Bennett starts new role in trial by fire

This Gaza round not viewed by defense establishment as opportunity to change Israeli policy, yet

DEFENSE MINISTER Naftali Bennett convenes the General Staff on Thursday at the Kirya in Tel Aviv.  (photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)
DEFENSE MINISTER Naftali Bennett convenes the General Staff on Thursday at the Kirya in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)
When the Israeli Air Force aircraft took off to the Gaza Strip in the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday morning, Naftali Bennett was already at the Defense Ministry. He had learned about the planned operation to assassinate Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata the night before, in a meeting with IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi and head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) Nadav Argaman.
Officially, he had yet to enter his role. That wouldn’t happen until 11 a.m., 48 hours after the cabinet approved his appointment on Sunday. But with the operation moving ahead, it was important that he be brought into Israel’s inner security circle.
After the bombing of al-Ata’s secret apartment, Bennett met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – for the last year serving as defense minister alongside his primary role – who handed Bennett the reins to the Defense Ministry.
Bennett then convened his first security assessment with the IDF generals. There, he emphasized four important points as the rocket fire began to intensify against Israel: finish the operation quickly, do everything possible to minimize casualties in Israel, create a long casualty list with Islamic Jihad terrorists, and steer the operation in a direction that it would end without Israel being committed to any conditions that would undermine its future operational freedom.
Since the operation had been in the works for weeks, Bennett decided to give Netanyahu the initial spotlight. This included not pushing to be at the news conference Netanyahu gave at noon alongside Kochavi and Argaman.
The rationale made sense. A prime minister and defense minister need to be able to work closely together, trust one another and be confident in one another’s ability to make decisions. Pushing to participate in that news conference after just taking up the role might have set off a fight over credit that would not have served either of them.
For three nights, Bennett stayed at the Kirya in Tel Aviv, except for a trip down South to the IDF’s Southern Command headquarters. Israel’s 20th defense minister wasn’t getting a day of grace, let alone 100. It was trial by fire from the get-go.
Bennett’s influence over the operation in Gaza was felt mostly at the end, when he oversaw the continued airstrikes against Islamic Jihad while working to ensure that the ceasefire that was going into effect would be beneficial for Israel, mostly because there are no limitations on the IDF if it needs to continue operating in Gaza.
Islamic Jihad tried to secure commitments from Israel but it refused, and ultimately the terror group accepted the truce without them. Bennett’s past experience negotiating business deals served him well in ironing out the end of the conflict.
Since Bennett is not clear on how long he will remain in office – with an election looking likely, he could end up there for at least four to five months – his main focus will be on building up capabilities to confront Iran, whether in Syria, Lebanon or Iran itself. This is due to Israeli intelligence assessments that Iran might try to launch an attack against Israel similar to the one it carried out in September against the Aramco oil refinery in Saudi Arabia, as well as the ayatollahs’ recent decisions to advance their illicit nuclear program.
For the defense establishment, the killing of al-Ata was an important move, but it is not believed to be a game changer when it comes to the threat that Gaza continues to pose to the State of Israel. His removal was important since he was an obstacle to efforts to reach a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and because he posed a threat with his continued attempts to carry out attacks against IDF troops deployed along the Gaza border as well as the Israeli home front.
Bennett, who in the past voiced criticism of Israel’s policy of containment in Gaza, did not view what happened this week as an opportunity to start changing the paradigm or implementing a new policy. That will come later, assuming of course that he stays in his post for more than just a few weeks.