Naftali Bennett is focused on Gaza, Syria and his political success

Security and Defense: Keeping Israel safe during elections

NAFTALI BENNETT at the Defense Ministry this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
NAFTALI BENNETT at the Defense Ministry this week.
Here is one surprising piece of news from the interview this week with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett: Since the leader of Yamina moved into the 14th floor of the Defense Ministry in early November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hasn’t interfered even once in any of his decisions.
Bennett himself has been surprised. “I was warned he would do to me what he did to [Avigdor] Liberman,” he told The Jerusalem Post this week in a wide-ranging interview. But he hasn’t, and the reason seems to be a combination of Netanyahu being busy with his upcoming criminal trial, the election on Monday – and the fact that he simply trusts Bennett.
What makes this interesting is that Netanyahu has been attacking Bennett in recent weeks – saying he only appointed him as defense minister due to political needs and working to steal away votes from the national religious camp. Nevertheless, Bennett won’t hit back.
“I am not responsible for Bibi’s actions, but I won’t give our enemies enjoyment to see me fight with the prime minister,” Bennett explained. “[Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah would want to see it – but there is an 11th commandment that a defense minister doesn’t fight with a prime minister.”
Bennett might be right, but this strategy is a gamble going into an election on Monday. Based on his political career during the last year, it is a gamble worth paying attention to.
Ahead of the first election in April, Bennett broke off from Bayit Yehudi – which he had led since 2012 – and established the New Right Party, which failed to cross the electoral threshold. At the time, Bennett was considering returning to the tech sector, where he made a name for himself as a creative entrepreneur. But then a new election was called for in September and he made his way back into Yamina in the No. 4 slot.
From there, in November, he managed to convince Netanyahu that he might break away from the right-wing bloc straight into Benny Gantz’s open arms, getting the prime minister to make him defense minister. And now, with the third election set for Monday, he is running as the head of the party where last time he was on the back benches.
THE INTERVIEW with Bennett took place just a day after Islamic Jihad had fired over 100 rockets into Israel. In retaliation, the IAF had bombed Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza and, for the first time after Gaza rocket fire, also in Syria.
According to Bennett, even though there is currently quiet, there is a 95% chance that Israel will still need to launch a massive offensive against Hamas and Islamic Jihad sometime in the near future.
“We are ready, and the plans have been formulated with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the military,” Bennett said. “We will give one very last chance to the terrorists to maintain quiet. But I don’t believe them. They are liars and murderers, and we are going to have to act. It’s always a last resort to go to war. But this time it will be on our terms with our timing and with a very clear vision of the day after.”
And while Gaza might seem more pressing, what Bennett points to as the more serious threat to Israel is what is happening in Syria, where Iran is continuing to try and entrench itself in an effort to threaten the Jewish state.
For this threat, he has created a new strategy: Stop going after the tentacles or proxies and instead go after the head of the octopus itself – Iran.
“I have placed a goal that within 12 months Iran will leave Syria,” Bennett said. “Iran has nothing to look for in Syria, they aren’t neighbors and they have no reason to settle next to Israel – and we will remove Iran from Syria in the near future.”
According to foreign reports, Bennett said, it’s not only the intensity of the strikes which has increased, but the types of targets that have been hit.
“If in the past the majority of the targets were against lone convoys which entered the country from Iran via Iraq to Syria and then to the Golan Heights or Lebanon, the targets are now completely different,” he said.
And while the campaign has been able to cause significant damage to Iran’s project in Syria, Israel needs to do more. Bennett wants the Israeli military to increase its steps against Iran and Hezbollah, because once the cost becomes too high, Tehran will completely withdraw from Syria.
According to Bennett, 70% of Israel’s tactical threats originate in Iran.
“Over the past 20-30 years, Israel has played right into the hands of Iran,” he said, explaining that the Jewish state “busied itself with Iran’s fingertips” and lost hundreds of soldiers fighting those “fingertips” – referring to Israel’s various campaigns against terror groups in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon – while the head of the octopus is safely hundreds of kilometers away in Tehran.
“Iran has no motivation to stop,” he said, but the change, which will be both military and economic, will get the “tentacles, which are Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad to dry up – and the head of the octopus will starve.”
The paralyzing economic sanctions placed on Iran by the United States have hit the country hard, and the plummeting economy has led to large protests there.
By forcing the Iranian government to choose between “regional adventures” and the possible downfall of the regime, will hopefully “prevent the third Lebanon war or the 14th Protective Edge,” Bennett said.
TURNING TO the political realm, Bennett addressed concerns over the legitimacy of a prime minister serving as the ultimate decision-maker in the country while on trial for corruption charges, as Netanyahu appears intent to do.
The head of Yamina essentially said that the policy goals of the right-wing were more important.
“Is this a desirable situation? Absolutely not,” said Bennett.
“Am I happy about all of this? No. But we’re in a real world of two alternatives. One is a government led by Netanyahu with this issue, which is not a good one, and the other is a government headed by Benny Gantz.”
Bennett accused Gantz’s Blue and White Party of having “left-wing DNA,” and that the positions of MKs Yair Lapid, Ofer Shelah and others were contrary to his ideology.
When it was pointed out that Blue and White has frequently said that it is willing to form a unity government with the right-wing Likud Party – but without Netanyahu – Bennett would only say that he hoped a narrow right-wing government would be formed led by Netanyahu.
In light of Netanyahu’s pending trial, scheduled to begin on March 17, the prime minister has indicated, although subsequently denied, that he is considering passing legislation to retroactively grant himself immunity from prosecution.
Asked about his stance on such legislation, Bennett refused to rule out the possibility that he might support it.
“Generally, I am huge supporter of a French law,” he said using the Israeli term for an immunity law, citing legal entanglements of previous prime ministers as a reason to have such a statute.
“Specifically, in this case we’re talking about retroactive application. I would need to see the bill and then make a decision; I’m not going to make a decision now,” the defense minister said.
Bennett’s political career over the last 18 months has been nothing short of a white knuckle, extreme roller coaster ride, from the low of crashing out of the Knesset in April to the high of being appointed defense minister.
It is perhaps because of this perilous political journey that he is reluctant to criticize his political nemesis Netanyahu.
What is certain is that this close brush with political death is also the reason he has turned away from the broad, national vision he espoused as New Right leader and back towards the narrow, sectoral message he has been advancing on the campaign trail.
Bennett acknowledged this transformation, but said it had been necessary because his original strategy did not yield results.
“My vision had not changed. My vision is to open up to the Jewish people, to those who are traditional, to the secular who have a strong Jewish identity, and to the religious… my vision is to combine it,” he said.
“But I cannot be blind to the results. The fact is that it failed: We didn’t get in. My intentions were good, but I can’t ignore the reality, and I cannot take that risk again.”
The contrast is not confined to just the campaign approach however, with Bennett clearly aware of the limitations he will be under in another religious, right-wing government.
ONE POTENT issue that has arisen in the current election cycle is the new public transport systems operated on Shabbat in major cities such as Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan, using legal loopholes to circumvent the nationwide ban on such networks.
This week, senior ultra-Orthodox MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism vowed to introduce legislation to ban these new initiatives.
Pressed several times, Bennett refused to say if he would oppose such a law.
“Yes, there are issues of religion and state which we disagree on,” he said of himself and his hard line running mates, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Education Minister Rafi Peretz, who are staunch religious conservatives.
“On religion and state, we’re going to agree not to agree – and everyone will have freedom of the vote.”
Addressing the Gaza conundrum once again, Bennett said that as defense minister, he is responsible for providing the people of the South “what they haven’t had for 20 years – sustainable peace and quiet.”
“If Israelis in the South can’t sleep at night, terrorists in Gaza and Damascus won’t sleep,” Bennett said, referring to air strikes the IAF carried out Sunday night against PIJ targets, which he said killed eight terrorists near the Syrian capital. “I want to give hope to the people of the South – to bring them quiet,” he said.
While Bennett did not provide a time line for when the campaign would begin, he hinted that he wanted Hamas to have a “painful spring.”
Addressing concerns that the IDF would have to wage a campaign on two fronts simultaneously – in Gaza and Syria – Bennett said that the military has experience fighting in two areas at the same time.
“The IDF knows how to act on two fronts at the same time,” he said. “But of course, strategically, you would prefer to deal with one front before the other. But we are prepared for it. And that’s one reason why we will choose the time.”
Bennett told the Post that the coming campaign would be “totally different” than past military campaigns, and once Gaza has been “reset,” there would be years of quiet.
It is not just the military operation that “will be completely different” from past campaigns, but the perspective of what Gaza will look like “the day after” will also be “completely different” than in the past, he said.
When asked what would be so different from past campaigns in the Gaza Strip, Bennett answered cryptically: “Wait and see.”•