Israel’s general elections are taking place, and naturally, the critical question of which security policies should guide the country have returned to center stage.
While security is usually a central topic in Israeli elections, this year’s race has seen the issue compete with a plethora of other topics.
The Gaza Strip
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pursued a status quo policy when it comes to Gaza and Hamas, the hardline Islamist regime that rules it. This policy has seen Israel agree to facilitate Qatari cash transfers of 30 million shekels (nearly $9 million) a month, which is supposed to go to needy families, health care and the unemployed. When Hamas and other terror factions in Gaza escalate the security situation—as they have been doing for the past year—to try and secure more economic benefits, Netanyahu has ordered the Israeli Air Force to strike high-value Hamas targets to boost Israeli deterrence. These strikes have been conducted in a cautious manner that has not led to full-scale conflict.
Netanyahu, who has come under criticism from Gaza-border residents for the year-long security situation they have endured, summed his Gaza policy in a recent interview to Channel 13, when he stated: “It is impossible to do a real deal with Hamas. They want to destroy us. There is nothing to agree about. What will we agree on—on how to commit suicide? Therefore, we are obligated to deliver blows against them from time to time. Since [the 2014] ‘Operation Protective Edge,’ not a single Israeli civilian was killed there [in the Gaza-border region].”
Referring to the clashes between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas-organized border rioters, exacerbated by intrusion attempts, including some by armed cells, Netanyahu stated that “in the past year, some 300 Palestinians were killed at the fence. Thousands were injured. They wanted to kidnap soldiers.”
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, who served as the IDF’s chief of staff during the 2014 war with Hamas, has launched frequent criticisms of Netanyahu’s Gaza policies. In interviews, such as the one he gave to Channel 13 last week, Gantz accused Netanyahu of wasting three-and-a-half years of calm that followed the 2014 conflict—a time period Gantz said could have been used to create a new reality for southern Israel and Gaza.
Offering what he described as an alternative policy, Gantz appeared to hint that he would seek major economic investment in Gaza’s civilian economy and infrastructure to stabilize the enclave, while responding to security challenges with far greater force than Netanyahu has. “We would not exhibit such a weak policy. We would not send money in cash to Hamas,” said Gantz.
Gantz has also capitalized on his role in ordering the targeted assassinations of top Hamas leaders, such as its chief of staff Ahmed Jabari in a 2012 clash.
The West Bank
Significant differences are emerging between the approaches to the West Bank taken by Netanyahu and Gantz. During an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 on Saturday, Netanyahu said he would he would unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank, including far-flung settlements, if he is re-elected on Tuesday.
“I will impose sovereignty, but I will not distinguish between settlement blocs and isolated communities,” he said. “From my perspective, any point of settlement is Israeli, and we have a responsibility [to it] as the Israeli government. I will not uproot anyone, and I will not transfer sovereignty to the Palestinians.”
Netanyahu has clashed fiercely with the Palestinian Authority in the diplomatic arena, but under his term, the IDF has continued its close, quiet and daily security coordination with the P.A.’s security forces, which, like the IDF, also target Hamas.
Away from the headlines, Netanyahu does not appear to have given the green light to unlimited settlement expansion. According to a recent analysis by a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, Chuck Freilich, published in the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Netanyahu has “not permitted unbridled settlement activity throughout the West Bank, limiting it overwhelmingly to the so-called ‘settlement blocs’ that even many Palestinians recognize will remain a part of Israel in any final agreement,” [yet] the number of settlers outside the blocs has nevertheless increased steadily.”
In 2009, Netanyahu famously committed himself to a two-state solution at a speech to Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, but since then has spoken more generally of Palestinian self-rule or autonomy.
Gantz, for his part, together with his colleagues in leadership of the Blue and White Party, has rejected the idea of unilateral annexation. Blue and White’s former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon has argued that annexation would imperil the critical goal of preserving Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.
To get a sense of where Gantz and his party would seek to take Israel in regards to the West Bank, it might be worth examining the outline for a future strategy released last year by the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies. Gantz, together with Ya’alon and former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who is also a member of Blue and White’s leadership, were purportedly involved in the drawing up of the outline.
The plan calls for attempting to reach “interim arrangements that build an infrastructure for a two-state solution in the long term in coordination with the Palestinians, if possible,” and if this proves impossible, it calls for “independent steps if the other routes are blocked in order to demonstrate the seriousness of Israel’s intentions” to politically separate from the Palestinians, while ensuring an IDF presence in the West Bank for the foreseeable future.
“In contrast to the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, security will be left completely in Israel’s hands. Not all of the territory will be evacuated, no Jewish communities will be dismantled, and there will be no withdrawal to the Green Line. The process will be coordinated and controlled,” stated INSS director Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin.
Speaking during the proposal’s release, Yair Lapid, who today holds the number two spot on Blue and White, agreed with the need to avoid “drifting into a single state” with the Palestinians. Lapid criticized the proposal’s unilateral steps as forfeiting concessions, but also said, “Today, the government has no idea regarding the Palestinian issue. They have taken it off the table. The most explosive problem is not being addressed. The government is passing the problem on to our children, who will face 7-10 million Palestinians.”
Lebanon and Syria
Gantz and Netanyahu appear to be in full agreement regarding the way to deal with threats in the northern arenas. In 2013, two years after being appointed as chief of staff by Netanyahu, Gantz began overseeing a long-term, low-profile campaign of military strikes in Syria targeting Iran’s attempts to set up military attack bases against Israel there and weapons transfers to Hezbollah.
This campaign continues to this day.
In Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed terrorist armed force of Hezbollah has amassed some 130,000 projectiles, Gantz and Netanyahu both appear to believe in a cautious policy of avoiding an escalation for as long as possible, while preparing intensively for the day that war may come.
Netanyahu has accused Gantz repeatedly of backing the 2015 nuclear agreement between the international community and Iran. The prime minister has since called for the cancellation of the agreement, and cheered U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral exit from the pact and reintroduction of sanctions.
Netanyahu has made Iran—and its nuclear and regional ambitions—his most central issue, and has unveiled intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program in public. Examples include the April 2018 unveiling of the Islamic Republic’s secret atomic weapons archive, which the Mossad was able to whisk out of Iran in a daring operation.
After completing his term as chief of staff, Gantz did indeed say in 2015 that the nuclear agreement had some benefits, while acknowledging its flaws. “I agree that a better agreement could have been achieved. But I see the half-full glass and the success in pushing Iran away from nuclear weapons by 10 to 15 years,” he said during a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Gantz’s comments appear to be a reflection of Israel’s intelligence assessment of the deal at the time, which recognized many problems with it while also viewing it as a window of opportunity to delay Iran’s nuclear development—a window the IDF planned to use to build up its own military force considerably.
More recently, Gantz described Iran as an “evil regime” during the Munich Security Conference in February, adding that “on my watch, Iran will not have nuclear weapons.”
“It is no secret that Prime Minister Netanyahu is my political rival,” he said. “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.”
On Israeli soil, however, Gantz has repeatedly criticized what he described as Netanyahu’s violation of “the code of security secrecy.” In February, responding to Netanyahu acknowledging an Israeli airstrike in southern Syria, Gantz slammed the “showing off of secret activity by the IDF,” which he said could “endanger the lives of soldiers.”