A “deadlock” in creative thinking on security threatens Israel far more than the diplomatic impasse with the Palestinians, Education Minister Naftali Bennett warned Tuesday, in a thinly veiled attack on political and defense leaders from coalition partner Likud.
“The main threat to Israel’s security comes not from the north or south, not from the rockets of Hamas and Hezbollah, and not even from Iran,” he told a conference of the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Nor is diplomatic deadlock our main threat, but a deadlock in our thinking.”
Perceptual barriers were more perilous than the concrete barriers erected in the heart of Jerusalem to protect citizens from terror attacks, he went on. “Instead of shaping our futures ourselves, Israel is being dragged along by the existing reality,” he said. “In my view, this is the greatest danger to our security.”
The comments were seen as critical of decisions made by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in managing a series of crises over the last several years.
Sources close to Netanyahu lashed out at Bennett for his “laughable” comments.
“Once again he’s using things that came up in discussions with the PM and presenting them as his own ideas,” a source said.
Bennett, leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party, a member of the Likud-led governing coalition, told the security conference Israel’s enemies were doing better than treading water and that extremist elements were gaining strength at the expense of more stable states. The creativity of Israel’s enemies — “their determination and innovation — all these are flourishing and improving,” he said.
Indeed, the resourcefulness of Israel’s enemies have made the gradual improvements in Israel’s defensive capability “irrelevant,” he said. “Israel is being left behind. That’s why we have to refresh our way of thinking, not just our weaponry.
“All our expensive F-35 fighter jets will not help when 50 (enemy) commandos dig their way to Netiv Ha’Asara,” he said, referring to an Israeli community near the Gaza frontier. “We have to formulate an innovative security concept that is creative and clear.”
Bennett said that during Operation Protective Edge, the war in the Gaza Strip in 2014, he witnessed the gap in the quality of the army’s commanders and fighters and the conceptual strategy within which they were forced to operate.
Contrasting with the “heroism and determination” of the fighters was the “pallor of the orders and plans that we provided from above,” he said. “While we knew that tunnels of hell were being dug into our territory, we remained stuck in the thinking that Hamas wasn’t interested in using them.”
Day after day, the media was being told that deterrence was having its effect on Hamas, which had not expected such a powerful Israeli response.
“But none of that stopped Hamas from continuing to fire,” he said. “Even when we had ceasefires during the fighting, the side that broke them every time was Hamas… Hamas was the one interested in renewing the campaign.
“Meanwhile, the same tunnels that we said they wouldn’t dare to use illustrated our mistake; the tunnels were not a fallback plan — they were a new battlefront. When the field commanders begged to continue destroying the tunnels, the upper echelon ordered them to stop time after time, to hold their fire, to mark time… The result was a decline in decisiveness and a bitter taste that spread through the communities of Israel.”
A reliance on the army’s justified reputation as the best military in the world did not turn the strategy determined by the “captains of policy and defense” into a good one, Bennett went on, calling on his colleagues in Israel’s political leadership to test all of its basic assumptions and to ask itself questions.
Who was Israel’s real enemy, for example, in the north? Should Israel accept the assumption that Hezbollah was the enemy? Israelis were being told “day and night” that Iran was the enemy, and that Hezbollah was just their operating arm, he said. If that was the case, there was room to debate whether it was right to invest so much effort harming the operational arm while granting immunity to the enemy itself — Iran — he added.
The political and defense brass had to ask why it was that with every conflict involving Hamas and Hezbollah, the Israeli side shed blood while the “head of the octopus” enjoyed immunity.
Bennett even suggested that the Gaza blockade policy could be rethought. “Isn’t it preferable to accept the reality and sever our responsibility for two million Gazans? To give them avenues through which to improve their lives, with the appropriate security supervision?”
He added that the state budget required thorough review to check whether it really reflected the right priorities, and called for weapons acquisition budgets to be reduced in favor of budgets to improve legal activity, PR and awareness-raising. “People need to finally understand that awareness and the law are not some kind of nice flavoring to add to the military program but rather must be a central element of it.”