They were speeches separated not just by time but also by tone, rhetoric and their primary message.
The first was delivered by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, back when he was prime minister, almost exactly two years ago. It was May 2020 and Netanyahu’s bribery and corruption trial was opening at the Jerusalem District Court. Before entering the courtroom, Netanyahu stood at a podium he brought with him from the Prime Minister’s Office and went scorched earth while surrounded by masked members of his party.
Netanyahu attacked everyone – the court, the attorney general, the police and the prosecution. Everyone, he claimed, was against him. Everyone was out to bring him down. But, he promised, he would not give up.
“I will continue to fight. I won’t let them bring us down,” he said.
What a difference two years make. On Monday night, the people of Israel heard their prime minister speak about the end of his term, not by attacking anyone or threatening to burn down the country.
Instead, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took responsibility for the mistakes he made, spoke about the regret that he had for not doing better and – in what will probably go down as one of the most gracious acts in Israeli political history – vowed to abide by his rotation agreement and leave office so Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid could take over in the coming days.
It was a stark contrast – not only in the speeches – but also in the way the government came to an end. On Monday, we saw two politicians acknowledge that what might have been the greatest political experiment in Israel had come to an end. Instead of anger and discord, they complimented and hugged one another while promising to work together until the very end.
Now remember what happened when Netanyahu left office a year ago. He met with Bennett for only 30 minutes. There was no transition and no long conversation about the inner workings of government or the passing on of the tricks of the trade that he had accumulated during his nearly 15 years in office. Bennett, in contrast, said on Monday that he would make himself available for as long as needed to ensure a smooth transition with Lapid.
Go back even a little further – to December 2020 - when Netanyahu decided to renege on the promise he had made not to deceive now-Defense Minister Benny Gantz when they formed a government after COVID-19 broke out. He had said that he would not prevent Gantz from becoming prime minister and that there would not be any “shticks or tricks.”
And as we know, he did the exact opposite. “He deceived me, he deceived you, he deceived one too many times. Now he must pay,” Gantz said of Netanyahu after the former prime minister sent the country to its fourth election.
ON MONDAY night, the rhetoric could not have been more different. No one was deceived and no one broke a promise or violated an agreement they had signed months earlier. Instead, what we saw was something rarely seen on the Israeli political landscape – menschlichkeit – basic decency.
Who would have thought that was even possible anymore in the Knesset?
And it was decency that characterized this government. For most of the last year, members of the coalition had put aside their ideological differences and worked together to keep the country safe, to keep the economy growing and to try and heal the wounds from more than two years of some of the most divisive election campaigns this country has known.
To an extent, the government succeeded. It was able – even if for a short time – to show Israelis that they don’t need a leader who rules through fear, division and anger. They showed that it is possible to lead by getting along, making compromises and keeping your eye on the ball by understanding that it is not about you: It is about the country.
Netanyahu might be coming back. That is a fact of life. The government he will potentially form is one that should have Israelis concerned. It will be a government that will have one key purpose – getting him out of court and stopping the legal proceedings against him.
To those who think that it is too late because the trial has already started, think again. Be sure that Netanyahu’s foremost goal will be this – finding a way out of his trial.
One of the ways to do this will be to break down and undermine the criminal justice system. The speech two years ago will look like nothing compared to what is coming. This will be a full onslaught on the rule of law, on the media, on the Knesset and on everything else that stands in the way.
Any institution that serves as part of the foundation of our delicate democracy will be fair game. Is that what we want? Do people really want to go back to a time when leaders speak and care about themselves, about “me” and not about “us”? Is that what people missed?
It doesn’t have to be one or the other. The government that brought Right, Left, Arabs and Jews together wasn’t wrong in principle. Do we really want to go in the direction of the United States, where even the moderate members of both parties can’t bear working together?
That doesn’t mean that a kaleidoscope government will be possible again so soon. It is possible that this attempt was premature and that Israelis were not yet ready for a non-ideologically driven government.
It is also likely that a prime minister with a small party and very narrow public and parliamentary support contributed as well. And then there is the question of whether it made sense to have the entire coalition depend on Arab votes. In the future, it might be wiser – until the people and its politicians are ready – to have the Arabs join the coalition from the 62nd slot and on.
There are many reasons behind what went wrong and those will be analyzed and ripped apart in the weeks to come. But there is a deeper question that still needs to be answered: What kind of state do Israelis want to have here. The answer is much more than a slip of paper that you slide into a ballot box. It is the question that really matters.
A FEW months ago – during the spate of terrorist attacks inside Israel – Bennett convened a meeting with defense chiefs in his office in Jerusalem.
The heads of the nation’s security agencies were there – IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Ronen Bar and Mossad chief David Barnea. A number of other generals and security officials were also in the room.
Bennett and his staff wanted options. Israel appeared under an onslaught and one attack quickly followed the other. People were calling for a new Defensive Shield-style operation in Jenin, like the one in 2002 which saw the military return to all the Palestinian cities it had pulled out of years earlier.
But when Kohavi’s turn came to speak, government officials were surprised by the lack of options.
“He barely presented anything,” one senior official later explained.
For months now, Kohavi has been seen in the government as possibly one of the most political chiefs of staff Israel has had – and he hasn’t even done such a good job hiding his political ambition. Being careful might be understandable from Kohavi’s perspective. He has six months left in office and so far hasn’t had a major failure stick to him. If he wants to get out clean, why take any gambles? Better to play it safe.
If there is something I’ve learned from writing and reporting on the IDF, it is that Israel’s military – like many other hierarchical organizations – is hyper political. Over the years, I’ve had the chance to ask a number of generals and chiefs of staff what their favorite job was in the military. For many, it was when they served as a battalion commander and commanded over troops in training, battle and during late-night operations.
The reason it seems is that a battalion commander is the last job in the IDF that an officer gets just for being talented, having the right training and doing what was needed. You are a good soldier, you go to officer’s training school, you become a platoon commander, a company commander, a deputy battalion commander and then a battalion commander.
From there though, politics kicks in. It becomes about who you know, who will help you, who you helped and more. The officers that move up are talented and worthy but it is not just based on merit anymore. There are now other – more political – considerations.
This is worth keeping in mind as Gantz tries to move up the appointment process for Kohavi’s successor. With Kohavi’s term ending in January, there is still plenty of time to interview candidates and consider the issue until the fall. The reason Gantz wants to appoint someone now is because of the political instability.
What do we know so far?
BUT HERE is a question worth contemplating: What do we – the Israeli people – really know about any of the candidates? They are the current deputy chief of staff, Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi; the former deputy chief of staff Maj.-Gen. Eyal Zamir; and the head of the Ground Forces Command Maj.-Gen. Yoel Strick.
We could write stories and profiles about all of them and interview people who served with them and know them, but would that really tell us enough? Have they ever been interviewed or sat down for a serious one-on-one discussion with tough questions? You already know the answer.
More than a decade ago, the state comptroller wrote a scathing report about the way generals are appointed, especially the chief of staff.
“The procedure for appointing officers to jobs carrying the ranks of major general is nothing but a bargaining process,” Micha Lindenstrauss, the comptroller at the time wrote. “This so-called procedure is not based on any framework, has no rules or regulations, is not clearly based on written material or documents, [and] is not documented.”
This is undemocratic, unhealthy and an opening for the undermining of the legitimacy and authority of the generals and officers who Israelis entrust with their children to protect them and – when needed –take them into battle only when there is no alternative.
Does anyone know why Gantz might prefer Halevi – as he is said to – over Zamir? There is no transparency, no oversight and no accountability. We know absolutely nothing. This is not how a democracy is meant to work.
There are other ways of doing this. In the US, for example, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee for confirmation hearings. They are almost always approved, but it is an important step in ensuring that there is civilian oversight by the public’s representatives.
In Israel, these appointments are made behind closed doors without anyone really knowing anything.
I have had the opportunity over the years to meet all three candidates – Halevi, Strick and Zamir. They all seem like responsible, worthy and talented people. For their sake, and for the sake of our children who serve, though, we should demand a transparent process.
Gantz should know this. He was once in their shoes. In 2012, he was passed up for the top IDF job and brought back only after the government’s first candidate fell through.
It is time to change this. It is the right move for the IDF, for the candidates and for the country.