With tension returning to both the North and South, it is important to look at who has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ear on security issues.
There is his national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, a former head of the Shin Bet’s (Israel Security Agency’s) southern region, whose appointment was made official in November. Netanyahu’s military secretary, Eliezer Toledano, was promoted in August to command the Gaza Brigade, but he has not been able to take the post yet, because the prime minister is taking his time selecting his replacement.
Inside the security cabinet, Netanyahu respects almost no one and often mocks his ministers. The rare exception is Construction Minister Yoav Gallant, a former OC Southern Command who Netanyahu tried to appoint as IDF chief of staff in August 2010 and since then has continued to earn his trust.
“Gallant has proven his worth during his 33 years of military service at the IDF’s front lines, and has proven himself to be a courageous fighter, an excellent officer, and a responsible and serious battle commander,” Netanyahu said back then, before the attorney-general prevented Gallant from obtaining the post, due to a minor controversy over public land used for his home that was later ruled an accident.
Since the May 2016 departure of former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon
from the cabinet, security cabinet and the Knesset (and even more so after former Shin Bet chief Yaakov Peri quit the Knesset), Gallant has been the top security figure in all three, and he is seen as a likely defense minister in the next government. His views of the regional security threats faced by Israel must therefore be taken very seriously.
AHEAD OF Gallant’s April 29 address to The Jerusalem Post
Conference in New York, he took the Post
on a virtual tour through those threats and issued stern warnings to Israel’s enemies. But he also added reasons for optimism, in spite of the challenges.
Gallant said he disagrees with a statement by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot in an interview with a Saudi newspaper
three months ago that Israel’s military situation has never been better.
“A country measures its threats not by a few years but by generations,” Gallant said. “There are strategic threats, led by the Iranian nuke threat, even if that threat takes time to develop. We must always be ready, because the agents of Iran – Hezbollah and Hamas – possess the ability to harm our home front and to cause a worrisome amount of damage in battle. We have solutions, and we have improved our abilities, but we cannot take the threats to us lightly.”
Gallant said Iran is doing three things that Israel must closely monitor: its nuclear program, regional aggression, and saber rattling against Israel.
“Iran is preparing nuclear weapons beneath the surface of the Iran deal, which could enable them to produce dozens of nuclear warheads within a decade, because it could have a fissile material breakout period of a few months,” he said. “Iran desires to control the Middle East. It has full control over Lebanon via Hezbollah, and Iraq via its Shi’ite majority, and now it is attempting to take over Syria under the wings of the Russians.”
Gallant said it suits the Iranian regime’s geopolitical interests to maintain tensions with Israel.
“The Iranians have learned lessons from their wars with the Arabs – that if they want quiet with their neighbors, they need excuses for wars with Israel,” he said. “They don’t want a war of Shi’ites vs Sunnis. They prefer to shift the battle elsewhere to the old patent. All of this is dangerous for us.”
Gallant praised US President Donald Trump for resetting America’s strategic relations in the Middle East.
“Since the 1920s, the US went with moderate Sunnis and aided them against radical Shi’ites,” he said. “This changed under [former president Barack] Obama, who pressured the Saudis, overthrew the Egyptian regime, and removed sanctions on Iran. The current president did the right and basic thing by changing it back. He realized the Iranians are not the partner. They are the problem, not the solution.”
In his speech to the Institute for National Security Studies, Gallant warned that the Iranians were preparing Hezbollah as a weapon to use against Israel, if the US will be in conflict with Iran following the May 12 deadline the Trump administration set to fix or nix the Iran deal.
“Anyone who doesn’t think it can happen must remember that [in 1990] American Operation Desert Storm led to 40 missiles on central Israel,” he said. “We have to be ready for the US leaving the Iranian nuclear agreement and restarting sanctions. I’m not sure how this president would react if the Iranians kidnapped American sailors. When it happened with Obama, he treated it gently for a superpower.”
Gallant said the Iran deal was a bad agreement, and the Iranians have grown so comfortable with it that if tough sanctions are placed on Iran, there could be significant ramifications.
“Anything is possible, so we have to be on alert and be ready,” he said. “There is not much the Iranians can do to the US, so they can instead make Israel the target. We have to realize that this could happen.”
Gallant spoke about the threat from Hezbollah amid Israeli warnings to the Lebanese not to let their country be used to facilitate Iranian missile factories and not to provoke another war with Israel.
“If they make a mistake and attack us, we will return Lebanon and Hezbollah to the stone age,” he said. “I always take my enemies very seriously, even if they are just issuing threats.”
On Syria, Gallant said Israel has three primary interests: preventing Iran from building army bases, preventing the transfer of game-changing weapons, and not tolerating any firing at Israel.
He said Russia is not permitting the Iranians to do what they want in Syria, and that Russia and Iran are competitors, not friends.
“We have more joint interests with Russia than Iran has,” Gallant said. “Our main alliance is, of course, with America, but the prime minister has also really succeeded in keeping good relations with Russia. Netanyahu is a strategic asset for Israel, due to the relations he has built – it’s not only his post but his personality and leadership.”
REGARDING GAZA, Gallant said Hamas has been having a very tough time rearming and is stymied by the Iron Dome missile defense system. He said that upon the completion of Israel’s efforts against terrorist tunnels, it would be difficult for Hamas to attack Israel.
“Hamas is isolated and blockaded by Israel and Egypt,” he said. “We are working on easing the humanitarian problems in Gaza without harming our security – giving them water and energy, while a militia of hundreds is holding two million people hostage. Easing the economic situation in Gaza is a strategic interest for Israel.”
Gallant supports Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz’s proposal to build an offshore seaport for Gaza.
In the West Bank, he said, the situation has improved in the 15 years since the IDF’s Operation Defensive Shield, and he is thankful that those who have recently attacked with knives were not permitted to obtain bombs. He warned about what could happen following the tenure of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“There will be competition for the Palestinian leadership following Abbas that will be decided by who will be more extreme,” he said. “If someone says they support peace with Israel, it diminishes their chances of winning the leadership, so we will have to be ready.”
The Kulanu politician, who has been rumored to be a future candidate for the Likud’s Knesset slate, said that in the Oslo peace process, “Israel gave and gave and didn’t get anything back.”
He said the Palestinians were making mistakes by not negotiating with Israel and not stopping violence, incitement and payments to terrorists.
Gallant did not rule out the creation of a Palestinian state, but he said it could not have any military control of its airspace or the right to bring in millions of Palestinian refugees from around the world.
A FORMER military secretary to Ariel Sharon, Gallant used the post to build close ties with American generals. He said relations with the American security establishment were becoming even closer.
“They realize the value in their partnership with us, due to its creativity, accessibility, intelligence, values, and common enemies,” he said. “Israel will respect and cooperate with any American partner.”
Adding additional reasons for optimism, Gallant said “diplomatic relations with the most important countries are better than ever, relations with moderate Arab countries are improving, and Israel’s conventional enemies are busy in Syria and Iraq.
“We also have new abilities,” he said. “Israel is rich in the resources of its people and its security technology – Iron Dome, cyber-technology, etc. All this improves our situation. People want to be our friends because of our security, intelligence, economy, agriculture. Our diplomatic, security, and economic situations are very good now.”