Our enemies smell weakness

Less than two weeks ago, the defense minister warned of security dangers on multiple fronts exacerbated by the internal rift over Israel’s direction. He was all too prescient

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Israel's security cabinet meets after rocket barrages from Lebanon, April 6, 2023. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is seated opposite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Israel's security cabinet meets after rocket barrages from Lebanon, April 6, 2023. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is seated opposite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Less than two weeks ago, on Saturday night, March 25, Yoav Gallant, Israel’s minister of defense, addressed the nation and issued an alert:

“By virtue of my duties as the Minister of Defense of the State of Israel, I stand before you and emphasize: We face great threats – both near and far. Iran is closer than ever to gaining military nuclear capabilities. Palestinian terrorism is increasing. The northern arena is tense. These days, more than ever, we face unprecedented security challenges.”

Gallant had conveyed the same concerns privately to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his leadership colleagues, warning them that the external threats were rising because Israel’s enemies smelled internal weakness, and urging that the key decision-making security cabinet be convened to address the dangers.

Specifically, the defense minister told the nation, his own government’s insistence on blitzing through legislation to overhaul the judiciary, was causing a “growing rift in our society” that was now penetrating the IDF and security agencies. It was so profound a rift, indeed, he said, as to pose “a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state.”

Gallant pleaded publicly with Netanyahu, as he had pleaded with him privately, to halt the legislation, and instead “initiate a unifying national process with broad participation… for the sake of Israel’s security, for the sake of our sons and daughters.”

Far from halting the legislation and convening the security cabinet, Netanyahu shot the messenger: Gallant was fired the next day.

Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan set up bonfires and block a highway during a protest moments after the Israeli leader fired his defense minister, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Oren Ziv)

Only the day after that, on Monday, March 27, amid a vast outpouring of street protests nationwide and widespread strike action, did the prime minister indeed temporarily suspend the overhaul legislation. Gallant remained fired in theory but not in practice — as of this writing, he has yet to receive a formal letter of dismissal. The security cabinet did not convene.

Now, just a few days later, several of those external threats the defense minister warned about have been realized.

Thursday saw the heaviest barrage of rockets fired at Israel from Lebanon since the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Israel has blamed Hamas forces across the northern border for the launches, while noting that the assault would not have been carried out without the backing of the Hezbollah terrorist army there.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire caused after a rocket fired from Lebanon hit near the Israeli town of Shlomi, April 6, 2023. (Fadi Amun/Flash90)

Rockets have been repeatedly fired into Israel from Gaza, too, in recent days, as the IAF has struck back at Hamas targets in the enclave.

And Palestinian terrorism is indeed on the rise; in the latest incident, two sisters were shot dead in the Jordan Valley on Friday, and their mother was in critical condition.

Much of this escalation echoes the events surrounding the last major upsurge in hostilities, in May 2021 — which also coincided with Ramadan, and with concerted efforts by Hamas and other groups to instigate violence and terrorism surrounding purported threats to Al-Aqsa Mosque atop the Temple Mount. Then, as now, Palestinians were exhorted to barricade themselves inside the shrine; then, as now, violent confrontations ensued, providing video footage and pictures guaranteed to intensify anger and prompt still further violence.

Then, as now, East Jerusalem Palestinians and Arabs inside Israel, including in mixed cities, were drawn into the violence. As of this writing, while the onslaught from Lebanon dwarfs any other such cross-border fire in recent years, the violence in Jerusalem and inside Israel is less widespread than it was two years ago.

This photo released by the Lebanese Army official website, shows unfired rockets that were set to be launched to Israel, in Marjayoun, southeast Lebanon, Friday, April 7, 2023. (Lebanese Army Website via AP)

Facing challenges on multiple fronts, the IDF chief of staff on Friday ordered the call-up of an unspecified number of Israel Air Force reservists, including fighter pilots. Many such reservists had been warning they would not report for service if the overhaul legislation goes through in its current revolutionary form, and had been told by a Likud minister that they could “go to hell.” All of them, it is highly likely, will heed the chief of staff’s call.

But the rift that Gallant highlighted remains unhealed. The particular bill that would give the coalition almost complete control of judicial appointments, politicizing and neutering the judicial system, has been formally submitted to the Knesset for its second and third (final) readings, which can therefore be held with almost no advance notice. And the “compromise talks” being held under the aegis of President Isaac Herzog are not reported to be going well.

Meanwhile, Gallant remains a defense chief in limbo — an untenable situation most especially as he heads a military hierarchy now deployed to protect Israel on its northern, eastern and southern fronts, against aggression coordinated by the ayatollahs in Iran.

With Israel under fire, Netanyahu finally convened the security cabinet on Thursday night. Stressing that it was acting on the security establishment’s recommendations, the coalition sought a response to the escalation that would reassert Israel’s deterrent capabilities without plunging the region into deeper conflict — a tightrope walk in the midst of Ramadan and Passover, with vast crowds of Muslims at prayer at al-Aqsa, and vast crowds of Jewish worshippers due at the Western Wall below on Sunday for the festive “birkat kohanim” priestly blessing.

Vowing that Israel’s enemies would pay a “significant price” for their aggression, the prime minister declared that “the internal debate among us will not prevent us from acting against them anywhere and at any time. We are all — with no exception — united on this.”

Opposition leaders have indeed publicly promised their support for “every responsible and determined action by the government to restore calm and strengthen deterrence,” as National Unity party leader Benny Gantz said on Thursday night.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi (left), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, at an army ceremony on April 3, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

But as Gallant warned, that unity is being imperiled.

As he told Israel on March 25: “We must set aside the questions, ‘who started it’ and ‘who’s right,’ and [instead] initiate a unifying national process with broad participation, a process that will strengthen the State of Israel and preserve the strength of the IDF.”

The prime minister’s treatment of his defense minister — ignoring a direct plea from Gantz on Thursday to announce that Gallant would be staying on — is itself an emblem of the schism.

And our enemies, all too clearly, still smell weakness.

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