Israel’s coalition crisis is over, with reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett reached a “compromise” over the latter’s demand for a military secretary to brief the Security Cabinet. On inspection, however, there was no such compromise: Netanyahu acceded to Bennett’s demands, and the concession is being billed as a “compromise” brokered by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman as a way for the prime minister to save face.
Consider the original demand of Minister Bennett, the Jewish Home Party chairman. On May 23, Bennett published a demand to appoint a military secretary, who would meet with the various cabinet members on a regular basis to give them security and intelligence briefings. He requested that this be a “senior officer”. Contrary to media reports that Bennett demanded one military secretary per cabinet member, this is not what he said in his original Facebook post. Bennett complained that the Security Cabinet had been kept in the dark ahead regarding the threat of cross-border tunnels prior to Operation Protective Edge, and that on numerous occasions he had been unable to obtain information. The Security Cabinet has no independent institutional support, leaving it at the mercy of the Prime Minister and Defense Minister to keep it updated. This, Bennett argued, is unacceptable, given that the Cabinet – and not the Prime Minister – is responsible for the army and is the authority that sends it into war.
So what is the “compromise” to which the prime minister agreed? The acting head or deputy head of the National Security Council, the department in the Prime Minister’s Office that deals with his foreign and defense policy, will be at the disposal of the security cabinet to brief its members on security developments. The former head of the NSC, Maj.-Gen. Yaakov Amidror, will head a taskforce to examine further security cabinet reform. The Cabinet will not receive an army officer, as Bennett originally stipulated, but it will be briefed by a figure no less senior than a colonel or brigadier general (President Rivlin himself is briefed by a colonel). Indeed, Jewish Home sources later confirmed to me that the prime minister agreed to the party’s “full demands”, even though it is being marketed outwards as a “compromise”.
This solution was reportedly proposed by Health Minister Litzman (United Torah Judaism), and was rejected by the prime minister in the late afternoon before being accepted just shy of midnight. It was reported by Israeli news site Walla just before one in the morning as a “compromise”, and the rest of the media appears to have adopted this description without critical inspection of why this did not constitute a simple concession.
How and why did this demand arise in the first place? According to Bennett, he had been quietly appealing to the prime minister for months, to no avail, and had only just decided to make his demand public out of desperation. Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the timing, as the prime minister seeks to bring Yisrael Beitenu into the government, and needs all his fellow faction heads on board for the expansion – which should come with a price.
With Avigdor Liberman set to be appointed Defense Minister, it is to be expected that other party leaders should exploit the moment to gain concessions, since their consent is required. This is especially true for Bennett, lest he be seen as having been walked over in the coalition negotiations: he is left, after all, with the Education Ministry despite bringing eight seats to the government, compared to Liberman’s five. What is interesting is that Bennett did not opt for a more substantial renegotiation, such as demanding the Foreign Ministry. One might understand his strategy as an attempt to foreclose being seen emerging from the renegotiations as a freier (sucker), while appearing the responsible adult from a dispute with the prime minister over a demand most observers regard as eminently reasonable. This, in contrast to Liberman, who conditioned his entry into the government on budgets seen as serving sectoral interests.
The Prime Minister’s concession removed the final obstacle for Liberman’s swearing in, which took place Monday night. But with two ministers from rival parties now vying to succeed the prime minister, one should not be surprised if battles over the authority to make defense policy return to the fore of Israeli politics once again.