Hard Questions, Tough Answers - Decision time for Bennett: Lone-wolf terrorism, Gaza, Ukraine, political survival (May 9, 2022)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: This week, PM Bennett faces heavy challenges regarding at least three issue areas: the incitement coming out of Gaza and the wave of lone-wolf terrorism it produces; pressures that Israel tilt toward Ukraine; and the fate of his coalition. Let’s start with Gaza and terror: who or what is the problem there?

A: For nearly two months now, Israel has been plagued by murderous terrorist attacks originating mostly in the West Bank but transpiring inside the green line border fence. Last week’s Independence Day celebrations witnessed yet another uptick, this time a bloody ax-murder of three in the Haredi town of Elad. Once again, the perpetrators exploited gaps in the security fence used by laborers seeking illegal entry. In the case of Elad, an Israeli driver ferried the illegals to their destination, unaware that they were terrorists until they attacked and murdered him.

These attacks have been relatively unique in that the perpetrators cannot be linked to membership in and training by a terrorist group like Hamas. Yet they are inspired for the most part by vicious Hamas incitement emanating from the Gaza Strip, and specifically by Gaza-based Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. Meanwhile, the Strip itself remains calm and continues to benefit from economic incentives provided by Israel and, with Israel’s collaboration, by Egypt and Qatar.

Here we recall that in recent years the strategy regarding the Palestinians adopted by first Netanyahu and now Bennett has been to treat Gaza and the West Bank as separate entities. Israel ignores the West Bank-based PLO/Fateh/Palestinian Authority as a potential peace partner while bribing Gaza-based Hamas, which unlike the PLO does not seek dialogue or a two-state solution, to maintain quiet. The Israeli right-religious mainstream does not want a two-state solution in the West Bank, which it covets, yet acknowledges what is virtually a separate Palestinian state in Gaza.

Now Israel confronts a concerted attempt by Hamas, led by Sinwar, to claim the leadership of all Palestinians by inciting West Bankers to violence. Sinwar vastly exaggerates creeping encroachments by national-religious Israelis on the Temple Mount; indeed, the latter’s incendiary presence on the Mount, while an ominous development, pales when compared to that of Hamas. Yet Gaza is tranquil and thousands of Gazans are allowed to commute to work in Israel.

Sinwar is even, for the first time since Hamas’s creation in the late 1980s, plotting to export terrorism beyond the bounds of Palestine. Hamas is setting up shop in Lebanon with the help of Iran/Hezbollah. And Sinwar is threatening to attack Diaspora synagogues “if Al-Aqsa is desecrated”, meaning to revenge Jewish nationalist-messianist prayer visits to the Mount--and not just in Israel.

Factor in the dependence of Israeli economic sectors like construction and agriculture on cheap Palestinian labor, and Bennett and his coalition face a major dilemma. (The Jewish chauffeur of the Elad murderers was reportedly linked to a WhatsApp group of 300 (!) Israeli drivers ferrying Palestinian illegals who cross the fence in search of a day’s wages.) The IDF is providing extra personnel to patrol the security fence line while a concerted effort is made to plug the gaps that enable infiltration. This is taking its toll on IDF training for a real war--say, in the north.

Last week witnessed panicked calls in Israel to renew targeted assassinations of terrorists inside the Strip, beginning with Sinwar. Wiser heads cautioned that this could start another round of fighting with Gaza, thereby feeding Hamas incitement even more. Alternatively, a major IDF incursion into the northern West Bank, where most of the terrorists originate, was suggested. That would likely put an end to the security cooperation that still exists between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Bennett has no quick and easy solution--any more than his predecessors did. If he does not allow messianist Jews to visit the Temple Mount, he will lose support on the political right. If he does, he provides fodder for Hamas propaganda claims that Israel is violating the status quo on the Mount. His dilemma nourishes nationalist-extremist protests in Israel, and these in turn nourish Netanyahu’s persistent schemes to poach at least one more right-wing coalition member and guarantee Bennett’s parliamentary defeat.


Q: Let’s move to Ukraine: who is generating the pressure on Israel to climb down from the fence and take a stand against Russia?

A: Surprisingly, not only NATO and the United States but, perversely, Russia as well. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told an Italian interviewer, apropos Russia’s claim that Jewish PM Zelensky and other prominent Ukrainians are Nazis, that Adolf Hitler had “Jewish blood” and that “the wise Jewish people said that the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews”. Russia also accused Israel of sending mercenaries to fight for Ukraine. And a Russian TV station disclosed the identity of ten Israeli consular officials (“mercenaries”) stationed on the Polish-Ukrainian border to help Israeli nationals to leave war-torn Ukraine.

The Russian verbal attacks on Israel and Jews in general in the Ukrainian context produced angry Israeli denunciations. President Putin reportedly apologized to Bennett, though without publicly acknowledging the fact. More and more Israeli commentators suggested that the Russian military presence in Syria--where Russia deliberately avoids impeding Israeli attacks against Iranian forces and ordnance--should no longer deter Israel from extending military aid to Ukraine. Former Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami wrote that “The choice should be easy. It is between Russia’s tactical acceptance of the Israel Air Force’s freedom of operation in Syria and Israel’s strategic, long-term moral and political alliance with the U.S. and the West. . . . there are times when morality and realpolitik align.”

With President Biden on his way to visit, Bennett is feeling pressure to join with NATO and supply weapons and military training to Ukraine. He can no longer claim a significant role passing messages between Zelenskyy and Putin. He can no longer point to a ‘friendly’ Russia. Moscow’s blundering has already convinced neutral Sweden and Finland to join NATO. Will Kremlin anti-Semitism now reverse Israel’s stance?

Bennett is acutely aware that the expanding dimensions of American aid to Ukraine, including intelligence for targeting Russian generals and battleships, are beginning to paint this as a US proxy-war against Russia. That could hasten the day when Washington demands that its friends stand by it.

On the other hand, the Israeli security establishment continues to fear that by aligning with Ukraine, Israel could lose its ‘immunity’ from Russian forces when attacking in Syria. Were this to transpire, Israel could either desist and allow an unimpeded Iranian buildup in Syria, or the Israel Air Force could continue to intervene there, provoking possible military escalation with Russia. Either way, the outcome could be war--with Iran, with Russia, or with both.

Can Bennett afford to take a chance that an Israel Air Force F-35 will be shot down over the Syria-Lebanon border by a Syria-based Russian surface-to-air missile? But can he continue to ignore the universal moral implications of Russian atrocities in Ukraine, Russian anti-Semitic attacks, and the forthright stand on the issue taken by Israel’s vital ally, the United States?


Q: Finally, back to Bennett’s coalition: the Knesset opposition, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is planning this week to introduce a motion to disperse the Knesset in favor of new elections; Raam threatens to boycott the vote, giving Netanyahu a plurality. Where does that leave Bennett, whose closest associates reportedly predict the coalition won’t last another month?

A: The Arab-Islamist Raam is at least open about its options. It is currently boycotting Knesset participation, thereby denying Bennett the capacity to defeat opposition motions, over the recent Temple Mount violence. But Raam leader Mansour Abbas states that he will not allow the government to fall. He and Bennett are talking and presumably figuring out a tactic for Raam to continue to protest while somehow shielding the coalition.

But Raam is not the only loose cannon in Bennett’s fragile coalition. It is harder for Bennett to deal with the demands of his own right-religious party, Yamina, and other coalition right-wingers who are using the threat to bolt and join Netanyahu as leverage to extort more and more concessions from Bennett. Some of these, like a demand for more benefits for the disabled, Bennett finds negotiable and even politically useful. Some, of the more nationalist-ideological variety, are anathema to Bennett’s coalition partners from the left and center: Yesh Atid, Blue-White, Labor and Meretz.

If indeed this coalition cannot survive, the question of who brings it down--its own right wing or the center-left component--is significant. If Israel is about to descend into another spiral of inconclusive elections (that’s what the polls predict), the interim caretaker government that emerges from the fall of the Bennett-Lapid coalition could be in temporary office for a long time. After all, Netanyahu remained interim PM throughout repeated abortive elections that preceded the current coalition. The Bennett-Lapid coalition agreement stipulates that if new elections are mandated, the acting prime minister, Bennett or Lapid, will be from the coalition bloc that did NOT bring down the coalition.

As of now, the center-left bloc led by Lapid is by far the more disciplined. They are apparently prepared to stomach several thousand new construction starts in the settlements--Bennett’s latest sop to his right-wing followers--even if it angers the American advance team preparing Biden’s June visit. It is more likely that renegade coalition right-wingers recruited by Netanyahu will soon bring down the government.


Q: Bottom line?

A: The Bennett-Lapid coalition has performed admirably for some 11 months. Considering its extremely diverse composition, this is nothing short of amazing.

Now, not surprisingly, it appears to be coming apart at the seams--particularly its right-religious seams, where it is most vulnerable to the opposition’s unbridled attacks led by Netanyahu, but also its Arab-Islamist seam. Will Bennett survive long enough to host the Biden visit? Can Bennett somehow ‘stop the rot’ and hold the coalition together until the Knesset’s summer recess, thereby buying it time into November?

If not, who will head the caretaker government, Bennett or Lapid? And what are Netanyahu’s chances of winning an election and replacing it, with his agonizingly drawn-out corruption trial hovering in the background?

Finally, the contribution by right-religious Jewish-messianist ideology to Bennett’s dilemmas--on the Temple Mount, in the West Bank, in Gaza--should be obvious by now. That Bennett, for all his innovativeness and decency (he works harmoniously with Raam and the left; he does not incite!), himself represents that increasingly mainstream ideology, does not make matters any easier.