if not handled properly could turn into crisis, these personal relationships are priceless.
Because Alternate Premier Lapid is a major power in this government, the Foreign Ministry under him will also benefit, recovering from years of neglect and of Netanyahu conducting policy on his own and through two or three confidants. The choice of Ambassador to Washington, to be announced soon, will also be indicative of the Bennett-Lapid teamwork and agenda.
The Middle East Peace Process is obviously being taken out of deep-freeze and gradyally thawed. Meetings between Bennett and Jordan’s King Abdullah and Lapid and his Jordanian and Egyptian counterparts, Lapid’s visits to EU and NATO headquarters, Abdullah’s and Bennett’s planned White House talks with President Biden, the re-opening of an American East Jerusalem Consulate General as a de-facto Embassy to the Palestinians, the trade agreement between Jordan and the Palestinian Authority – these are all vital signs in a body being awakened from a long coma.
there will be internal and external pressures galore, and the paradox of the process is that as soon as there are indications of progress, its enemies will try to subvert it, so the end result is far from sure. But for the time being, and considering the alternatives, even small blessings are welcome.