There is a nasty feud playing out in public between Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett over Israeli policy in Gaza. Like so many other issues in Israeli politics, this dispute is ostensibly about one thing – Gaza – but really about something else, namely who will be the next defense minister. Yet the dispute has implications for Israeli policy in the West Bank as well, and demonstrates the manner in which Bennett is happy to critique policies that appear to be developed on the fly in one place while pushing for policies that do precisely the same thing in others.
The fighting between Bennett and Lieberman is over the former’s criticism of Israeli security policy around the Gaza border, for which he squarely blames Lieberman. In Bennett’s telling, the IDF is too timid and has no long-term plan to keep Gaza quiet and protect the residents of the Gaza periphery, and Bennett blames Lieberman for keeping the IDF’s gloves squarely on. The dustup between the two began during this spring’s Great March of Return, and intensified with the balloon and kite terrorism when Bennett called for the IDF to target balloon and kite cells and Lieberman urged more proportional restraint. The current go-round has been distinguished by Bennett claiming that Lieberman is leaving the security of southern Israel up to Hamas’s graces, and Lieberman responding that Bennett will sacrifice Israeli security in order to gain one more Knesset seat.
There is a history here that pertains to Israeli policy in Gaza and goes beyond the Bennett-Lieberman contretemps. Bennett has a history of criticizing the Gaza policies of governments in which he serves, including in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge in 2014 when Bennett was loudly and publicly dissatisfied with the preparation for and response to Hamas’s attack tunnels. When it comes to Gaza, Bennett always stakes out the most hawkish possible position and attacks the government from the right. In this instance, he is doing so as a way of making the case that were he the defense minister, Hamas would have to pay far more dearly for its attacks against IDF soldiers and Gaza periphery residents. The irony is that Bennett is simply following the playbook of a previous Israeli cabinet minister who wanted the defense portfolio and claimed that were he defense minister, Hamas chief Ismail Haniya would be assassinated within 24 hours. That minister of course was Lieberman, and Bennett takes every opportunity to throw that unrequited boast back in Lieberman’s face. Lieberman’s relatively cautious actions as defense minister are one of the best demonstrations of the saying that where you stand is based on where you sit; it is easy to lob rhetorical grenades from outside the circle, but far tougher when you are the one standing right in the center of it.
Leaving aside the political machinations, the substance of Bennett’s critique is that Israel is taking actions in Gaza without regard to the long-term consequences or thinking through the full implications. While the Gaza issue is perhaps the toughest Israeli security policy nut to crack, Bennett’s critique has merit. While the steps that Bennett advocates are ones that would make the situation worse rather than better, he is right that Israeli policy toward Gaza is reactive rather than proactive and has not progressed beyond “quiet for quiet.” Bennett charges that Israel’s actions are empowering Hamas, and that just hoping that things will eventually work out for the best is irresponsible.
Yet when it comes to the West Bank, Bennett advocates that precise path, proving George Orwell’s famous adage that to see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle. Bennett’s most famous policy prescription is annexation of Area C of the West Bank, and he insists that in doing so, everything will be fine. Not only does he dismiss doomsday predictions about how the Palestinians will react, how it will impact security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, or how it will affect Israel’s standing in the world, he insists that it will actually necessitate no changes on the ground. Bennett is advocating for a policy in the West Bank that makes precisely the same mistakes that he claims Lieberman is making with Gaza, but the difference is that what Bennett is pushing is far more incendiary and radically more dangerous.
How will Israel pay for exponentially greater security costs in the West Bank? Bennett doesn’t say. How will Israel deal with incorporating 300,000 Palestinians who live in Area C and who will now be Israeli citizens? Bennett’s answer is that there are only 60,000 Palestinians there, and most of them won’t want citizenship anyway so it doesn’t matter. How will Israel build a new security barrier around Area C, which will require 169 different fences around the 169 islands of Areas A and B? Not a problem for Bennett, because he says none of it will be required; anyone will be able to go anywhere throughout Areas A and B, which will not be annexed to Israel, and straight into Area C, which will be annexed. What to do about Palestinians who are not citizens of Israel but will now be able to move freely through annexed Israeli territory and the security nightmare this will create, Bennett once again punts, and says everything will be fine. It is a policy that floats above it all on a hope and a prayer, and yet it is Bennett’s ultimate wish to see it through.
Bennett’s criticisms of Israel’s policy in Gaza are legitimate. It is not well thought out or planned in a comprehensive, long-term way, and it depends on a hope that Gazans will not one day storm the fence en masse and stream into Israel. It depends far too much on Hamas to keep things in check and not take things one step too far. In all of this, Bennett is right. Too bad he is unwilling to recognize that what he wants in the West Bank is almost a parody of the policy mistakes that he is now pillorying.