What are the security challenges facing the next Israeli prime minister?
No matter who is elected as Israel’s Prime Minister, the security challenges facing him will be at the forefront.
Benjamin Netanyahu has led the country for close to 10 years, and if reelected would become the country’s longest-ever serving PM. His main rival, Benny Gantz, is a newcomer to politics but served as IDF chief of staff and is running with two other former chiefs of staffs, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon.
Ya’alon held the post between 2002 and 2005, while Ashkenazi held the army’s top job from 2007 until 2011, followed by Gantz who was the chief military officer between 2011 and 2015.
Ashkenazi and Gantz both served as the military’s top officer while Netanyahu was prime minister while Ya’alon served as Netanyahu’s defense minister until 2016.
All three of them oversaw military conflicts between Israel and her enemies. Between them are decades of military and command experience, important for a country which is surrounded by turmoil and terrorist groups whose missile arsenals are aimed at Israel’s home front.
The first challenge for the next prime minister will be the tense situation with the Hamas-run Gaza Strip where thousands of soldiers and tanks have been deployed for the past two weeks after a long-range rocket was fired at the center of the country.
The winner of the 21st Knesset elections will, behind closed doors, hold cabinet meetings with the defense and intelligence chiefs who will recommend the next course of action for Israel’s military.
Will the tanks be withdrawn from the fields in southern Israel? Or will the order be given to attack the Hamas-run coastal enclave to put an end to the rocket fire and weekly violent protests along the security fence?
As prime minister, Netanyahu has preserved the status quo in the south, responding with targeted airstrikes against Hamas targets following rocket fire towards Israel. While he’s been able to prevent another war with terrorist groups in Gaza, residents in Israel’s south have been contending with near-daily violence along the border fence.
But Netanyahu has also allowed Qatar to transfer funds to Gaza, some $9 million monthly. The residents of the south have demanded he halt the transfers, calling it blackmail and arguing that it has not stopped the violence in their backyards.
Even with the Qatari funds, Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad have continued to escalate the situation in an attempt to secure more attention and benefits.
Gantz, who was chief of staff during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, has ripped into Netanyahu’s handling of the Strip saying in an campaign speech in late March that “We would not exhibit such a weak policy of sending money in cash to Hamas.”
Gantz has been highly critical of Netanyahu’s handling of Gaza, saying on a trip to border communities that “Other than advancing the building of the barrier along the Gaza border, nothing has been done.”
While he has suggested that as prime minister he might return to a policy of assassinations targeting Hamas leadership, Gantz has also hinted that he would seek major economic investment in Gaza’s civilian economy to stabilize the strip.
“For three and a half years after Protective Edge, there was absolute quiet. No rockets, no balloons, no kites,” he said. “We will change the lax policy and enact a tough policy. We will demand the return of [Israeli] prisoners and [Israeli] missing. We will advance assistance to the residents of the Strip without compromising security.”
The internal dynamics in the Strip, especially the deteriorating humanitarian situation, has stoked the flames. In addition to the United States cutting all funds for UNRWA, unemployment is above 40%, hospitals are running out of fuel and supplies, and residents receive electricity for only six hours daily.
Hamas leader Yayha Sinwar has repeatedly said that the group is seeking a long-term truce with Israel. In return for the lifting of the blockade, he said, the group and other Palestinian factions would ensure that all rocket fire and other attacks from Gaza would stop.
The West Bank is equally problematic. Lone-wolf terrorist attacks by Palestinian youth have not disappeared despite the ongoing efforts by the IDF and security agencies, as well as the ongoing security coordination with the Palestinian Authority.
On Saturday, Netanyahu said in an interview with Channel 12 that if re-elected he would unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank, including isolated settlements.
Gantz’s Kachol Lavan party has rejected the idea of annexation. He told Yediot Aharonot in his first interview as a candidate that “We need to find a way in which we’re not controlling other people.”
More pressing than the issue of West Bank annexation is the continued unrest there in the absence of a peace process.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz believe that the status quo or some form of limited Palestinian autonomy provides more security than a Palestinian state that could be taken over by Hamas and Iran and its proxies. Neither of the two major parties has a platform that allows for a peace process based on past understandings. US President Donald Trump’s peace plan remains unclear, as do the security challenges it might present.
While Gaza and the West Bank will be major concerns for the next prime minister, the threat posed by Iran will be front and center.
Iran’s ongoing ballistic missile testing and nuclear ambitions and continued entrenchment in Syria, as well as its continued support Hezbollah (in both Lebanon and Syria) as well as for Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, pose an urgent threat to Israel.
Thus not surprisingly, Gantz and Netanyahu share similar views on Iran.
“It is no secret that Prime Minister Netanyahu is my political rival,” Gantz has said at the Munich Security Conference in February. “But please make no mistake. We are both devoted sons of the same nation. When Israel’s security is under threat, there is no daylight between us. On this critical issue, there is no Right or Left, coalition or opposition.”
Whoever Israel elects as Prime Minister will face critical decisions for the country’s security. It won’t be easy. Security never is.