At the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addressed the country’s security situation.
Referring to the Israel Defense Forces attack on Hamas targets in Gaza following the latest wave of incendiary balloons, he warned the terrorist organization that it will be held accountable for any such flareups, no matter which group is behind them.
Referring to Lebanon—without specifying the missile attacks on northern Israel on Saturday or Israel’s retaliatory strikes—Bennett pointed to the “very important awakening by many citizens [there] against Hezbollah and Iranian involvement.”
The Israeli premier went on to caution “Lebanon and its army” that they “must take responsibility for what is happening in their backyard,” even if the perpetrators of the recent rocket launches hailed from a Palestinian organization, belonged to a dissident group or acted independently.
“The State of Israel will not accept firing at its territory,” he stressed.
Turning to Iran’s deadly suicide-drone assault on the Israeli-managed Mercer Street tanker on July 29, he commended the G-7 countries for having condemned the attack, which was proven by the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) to have been carried out by the Islamic Republic. While on that topic, he invoked Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, the “‘hangman of Tehran,’ a brutal extremist even for the Iranian regime,” and cited “Iranian aggression throughout the Middle East—on land, at sea and in the air.”
Iran, he said—reiterating the mantra of his predecessor—“constitutes a clear danger to the stability of the region and the peace of the world, and the world must not accept this. The Iranians need to understand that it is impossible to continue running amok without paying a price.”
Here’s the rub, however: Members of his coalition aren’t exactly on the same page, to put it mildly. That the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Ra’am Party opposes expanding military actions in Gaza and Lebanon beyond the minor ones, aimed more at muscle-flexing than beating the drums of war, is neither new nor a surprise.
In fact, it was the advent of “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in May that caused Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas to back out of coalition negotiations with Bennett and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid.
Abbas was already in hot water with many Arab citizens for breaking with tradition and even considering becoming part of a Zionist government. Had he not halted talks to this end while the Israeli military was bombing Palestinian terrorists and their infrastructure in Gaza, he knew that he’d be toast. And not only electorally.
He also realized, however, that he’d have to become a member of the government once the fighting was over. Otherwise, the risk he took by splitting from the Joint Arab List and running on a platform geared towards procuring a place at the table—and a budget to go along with it—would have been for naught.
His precarious position, along with the desperation of the disparate collection of parties who banded together for the sole purpose of ousting then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, made him a key player without whom Israelis would have been sent back to the polls for a fifth round of elections.
Since June, when the anti-Netanyahu government became a done deal, Iran hasn’t been too prominent where the public interest is concerned. Thanks to the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant and a return to all kinds of previously lifted restrictions, most Israelis—other than those living along the northern and southern borders—have been otherwise preoccupied. Indeed, their criticism of the government has centered more on its handling of the pandemic than on Iran.
This distraction from armed enemies in favor of microscopic ones makes sense on a practical level. People’s lives are directly affected by the question of whether the fast-approaching school year is going to commence on time, for instance. And excessive coronavirus coverage in the media has only served to magnify the dread.
Yet every now and then, a reminder of why the self-dubbed “change coalition” is so problematic pops up in the press. Take a radio interview on Sunday with Meretz Knesset member Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi, for example.
Rinawie-Zoabi told Kan news that according to the coalition agreements, the government is only supposed to deal with economic and civil matters.
“Bennett knows that if the government enters into a military confrontation, the coalition will fall,” she said, “because Meretz and Ra’am will not agree to such a thing.”
Referring to Hezbollah’s rocket barrage on Friday, she said that if Netanyahu were still holding the reins, Israel would have reacted far more forcefully.
“Bennett understands today … that his right-wing voters have left him and will not return, and therefore he needs to understand that he is getting closer to the left,” she concluded.
Her honesty, which is ironic considering that Netanyahu and his supporters have been saying that about Bennett all along, caused fellow Meretz members to flinch.
“[Rinawie-Zoabi] may be speaking for herself, but I don’t accept what she said,” claimed MK Mossi Raz in a radio interview on Monday. “We want to strengthen the government, not topple it.”
Twisted in knots, he clarified, “In general, military decisions are made by the Cabinet, and neither I nor MK Rinawie-Zoabi has a say in the matter. As an aside, I believe that it is the government’s responsibility to do everything it can to avoid a military conflict, God forbid.”
He hastened to add, “Even though we should avoid military conflict, when it is necessary, the government must respond. We did so [following the recent Hezbollah attack], and it was a proper response to an unnecessary provocation.”
Another Meretz member, Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej, was similarly ill at ease when probed on Rinawie-Zoabi’s remarks.
Calling the framing of her comments “unfortunate,” he told Channel 13’s Amnon Levy that his party has no intention of toppling the coalition. He conveniently skirted the question of whether what she had asserted about Meretz and Ra’am was true, preferring to mumble something about differences of opinion and interpretation.
That’s all well and good for internal consumption, perhaps. But Iran and its proxies within and surrounding the Jewish state are paying attention—not to Bennett’s admonitions, but to Israel’s deeds. So far, the former have outweighed the latter by miles.
If his acting in this manner were based solely on military assessments and preparedness, it would be justified. In this case, sadly, the calculations and considerations appear to be political. It’s not only Ra’am, Meretz and other coalition parties that are bent on preventing the fall of the nascent government, after all. Bennett has even more of a reason than his partners to cling to his seat and status.
Holding on to power for dear life is what politicians do. We know and accept this, on the condition that they protect our dear lives in the process; it’s what kept Netanyahu at the helm for so many years.
The trouble with Bennett is that he cannot pull off both tasks simultaneously, regardless of his pronouncements to the Cabinet.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”