Shield and Arrow: Netanyahu's weapons against low approval, Ben-Gvir

INSIDE POLITICS: Netanyahu is using the operation in Gaza to differentiate himself from his Itamar Ben-Gvir and to repair his shattered public image.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu holds security consultations on Wednesday amid Operation Shield and Arrow. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu holds security consultations on Wednesday amid Operation Shield and Arrow.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

The name of this week’s military operation – Shield and Arrow – was thoughtfully coined by the IDF to frame the attack on the Islamic Jihad leadership in Gaza as both an offensive strike against terrorists and as a defensive rampart against the terrorist attacks they carried out.

But the operation’s name also symbolizes the political aspects of the latest Gaza flare-up and its implications for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It provided him with a shield to halt his declining approval ratings and to recover from the fallout of his government’s awful debut, while handing him an arrow to shoot his main coalition nemesis, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has been criticizing Netanyahu’s supposedly weak defensive posture for weeks.

The targeted assassination of three Islamic Jihad commanders put an end to Otzma Yehudit’s childish boycott of the government, of which it is a full member, and made a mockery of Ben-Gvir’s ongoing critique of the government’s seemingly frail response to the latest barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip. 

Notwithstanding Ben-Gvir’s lofty government title, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant excluded the national security minister from the top-secret security consultations in which Israel’s response was determined, and he was kept out of the decision-making process preceding the operation. 

Left in the dark, Ben-Gvir and his party waged a public campaign decrying the government’s feeble response, and proceeded to boycott their own cabinet and Knesset coalition. Netanyahu was seemingly unmoved, brushing off Ben-Gvir’s empty threats with an impolite offer to leave if he’s so unhappy, while planning the aggressive IDF operation, which would shortly disarm his far-right critic completely.

Yoav Gallant. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post) (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Yoav Gallant. (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post) (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Netanyahu chose Yoav Gallant over Itamar Ben-Gvir

“It’s about time!” Ben-Gvir tweeted on Tuesday at 2:32 a.m., just a few minutes after the IDF Spokesman officially announced the launch of Operation Shield and Arrow, informing the national security minister about the strike on the Islamic Jihad leaders at the same time that the ordinary Israeli found out. 

It was Ben-Gvir’s first, but not last, effort to credit himself for the IDF’s hardline offensive, citing his repeated demand to renew targeted assassinations as its prime impetus. Netanyahu’s confidants dismissed Ben-Gvir’s claim to fame as “nonsense,” asserting that Netanyahu’s forceful military reaction allowed the Otzma Yehudit minister to climb down the ladder, thus ending the coalition crisis without admitting his own humiliating defeat.

The operation undermined Ben-Gvir’s impatient and populist demands, while marking him as an irrelevant and unreliable player sidelined from crucial decision-making. Although it’s not unusual for the prime minister to restrict security deliberations to his defense minister and an intimate circle of ministers, but with his far-right extremist partners, Netanyahu is more reluctant than ever to convene the security cabinet or to consult with Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich

Instead, Netanyahu opted to make amends with Gallant – who he recently sacked and then relented – and longtime loyalist Ron Dermer, and to surround himself with the top military and security brass, drawing a vivid line between “the responsible adults” in charge of the critical decisions and Ben-Gvir’s capricious and adolescent conduct.

Thus, the confrontation bolstered Netanyahu’s efforts to differentiate himself from his frivolous ally and to repair his shattered public image, framing him as the experienced and sensible leader who ignores coalition chatter and makes the truly important decisions by himself.

AFTER MORE than four months of unprecedented turmoil over his contentious judicial reform, for which he was lambasted far and wide, the operation in Gaza provides Netanyahu with the consummate distraction: From the reform and ongoing protests, from the frantic efforts to pass the state budget against the backdrop of a looming economic crisis and from the public’s dismal opinion of the ultra-Orthodox’s military draft exemption and other costly sectorial commitments to his coalition partners. 

Netanyahu, like Netanyahu, supplemented the military operation with a heavy PR campaign to show he is back into his well-known security element, releasing poster-like visuals of himself leading dramatic security meetings and issuing deterring threats and statements against the terrorists.

A month and a half after firing his defense minister for sounding the alarm on the security implications of the judicial overhaul, Netanyahu and Gallant were on the same page in their daily joint addresses to the nation on primetime TV, displaying a belated renaissance to their recently strained relations. 

Gallant’s sacking, which was responded with by unprecedented spontaneous mass protests, caused Netanyahu to dramatically collapse in the polls, and dealt a severe blow to Likud supporters especially, who were shocked by the impulsive dismissal. Their latest – evidently positive and successful – strategic collaboration is slated to stop the bleeding and help bring back at least parts of the Likud’s disappointed electoral base, who have been drifting over to Benny Gantz in recent polls.

Keeping to the security agenda serves Netanyahu’s grand plan to shift his government’s focus from the failed judicial reform and wind down the mass protests in the streets. The targeted attack on the Islamic Jihad leadership provides him with an aggressive benchmark to calm down his right-wing partners’ discontent with the overhaul freeze, and is expected to ease the pressure from Ben-Gvir, at least for a while. 

Playing the security card also diverts attention from the rising prices, the ongoing economic crisis and from the public criticism over the billions of shekels set to be transferred to his sectorial allies’ needs and demands in the state budget later this month.

However, Netanyahu’s political gain from Shield and Arrow may be short lived, and it depends, first and foremost, on the success and length of the IDF operation, and how long a ceasefire will persist.

The next security challenge is already around the corner next week, with the annual Jerusalem Day celebrations and traditional edgy right-wing flag march in the Old City bound to raise tensions again, especially under the mandate of the current national security minister. Unlike the Gaza portfolio, from which Netanyahu and Gallant can isolate and ostracize Ben-Gvir and work exclusively with the IDF and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), the Jerusalem Day events are under the auspices of the police, and as the minister in charge, he cannot be left out of the room and has direct influence and access to the command on the ground. 

Any positive effect of the Gaza incursion could easily wear off if it is followed by a surge in West Bank terror or by a quick renewal of the rocket firing on communities in the South. And any political achievement from the short and successful pinpoint operation can be quickly erased if it evolves into a long-term large-scale military escalation.