Yoav Galant’s Marching Orders| February 21, 2023
Galant vs. Smotrich in Defense Dust-up
A single photo snapped last week by a protester at the Jerusalem train station was worth a thousand words.
One of the Netanyahu government’s more grandiose projects over the past decade, the high-speed train line from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem ends at a terminus carved out of the bowels of the earth, so arriving passengers emerge into the Holy City by escalator, reminiscent of the New York subway.
The photo shows a horde of Tel Avivians packing the escalator ascending into Jerusalem, while a lone yeshivah bochur in coat and hat rides the descending escalator.
The snapshot perfectly reflected the state of the country. Until then, the left had been out in force, swarming the streets and occupying bridges, while the right stayed put. But last weekend, all that changed.
Leftist protesters shutting down Jerusalem were greeted with stoic silence; right-wing protesters, on the other hand, were beaten viciously by police near the yishuv of Shiloh — once the site of the Mishkan — where a vineyard planted by settlers was uprooted under direct orders from Yoav Galant, the Likud defense minister.
Galant is the stereotypical Israeli tough guy. Now in his mid-sixties, the former major general and Shayetet 13 commander (and Alaska lumberjack, albeit briefly) still starts every day with a run, swim, or a strenuous workout — or some combination thereof. Galant is the embodiment of the Israeli defense establishment, in stark contrast to Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir — neither of whom served in combat roles, despite their tough talk.
As readers may remember, Bibi put his foot down on his choice of Galant for defense minister, resisting demands from Smotrich, who wanted the post in order to legalize outposts and normalize settlers’ day-to-day life. In a compromise reminiscent of Shlomo Hamelech’s famous verdict, Smotrich secured the post of “minister in the Defense Ministry with authority over the Civil Administration,” a body that oversees the day-to-day life of the settlers, whom Smotrich sees as his political base.
Bibi promised, but he didn’t promise to keep his promise, instead finding ever more creative ways of delaying the transfer of Smotrich’s special powers. “It’s not that Netanyahu is giving us excuses,” one rightist minister told me this week. “As far as he’s concerned, his promise carries no meaning — every decision is filtered through the interests of the moment.”
And so, even as the left unites to fight tooth and nail against judicial reform, the right slides into civil war. An MK from Ben Gvir’s party who went to visit the Shiloh flashpoint was harassed by officers at the scene, leading Ben Gvir to post a video with her railing against the government he serves in. Another Otzma Yehudit MK, Almog Cohen, warned that at this rate, the government won’t hold together for long. Like the Shiloh vineyards, the government is at risk of being torn up by the roots
IN a classic example of divide and conquer, Bibi is using Galant to humiliate Smotrich, while keeping up the pretense that the defense minister is acting on his own initiative. But Smotrich isn’t the only target. Also on the receiving end of Bibi’s treatment is National Security Minister Ben Gvir.
Ben Gvir has a reputation as the king of media briefings, saving some juicy morsel of info for every journalist he talks to. But now that it’s Netanyahu he’s up against, he’s falling behind. When Ben Gvir wanted to tear down an illegal structure in Eastern Jerusalem, housing dozens of families, as a reprisal for the recent wave of terror attacks, Bibi slammed on the brakes to avoid an international outcry.
Ben Gvir didn’t give up and proposed the demolition of a different structure, a 14-story building still under construction and therefore unoccupied. He showed Netanyahu police intel regarding the threat posed by the building to traffic in the street below, with Arab rioters frequently climbing to the roof to hurl projectiles. Bibi also refused to approve that operation, explaining that any overly firm action will only fan the flames in the capital.
“The problem is that while we can’t get the go-ahead to tear down illegal structures in East Jerusalem, in the settlements they’re uprooting vineyards and violently arresting settlers,” a source in Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit Party told me. “And whatever we do accomplish is immediately hijacked by Netanyahu, who rushes to claim credit for everything we do.”
Netanyahu’s long career offers no shortage of examples of this tactic. When Ben Gvir beefed up police forces in Jerusalem, Bibi rushed to claim credit for the move without even mentioning Ben Gvir, who proposed the idea. The same thing happened with the decision to seal up the home of the Ramot car ramming terrorist — Bibi issued his own statement without mentioning Ben Gvir, who had led the move.
Bibi sees things very differently. As an ultra-cautious prime minister who won’t undertake unnecessary military adventures, he doesn’t look kindly on the extremists with whom he’s been forced to form a government in which he’s the most left-wing member.
In private conversations, he’s making clear that as the adult in the room, he won’t allow Smotrich and Ben Gvir to act irresponsibly, even if it rattles the coalition. Netanyahu is confident he’ll be able to minimize political damage while still calling the shots on security.
Bibi is counting on his right-wing allies having no alternatives, but it isn’t obvious he can count on Otzma Yehudit acting rationally. If the government falls, the culprit will be not left-wingers protesting judicial reform, but the coalition’s unruly right flank. Such types have proven that they have no problem sawing off the branch they’re sitting on and bringing down a right-wing government without a thought for what comes next.
With the Knesset under siege by left-wing protesters, there was no better place for a cloak-and-dagger meeting than right by a back door. So chareidi MKs and ministers met in secret in the Likud faction room, conveniently located near the Knesset’s western exit
They were there to air complaints to the Likud’s real boss these days — Justice Minister Yariv Levin. Their grievance related to a dispute that had nothing to do with them. During the convoluted coalition negotiations, Netanyahu had put Bezalel Smotrich in charge of resolving the chareidi draft issue.
“Why did you have to involve us in the rivalry between Smotrich and Galant?” they complained. “If we dare to confer with Smotrich about an issue traditionally within the purview of the defense minister, Galant will find creative ways to get even with us.”
And that’s Netanyahu’s sixth government for you — you can’t move an inch without stepping on a hornet’s nest.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 950)
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