Having passed through the memorial and holiday period, Israel’s challenges remain the same, with some coming into sharper focus during the recent rocket attacks.
Relations with the United States continue along a two-track paradigm, which sends multiple mixed signals – on the one hand supporting a slowdown in judicial reform and lowering expectations of an imminent White House invitation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; on the other, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan last week could not have been more supportive in telling the Washington Institute, “We have made clear to Iran that it can never be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon. As President Biden has repeatedly reaffirmed, he will take the actions necessary to stand by this statement, including by recognising Israel’s freedom of action.”
Currently the Biden administration is defending Israel’s right to self-defence, while urging care to avoid civilian casualties. Israel of course always tries to do this, but the irritation of her strongest ally feeling the need to express this, somehow unnecessarily implies that she needs reminding.
Actions by Israel this week show Netanyahu is increasingly reasserting his leadership over the government, while dealing with two major internal challenges.
The ongoing anti-judicial reform demonstrations continue and with expanding agendas. Despite the unprecedented nature of the size and frequency of the protests, they are not Netanyahu’s current biggest political headache – particularly while compromise talks under President Isaac Herzog continue and Netanyahu manages to delay the reform legislation.
Netanyahu’s biggest internal challenge is keeping his coalition together and getting the budget passed by May 29.
One issue is the commitment to the Charedim to pass a law that exempts them from the IDF draft. This they threaten, is a coalition deal breaker.
More serious is the position of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit party, who called his own government’s decision to bar Jews from the Temple Mount on the last 10 days of Ramadan a mistake – but said “this was not yet a trigger for him to leave the government”.
This time Ben Gvir and his party were openly making threats to leave the government, going so far as boycotting cabinet meetings and threatening not to turn up to Knesset votes. Ben Gvir is upset at being excluded from security cabinet meetings and was very unhappy with the government’s initial response to the rockets from Gaza earlier this month, calling for a stronger response and the targeting of Gazan terror leaders directly.
Iran’s near-term tactics appeared to be to continue attacks by their proxies, but at a relatively low enough level to not spark an all-out response from Israel, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) being more under their influence than Hamas.
In early May, PIJ launched over 100 rockets at Israel after member Khader Adnan died in an Israeli prison after being on a long-term hunger strike. Patiently waiting a week for PIJ to miscalculate Israel’s response, Netanyahu launched Operation Shield and Arrow – directly targeting PIJ leaders.
Despite this being in line with Ben Gvir’s demands, and while it allowed him to climb down from his threat to boycott the government – for now – it is clear that Netanyahu did not include him in the deliberations, as he wanted to control the parameters without Ben Gvir’s input and agitation.
Netanyahu was also concerned with keeping the operation a surprise, so as not to drive the PIJ leaders back into hiding. He bypassed the security cabinet and took the operational decision with Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and the IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi – and with the approval of the Attorney-General.
This seems to be a return of the patient, calm and considered Netanyahu who waited a week after the IDF was actually battle ready, to pick the right moment.
Senior government officials quickly put the word out denying Ben Gvir had had any influence on the launch of Shield and Arrow, and it appears that is indeed correct. The operation has also been strongly backed by Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, whose parties were also at pains to minimise Ben Gvir’s role.
Simultaneously, Israel has mounted an operation against PIJ in the West Bank.
Netanyahu has shown this week that he is firmly back in the driver’s seat and that Israeli policy is nimble and strategic enough to have made at least two significant changes in its response to the rockets from Gaza – the targeted assassinations of PIJ leaders, and specifically blaming PIJ for the rockets and telling Hamas to stay out of the current round.
While Israel’s south is in lockdown awaiting PIJ’s response and Hamas’ decision to enter the fray or otherwise, it’s a strong message to Iran and its proxies, that Israel’s democracy is robust and that hundreds of thousands can protest against the government, but that Israel’s enemies should not misunderstand this for weakness.
Unity and an ability to exercise sufficient force when it comes to the defence of the Israeli people, has once again been demonstrated.
Ron Weiser is a past president of the Zionist Federation of Australia and honorary life president of the Zionist Council of NSW.