Bibi's war cabinet is surprisingly united
Fierce guerilla warfare with four to twenty casualties a day. That was American military advisors’ cold-blooded forecast for an IDF ground offensive in Gaza based on their own experience fighting ISIS in Mosul. Sadly, the forecast has hitherto proven accurate, though at the lower end of the range.
The painful price was clear from the start, even to the war cabinet. The IAF has never received the green light to pound Gaza from the air so hard, which makes Mosul (recaptured from ISIS by the Iraqi government in 2017 with massive support from coalition air forces) the most relevant comparison.
During the Second Lebanon War, the government gradually lost its domestic legitimacy to shed its soldiers’ blood. In the Gaza war, Israel headed into the ground offensive with 1,400 dead, and any painful price will only inflate that tally to unheard-of dimensions. And for all that, the ground forces will roll forward, because this time, after the horrific massacre of Simchas Torah, there is no other option.
Unsurprisingly, Gantz, Eizenkot, and Netanyahu have maintained an excellent working relationship, based on a shared view of the goals of the operation as well as the military tactics to be used in attaining them.
Ever since the morning of Simchas Torah, Bibi has been beside himself, convinced that if he had been alerted to the warning signs that led to an emergency consultation between the chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet the night of Simchas Torah, everything would be different now.
Netanyahu won’t escape responsibility as the man at the top of the pyramid who led the policy of containment for a decade and a half. But even his rivals admit that if Bibi had been part of the emergency meeting that fateful night, he would have put the army on high alert, just in case.
This feeling of frustration — a blazing fire, as one cabinet member described it — is leading Netanyahu to cast doubt on the assessments of military intelligence and the Shin Bet in almost every meeting.
“What’s holding Bibi and Gantz together is Yair Lapid,” the head of a party in the coalition told me this week. “From the moment Lapid chose to stay out and warned that the cabinet couldn’t function in its current format, and that Netanyahu would dupe Gantz once again, any failure of Bibi’s also falls on Gantz, who will be portrayed as having been hoodwinked into joining a government with Bibi for the second time.”
Bibi and Gantz have a shared interest in the war cabinet functioning. It should be noted that Gadi Eizenkot as chief of staff and Benny Gantz as chief of staff and later defense minister always saw the military goals eye-to-eye in the operations they fought under Netanyahu. Even during Operation Guardian of the Walls, which was fought during the transition government after the fracture of the Netanyahu-Gantz unity government, no differences emerged between the two. And Eizenkot said in an interview after shedding his uniform that during his tenure, Netanyahu had led military campaigns with no ulterior motives.
“The conception cabinet” is how National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir described the war cabinet this week — referring to the now-discredited “conception” model devised by the security apparatus that was thought to be deterring Hamas at the Gaza border. It’s hard to deny that he has a point.
Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich have made their views on humanitarian aid very clear during cabinet meetings. While Gideon Saar makes clear his red line is that “we can’t give them a single drop of fuel,” Ben Gvir, who’s turning to the media in the knowledge that his opinion will never be heard in the cabinet, suggests denying all humanitarian aid and letting the women and children evacuate to places like Scotland.
Meanwhile, Avigdor Lieberman has emerged as Netanyahu’s leading opposition critic, harshly attacking the war cabinet, which he hoped to join at the start of the war. Last week, a document Lieberman had presented to the security cabinet in 2016 that warned of yishuvim being conquered was leaked to the media. Netanyahu and Eizenkot (who was then defense minister) both believe that leak had very clear fingerprints.
“What was [Lieberman] doing when he served as finance minister and member of the cabinet in a government that took the policy of containment to a new level and opened the gates to workers from Gaza, many of whom proved to be Hamas spies?” Netanyahu asked this week.
Needless be said, he doesn’t for a moment regret his decision to leave Lieberman out of the war cabinet. Unsurprisingly, Netanyahu, Gantz, and Eizenkot are in complete agreement on this subject.
Cabinet ministers can protest, Lieberman can snipe from the sidelines, but at the end of the day, the war cabinet — which was joined by Secretary of State Blinken over the weekend on his fourth visit to Israel since the start of the war — calls the shots and has decided to allow some humanitarian concessions.
“You have to understand that the legitimacy, support, and aid we’re receiving from the Americans is unprecedented, even compared to the Yom Kippur War,” a source in the war cabinet told me this week. “In Biden’s eyes, if Israel is able to crush Hamas, it will be a victory for the American-led coalition of sane countries in the Middle East over the Iran-Putin axis. But to hold this coalition together, Biden has to keep up appearances of trying to restrain Israel’s response for the sake of moderate Muslim countries. That’s why we have to act carefully and try to accept any request of Biden’s that doesn’t impede Israel’s goal of toppling Hamas.”
The regional war is already here, as has only become clearer after the Houthi rocket attacks from Yemen, Hamas’s meeting in Tehran, and Nasrallah’s Friday speech in Beirut. Israel’s interest in keeping the regional conflict at a low simmer to focus on crushing Hamas is dependent on American support. Israel is the front line of the regional conflict, but the real commander in chief in this war is based in neither Jerusalem nor Tel Aviv, but in Washington, D.C.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 985)
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