Yesterday’s security cabinet meeting featured yet another clash between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. A quarrel at the government table that characterizes the mood amongst the people. The discord starts at the top, particularly when it comes to security.
Ben-Gvir demands that the agreed-to restrictions on Palestinian prisoners be implemented immediately. This was opposed by senior defense officials, all of whom have warned that that introducing new restrictions on terrorist prisoners, as demanded by Ben-Gvir, would lead to a dangerous escalation during the upcoming holidays. Netanyahu had to decide who to listen to. He decided that the minister’s directives would be postponed until the next meeting after the holidays, which absolutely outraged Ben-Gvir. What went on in the security cabinet is not just about security during the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the Feast of Tabernacles. It speaks to the deep divide between the elected government and Israel’s security apparatus. Two different strategies and worldviews that cannot agree on the concept of Israel, security and identity.
“I took this position after you, Mr. Prime Minister, promised that the situation regarding prisoners would change,” Ben-Gvir told Netanyahu. “With all due respect to all the professional parties here, we were elected by the people to implement our right-wing policies.” Still, Netanyahu insisted the issue would be discussed after the High Holidays. “The problem is that even after the holidays, the security chiefs will say the same thing, namely that it is not the right time,” Ben-Gvir then complained. “There is never a right time.” Sources reported a lot of shouting during the meeting.
Ben-Gvir has told Netanyahu that it makes no sense for family members to be allowed to visit convicted and imprisoned terrorists. “We’re just giving in and we’re not getting any more peace in return. This also means that there is no deterrence in Israeli prisons. We cannot continue like this. I was elected to implement a certain policy. You, Mr. Prime Minister, promised the people that you will not bow to the terrorists, and you promised me that we will implement this policy.” Netanyahu reiterated: “No, the issue will be discussed after the High Holidays, not now.” Ben-Gvir persisted: “Mr Prime Minister, enough with the excuses. If you don’t want to implement the policies we agreed on, then come out and say it. It’s always ‘after the holidays’… and then there’s Hanukkah. We have come to a point where we have to make a decision.” Ben-Gvir’s party Otzma Yehudit later threatened to meet and consider what steps it might take in response to Netanyahu’s refusal.
Let’s be honest here, Ben-Gvir isn’t wrong. Israel’s security strategy has been stuck since the Oslo years. Israel has made no effective progress against Palestinian terror and rocket attacks, including from southern Lebanon. According to Ben-Gvir, Israel only responds with retaliatory actions that do not bring security. Before the elections, Ben-Gvir and his right-wing nationalist coalition partners, including Benjamin Netanyahu, solemnly vowed to implement an aggressive and comprehensive anti-terror strategy. Ben-Gvir insists on this, but Netanyahu neutralizes Ben-Gvir’s right-wing security policy because Israel’s defense establishment has a completely different outlook on the problem. The heads of the security organs fear that the “messianic” Minister of National Security is deliberately trying to start a war and set the Middle East aflame, especially during the Jewish holidays.
In order to get out of this entrenched concept, the cards in the region have to be reshuffled and this often and unfortunately requires a bloody war. But the current government doesn’t have the time or energy for that because of Israel’s internal turmoil. The nation remains fiercely divided over judicial reform and, as has been read in the headlines in recent months, the defense establishment is not entirely satisfied with the elected government. Of course, from our enemies’ point of view, Israel is ripe for attack.
In the current situation with judicial reform and division among the people, everything has become even more difficult. Although the ruling coalition has a strong majority of 64 seats in the Knesset, it is unable to implement its right-wing policies. And that drives Ben-Gvir crazy. And he blames Bibi for this. Benjamin Netanyahu is known for often procrastinating and not sticking to deals made with coalition partners. When the coalition was established almost a year ago, we noted that Netanyahu and his Likud were the “left-wing” of this most religious right-wing government, and we are seeing the effects of this. The problem with the whole thing is, because of its DNA, Israel’s defense establishment cannot act in the way our Arab neighbors do. The Israeli army is too humane an army compared to Arab armies, and Ben-Gvir wants to change this a little. But Israel’s security chiefs object to this. A similar battle is being waged over judicial reform. The two camps fight over Israel’s character and how it will engage the world, and these opposing worldviews clash again and again, even at the highest-level government meetings.
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