Avigdor Liberman speaks at the Saban Forum.
(photo credit: SABAN FORUM)
When the defense minister tells the education minister he should learn to read, and the education minister tells the defense minister he should learn to count, it can be safely assumed that strife and discord are the order of the day in the political arena.
The discord in question is over the conviction of Sgt. Elor Azaria, which has created deep divisions within the public, between the political camps and now among elements within the government.
But while the political zeitgeist is blowing in the direction of national pride and patriotism, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is apparently heading in a direction of pragmatism and moderation.
Unlike many of his colleagues in the government and on the coalition benches, including the prime minister, Liberman has not called for a pardon for Azaria, but instead has called for the court’s ruling to be respected and for his fellow ministers to show restraint in their response to the conviction.
And such calls were not reserved for the Right, with even former Labor leader MK Shelly Yacimovich coming out immediately in favor of a pardon for Azaria.
But even before the denouement on Wednesday of the eight-month trial, Liberman was warning against impulsive action by the government in regard to settlements, calling Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s talk this week of annexing Ma’aleh Adumim “damaging” and likely to cause diplomatic harm.
At a time when electoral popularity appears to lie with more crowd-pleasing positions, Liberman’s stance seems out of touch and certainly surprising. When one bears in mind the bellicose tone of his 2015 Yisrael Beytenu election campaign, with promises to execute terrorists and enact a pledge of allegiance from all citizens at age 16, the defense minister’s more measured approach now is particularly unexpected.
Despite appearances and in light of how he is often portrayed, Liberman has long described himself and Yisrael Beytenu as belonging to the “pragmatic Right,” a phrase he used on Tuesday when criticizing Bennett’s annexation declaration.
Liberman supports a two-state solution, having even said he would leave his home in the settlement of Nokdim should a deal be possible, and has made it a point of policy to prefer “unity of the people” over “unity of the land.” He clashed with Bennett in a televised political debate during the run-up to the election, saying the Bayit Yehudi leader wanted “as many Palestinians as possible” inside Israel while he, Liberman, wanted “as many Jews as possible,” a gibe against his opponent’s plans to annex Area C of the West Bank.
Liberman’s otherwise hardline, abrasive rhetoric during the 2015 campaign can be at least partially explained by the severe damage a fraud investigation launched against members of Yisrael Beytenu did to the party.
Apparently, he saw the only salvation against the disintegration of his party in tacking hard to the Right in order to shore up support among his security-conscious electoral base of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, a ploy that ultimately proved itself.
Another critical element of the defense minister’s refusal to sail with the prevailing political winds is his total freedom within the party. Yisrael Beytenu does not have primary elections, so he has no rank-and-file membership to placate. Compare this to the jostling within the Likud and Bayit Yehudi, and it is easy to understand how Liberman can take less popular positions than colleagues in rival parties.
After telling Army Radio that as defense minister he has no standing to grant a pardon to Azaria, as Bennett had demanded he do – the source of his taunt that the education minister can’t read – Liberman was able to shrug off Bennett’s riposte that he learn to count to “48 hours.”
Bennett’s taunt related to Liberman’s hawkishness before he had returned to government, when he declared that were he defense minister, he would give Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh 48 hours to return dead Israeli soldiers from Gaza before ordering his targeted killing. It hasn’t happened yet.
Above all, Liberman is perhaps thinking that looking like the responsible adult in the room cannot be bad for his political aspirations, and no one can deny that further advancement isn’t on his mind. When entering the government, he insisted on the Defense portfolio over returning to the Foreign Ministry so as to burnish his security credentials, a glaring omission on his political résumé.
So while others around him must strive to be heard above the din, the Yisrael Beytenu leader is perhaps betting that presenting himself as a pragmatic, statesman-like defender of the country’s institutions might furnish an even brighter sheen to his leadership bona fides.