Having passed through the memorial and holiday period, Israel’s external and internal challenges remain the same, with some coming sharper into focus during the current round of rocket attacks on Israel.
Relations with the United States continues along a two-track paradigm under the Biden administration, which sends multiple mixed signals.
On the one hand supporting a slowdown in judicial reform, and lowering expectations of any imminent visit by Prime Minister Netanyahu to the White House.
On the other, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan last week could not have been more supportive when he addressed 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 recognizing Israel’s freedom of action.”
Currently the Biden administration is defending Israel’s right to self-defence, whilst urging care to avoid civilian casualties. This is of course what Israel tries to do always, 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 that Prime Minister Netanyahu is increasingly reasserting his leadership over the government, whilst 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, as long as the talks under the auspices of President Herzog continue and Netanyahu manages to delay judicial reform legislation.
Netanyahu’s biggest internal challenge is keeping his coalition together and getting the budget passed by 29 May.
One issue is the commitment to the Haredim to pass a law that ensures they can continue to be exempted from the IDF draft. This, they threaten, is a coalition deal breaker. Maybe.
Smotrich, who is the finance minister, is focussed on getting the budget through and has been remarkably low key on other issues for the past few weeks.
More serious for Netanyahu is the position of Ben Gvir and his party, about whom I last month wrote in regards to the Temple Mount, that while Ben Gvir called his own government’s decision to bar Jews on the last 10 days of Ramadan a mistake – “this was not yet a trigger for him to leave the government”.
With the emphasis on ‘yet’.
This time Ben Gvir and his party were openly making threats to leave the government, going so far as to boycotting cabinet meetings and threatening to not turn up to vote in the Knesset.
Ben Gvir is upset at being excluded from security cabinet meetings and was very unhappy with the government’s response to the rockets from Gaza last week, 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. PIJ (Palestinian Islamic Jihad) being more under their influence than Hamas.
In early May, PIJ member Khader Adnan, died in an Israeli prison after being on a long-term hunger strike, after which PIJ launched over 100 rockets at Israel.
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 policy 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 of Shield and Arrow 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.
Netanyahu bypassed the security cabinet and took the operational decision with Defence Minister Galant and the IDF Chief of Staff Halevy – and with the approval of the attorney-general it should be noted.
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 from all reported information, that that is indeed correct.
The operation has also been strongly backed by Lapid and Gantz whose parties were also at pains to minimise Ben Gvir’s role.
The Times of Israel for instance, quotes Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy director of Mossad, tweeting: “Itamar, breathe. The decision was made in a deliberation you were not a part of.” Ben-Barak added that his party “backs the government in its fight against terror. Right now, there is no left and right.”
Simultaneously, Israel has mounted an operation against PIJ in the West Bank/Judea/Samaria.
Netanyahu has shown this week that he is firmly back in the driver’s seat at this point in time and that Israeli policy is nimble and strategic enough to have made at least two significant changes in response to the over 100 rockets from Gaza:
It’s a strong message to Iran and her proxies, that Israel’s democracy is robust and while hundreds of thousands can protest against the government, 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.