Gallant remains focused on external threats to Israel despite government infighting

MILITARY AFFAIRS: New insights from the defense minister on Saudis, judicial overhaul, West Bank terror, and Iran.

 Yoav Gallant with IAF chief Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar. (photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)
Yoav Gallant with IAF chief Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar.
(photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has had to dance his way through at least three “acts” in the lifetime of the current coalition.

In Act I, he blocked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul and was fired on March 23 and then unfired, coming out temporarily idolized in the country’s political Center, while hated on the Right.

During Act II, after his March 23 speech, he reversed course and got in lockstep with Netanyahu, and vehemently laid into IDF reservists who threatened to quit over the judicial reform. This restored some of his support on the Right, while losing some of his support in the Center.

For Act III, after the July 24 restriction of the judiciary’s reasonableness standard, he swung back, insisting on Netanyahu compromising with the opposition on the judicial overhaul. This put him somewhere on the political spectrum in between where he was at the end of acts 1 and 2, though more toward the political Center.

According to Gallant, all of his positions have been consistent in protecting the IDF from harm as his first priority. The Jerusalem Post understands that he is insisting Netanyahu compromise on the judicial overhaul less because he might oppose elements of government policy in principle, but because his primary focus as defense minister has to be to maintain the military’s strength.

 Defense Minister Yoav Gallant during a discussion and a vote at the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem. July 30, 2023 (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant during a discussion and a vote at the assembly hall of the Knesset in Jerusalem. July 30, 2023 (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Some top former defense officials predicted that the military would start to fall apart sometime between September and November. They had predicted that the crisis in preserving Israeli airpower, caused by the air force reservists’ strike against the judicial overhaul, could only be papered over for most of August when many officers take long vacations anyway, but not beyond.

Gallant would not downplay how serious it is for air force reservists to be missing their training sessions in September since many of them could be removed from active duty based on air force regulations that view pilots as rusty if they do not get up in the sky once every few weeks or so.

At the same time, he would not set a specific timeline for when a true IDF crisis will start, and will just continue to demand a compromise to avoid further deterioration in the IDF.

Gallant would say he is not concerned about how this will impact him politically. Also, he will not guess how he would vote if the full judicial overhaul does come before the Knesset. Rather, his analysis is that the harm to the IDF will eventually force a compromise, and that Netanyahu will come out better if he realizes that reality sooner than later.

This dizzying dance has kept Gallant at the forefront of many national security issues.

Maybe the most important issue, which impacts Iran, the Palestinians, and basically all other national security issues, is the process of trying to normalize with the Saudis.

In this process, the Saudis and/or the US have demanded, among other things, that Israel yield at least some symbolic portions of Area C of the West Bank to the Palestinians and that America provides Riyadh with a nuclear program, including a local capability to enrich uranium.

Though Gallant undoubtedly hopes for Saudi normalization, the Post understands that he is surprisingly stridently opposed to any, even symbolic, transfer of land to the Palestinians from Area C.

This might be expected from politicians from the Religious Zionist Party who would like to see the Palestinian Authority collapse and would want to try policies designed to pressure Palestinians into leaving the area.

However, Gallant strongly supports the PA, and wants to empower it to maintain order in its areas of autonomy so that Israeli troops do not need to.

Given that most of Area C has no Jewish settlements and that Netanyahu was ready to give most of it away under the Trump peace plan, granting a symbolic 5-10% transfer of abandoned land would seem a small sacrifice to revolutionize Israel’s place in the Middle East with the Saudis and their allies, for someone with Gallant’s world view.

His position on this is that this is mainly an American deal, which happens to involve Israel on the side, but should not sacrifice any major Israeli interests, given that Washington wants the deal the most.  

In addition, while Gallant supports a deal, he is pessimistic because of the current chronic political instability in both Israel and the US.

True, if there was a national-unity government with opposition and centrist National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz, a deal would be easier, than with National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir in the government.

Yet, Gallant is not overly optimistic that Gantz will rejoin a government led by Netanyahu, even if Gallant himself has said before he would move aside from the Defense Ministry to facilitate such a unity reality.

Next, Gallant believes that the Saudis are also head over heels for such a deal, since it would fulfill some of their critical national security needs in gaining long-term protection from Iran by the US.

But this brings up the next “land mine” – namely that Israel does not want the Saudis to be able to enrich uranium.Sure, Israel understands Saudi fears of Iran and would trust current Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman on a lot of issues, including sharing operational air defense intelligence.

But what if the Saudi leadership later changes or its national interests change, and suddenly it is no longer friends with Israel and has the capability to move toward a military nuclear program?

Gallant’s position is that the devil is in the details. He will only take a stance once the US provides clarifications to questions he provided about how it would prevent the Saudis from ever altering a new civilian nuclear program into a military one.

At the same time, Gallant realizes that when Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer dropped a trial balloon about Israel being able to live with a Saudi civilian nuclear program, he was acting on Netanyahu’s behalf.

This means that given the right political constellation and a chance for a historic Saudi deal, Gallant would probably not get in the way if Netanyahu’s heart was set on it – though he might try to strengthen the deal’s security aspects.

Wave of terror emanating from the West Bank

ANOTHER MAJOR issue that has taken Israel by storm since March 2022 is the continuing wave of terror emanating from the West Bank.

Whether one calls it the third or fourth “intifada” or not, it is now substantially longer than the 2015-2016 “Knife Intifada” and worse than any non-war time period since the Second Intifada around 20 years ago.

Pressed that the “full right-wing” government has failed to end the wave of terror, with no end in sight, and with even attacks in Tel Aviv becoming more common, Gallant would not be terribly taken aback.

His view is that while the situation is bad and worse than a few years ago, it is not close to how bad things were during the first or second intifadas or earlier eras in Israel’s history when the country was much weaker compared to its attackers.

According to Gallant, there is no real alternative to a wise mix of striking terror hard, while improving the lives of peaceful Palestinian civilians in parallel.

His biggest concern would be that in the terror wave since March 2022, a wider number of Palestinians, including lone-wolf attackers, are participating, and not just the hardest core of Palestinian terrorists.

The fact that his preferred strategy may not immediately end the wave of terror does trouble him. But it does not undermine it as the best available strategy, given that he does not believe there are any immediately available formulas for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He does still blame the Oslo Accords years governments for allowing the Palestinian security forces to be given tens of thousands of guns, many of which later were turned against Israel (though Palestinian terrorism pre-existed Oslo by decades.)

This position is probably one reason why he repeatedly distanced himself this past Wednesday from any connection to any new recent weapons transfers to Palestinian security forces from third parties like the US, when the issue exploded in the news.  

The Post also understands that Gallant would at some point back another large Jenin-style IDF operation, such as the massive crackdown by the IDF on July 3-4.

However, he also is not close to that point, and it is not even clear that he would demand such an operation in the next year.

Gallant has also in recent weeks repeatedly campaigned against Iranian involvement in inflaming the West Bank with terror funds, logistics support, and other pressure to destabilize Israel.

Stopping the Islamic Republic’s nuclear progress

The defense minister is also still razor-focused on stopping the Islamic Republic’s nuclear progress, though there is no sense that the ayatollahs will try to break out a weapon imminently in a way that would require a major Israeli airstrike.

Rather, his biggest concerns with Iran currently are: its global terror – the 50 countries that it is trying to sell drones and other weapons to – its many attempts to perpetrate terror against Jews overseas, and that Tehran may misjudge IDF reservists’ protest as a moment for its proxies to take higher risks against Israel.

He would say that such an Iranian and Hezbollah misjudgment led to the Lebanese group’s highly unusual terror operation deep within Israel at Megiddo in March.

In the meantime, Gallant remains on guard regarding a multiplicity of threats facing the state.