JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running out of time to form a government.
If he cannot get a coalition together by May 4, the baton may be passed to Naftali Bennett and/or Yair Lapid to form one.
Given the growing threat of Iran’s bid for nuclear weapons – and growing aggression throughout the region – what are Netanyahu’s objectives?
And what would a change of prime minister mean for Israel’s strategy vis-à-vis Iran and other regional dangers?
In part two of our interview, Chuck Freilich – Israel’s former deputy national security advisor – told me he believes it is time for Netanyahu to step down from power.
But he said he worries “very much” that the most-likely replacements – either former Defense Minister Naftali Bennett or former Finance Minister Yair Lapid – do not have sufficient national security and foreign policy experience.
ROSENBERG: What are Prime Minister Netanyahu’s goals with regards to Iran?
CHUCK FREILICH: Obviously to prevent Iran from going nuclear, prevent or at least minimize the buildup of Iran’s military capabilities in Syria, and someday, greatly reduce and hopefully eliminate the Hezbollah rocket arsenal. These are consensual goals in Israel, across the political spectrum, and I fully share them.
What I fear is two things.
First of all, Netanyahu has lifted too much of Israel’s approach of ambiguous, deniable, under the radar activity, in the ongoing confrontation with Iran, both kinetic and cyber. I believe this is a mistake in its own right.
Of even greater concern, is the possibility that the prime minister may be using some of this for his own political and legal reasons, to create a crisis that helps him bring some of his recalcitrant potential coalition partners into a new government. A prime minister who is fighting for his political and legal life, potentially his freedom from jail, can hardly be expected to be free of such considerations and I don’t believe he is. The thought that lives may be lost for this reason is extraordinarily troubling. I hope I am wrong.
ROSENBERG: If Naftali Bennett or Yair Lapid were to find a way to replace Netanyahu, how do you believe they would handle Iran differently?
CHUCK FREILICH: As I said, there is complete agreement in Israel as far as the objectives go regarding Iran, although there are differences about the ways to best get there.
Lapid, I believe, would be more open to working with the U.S. and going back to the old deal.
Bennett plays to a more right-wing audience and might be more minded to Netanyahu’s approach. But on the other hand, I don’t think that he would want to start his premiership with a conflict with the Biden administration. So, in the end, on substance, the differences between the two of them may not be that great.
One big difference is that neither one of them has the global stature that Netanyahu has built in his many years in office. Conversely, world leaders will be interested to hear if they have a new, and from their perspective, more cooperative approach to share.
ROSENBERG: Do you worry that Bennett and Lapid don’t bring enough national security and foreign policy experience to the table to effectively confront Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas?
CHUCK FREILICH: Yes, very much.
I believe the Netanyahu era must end. He has been in power for too long, has accrued too much power, and we know what absolute power does to leaders.
As much as I deplore his alleged corruption and disagree on critical issues, unfortunately there is no one else in the Israeli political spectrum today who has his experience, global stature, and remarkable political and leadership skills. The COVID crisis appears to be essentially over in Israel. Israel has warm and burgeoning relations with the UAE and Bahrain. And Israel is considered the second center of high-tech in the world, after the U.S., especially in the cyber area. These are all areas in which Netanyahu has played a special role.
So, in the short term, it will be a problem. But he must go pave the road for a new generation of leaders to emerge and I believe Israel is strong enough to handle the difficulties along the way. In the end, there is an entire foreign and military affairs establishment to help the new leaders succeed. No one is irreplaceable.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.