AS FAR as he is concerned, the appointment of the maverick Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman as defense minister is just another station on the way to his final destination – the house on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, the Prime Minister’s residence, home of his benefactor and Likud party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu.
In a surprising, controversial and Machiavellian move May 19, Netanyahu chose Liberman to replace the respected and solid Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon.
An angry and insulted Ya’alon refused Netanyahu’s offer to take over the Foreign Ministry and resigned from both the government and the Knesset. Ya’alon said he had lost faith in the prime minister and called his move a “political time out.” It is likely that he is contemplating his own political maneuver to topple Netanyahu, either within the Likud or with outside forces.
With his entry into the 14th floor of the Kirya Tower, the Defense Ministry compound in central Tel Aviv, the public could rightly view many of Liberman’s past statements as a source of concern – both for themselves and for Israel’s foes and friends alike.
In 2001, amid a period of tension in Israeli- Egyptian ties, Liberman said that if a war were to break out with Egypt, the Israel Defense Forces should bomb the Aswan Dam a strategic installation that is key to Egypt’s electricity production and agriculture.
Nowadays, the relations between the two countries are at their prime and the two share intelligence and coordinate military moves in the war against the Sinai Province of the Islamic State terrorists in the strategic Sinai Peninsula, as well as against Hamas in Gaza.
During the war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, when Liberman was a member of the inner security cabinet, he unleashed harsh criticism against the management of the war by Netanyahu, Ya’alon and then-chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz. He demanded that the IDF occupy Gaza and topple the Hamas regime.
His belligerence has continued in recent years.
Recently he demanded that Ismail Haniyeh, the de facto Hamas prime minister, be given an ultimatum: Return the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in action in 2014 within 48 hours, or else consider yourself dead and start searching for a plot in a nearby cemetery.
He has often demanded that Israel adopt a much tougher policy against the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the war against Palestinian terrorism. He also advocated an uncompromising approach to the so far futile efforts to improve relations with Turkey.
These statements and others indicate that Liberman is a strong believer in power politics in the international arena. It’s no wonder that he is an admirer of the strongman approach of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While many – though not the majority – of the Israeli public supports his worldview, the top echelon of the defense establishment regards his appointment with unease. Their reticence is compounded by the fact that Liberman has no serious military experience – nearly a must in Israeli security circles – and, therefore, isn’t considered “one of us.”
After immigrating to Israel from the Soviet Union, Liberman served a single year in the IDF in a noncombatant unit. His short military service has been a source of humor for many critics, including recent remarks made by Netanyahu aides, who said Liberman has “never heard bullets, only the buzz of tennis balls” – a reference to the Yisrael Beytenu leader’s hobby of playing tennis.
Netanyahu, who never misses an opportunity to remind his audiences that he served as a young lieutenant in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, has said that Liberman doesn’t have the skills even to be “a military commentator.”
There is also no doubt of Liberman’s attitude toward what Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot calls “the spirit and ethics of the IDF.” The controversy surrounding these values were one of the reasons Netanyahu decided to get rid of Ya’alon in the first place.
In March, an IDF soldier killed a wounded Palestinian terrorist who no longer posed a threat to the soldiers. Eisenkot deplored the action, describing it as contrary to the IDF spirit and its open-fire orders. Rightwing politicians – including Liberman – rushed to the support of the soldier, and criticized Eisenkot and the army’s decision to court-marshal the soldier.
Ya’alon backed the decision made by Eisenkot and the IDF, rhetorically declaring do we want the IDF to engage in “gang warfare?” Netanyahu, in keeping with his habit of sitting on the fence to see where the wind blows, paid lip service to the IDF conduct and called the soldier’s father to express his sympathy. Liberman went even further, going to the military court to demonstrate that he supported the soldier and not Ya’alon and the military who indicted him for manslaughter.
Nonetheless, the history of Israeli governments shows that it is not self-evident that civilians are worse defense ministers than professional military men. Levi Eshkol, Menachem Begin, Moshe Arens, and a decade ago even Amir Peretz are examples that a civilian can be a strong and competent defense minister ‒ maybe even more so than the generals who tend to identify with their previous employer, the IDF, and lose sight of their political role of managing and supervising the military.
One should not forget that Liberman does have many years of experience in interfacing with the IDF and the defense establishment ‒ he served as chairman of the foreign relations and defense committee of the Knesset and as foreign minister in Netanyahu’s previous government before the last elections in 2015. He is also known to have an especially good relationship with Yossi Cohen, the current head of the Mossad.
As a foreign minister, he was liked by the foreign service personnel. He was attentive to their requests and patient during deliberations.
He demonstrated pragmatism and responsibility in dealing with the most sensitive and complicated security and foreign relations issues.
HE NEVER ignored opportunities to launch secret diplomatic missions or to reach out to Arab nations, and sanctioned almost every initiative brought before him to enhance ties with Middle Eastern countries. Actually, his image as a tough leader, especially in the face of Iran and the Shi’ite Lebanese organization Hezbollah made him a favorite Israeli official in the eyes of some, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
It is most likely that in his new position, he will continue to try to reach out to the Sunni Arab world, stressing the common enemy – Iran and Hezbollah – and the shared interests in defeating them. Already, clandestine ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia have warmed dramatically in the last year. According to foreign reports, there is strong military cooperation between the two countries, and Israeli companies are selling hi-tech software and equipment to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s intelligence capability and military command and control centers.
Therefore, Liberman the defense minister is quite likely to reject the ideas and proposals suggested by Liberman in opposition.
He will not order an attack on the Aswan Dam – on the contrary, he will try to improve even deeper relations with Cairo. He won’t unleash the Israeli army to conquer Gaza and topple Hamas. Moreover, he will not ask the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) to stop its close cooperation with the Palestinian Authority’s security forces.
Yet, Liberman, together with Netanyahu, will have his fingers poised on the red buttons of Israel’s strategic deterrence capabilities, and will have to learn how to live with the chief of staff and his general staff, who are no less opinionated and assertive than he is, and so far, are not afraid of expressing their professional views and recommendations on advancing and designing Israeli security policies.
It is ironic that Netanyahu pushed Ya’alon out, despite the fact that the two had seen eye to eye and were very close allies when it came to military and security issues. Neither believed in peace initiatives, be they by the international community or Arab states.
They had no faith in the leadership qualities of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and did everything possible to avoid negotiating with the Palestinians, knowing that it would eventually force Israel to make territorial concessions and dismantle Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Ya’alon opposed the lifting of the siege on Gaza, no less than Netanyahu or Liberman.
Netanyahu and Ya’alon were very cautious in the way they managed the military and didn’t want to be dragged into any adventurous escapades against Israeli enemies. This was evident in the carefully measured war, which they conducted in the summer 2014 war against Gaza.
THEIR STRATEGIC doctrine was to maintain peace and tranquility along Israel’s borders with Lebanon, Sinai and Gaza and not to get involved in the bloody Syrian civil war. At the same time they maintained what they perceived as an Israeli strategic military interest: preventing the establishment of Iranian-Hezbollah networks in the Syrian Golan near the Israeli border and the transfer of advanced weaponry such as antiaircraft missiles and components that could enhance the effectiveness of Hezbollah’s long-range missiles.
As for the PA, both accepted the recommendations of the security chiefs to allow the Palestinians to enjoy relative economic stability, but rejected their suggestions to supplement this with diplomatic initiatives and gestures.
What divided Netanyahu and Ya’alon was not ideology or strategic issues, but rather character and personality traits.
Ya’alon is a rigid, stubborn and reserved person, but he is honest and has integrity, while lacking any political maneuvering skills. He, therefore, rushed to defend the military, and publicly endorsed the army’s norms, values and the need to maintain its moral compass.
Netanyahu is exactly the opposite. He is eloquent and outspoken, with no fixed notions – he knows how to be flexible to serve his political agenda – and is above all cunning and manipulative, with brutal political instincts.
In that sense, Ya’alon was easy prey for Netanyahu. Liberman will be much harder for Netanyahu to target. It may well be that Netanyahu will eventually regret this political opportunism when he realizes that Liberman is just as cunning and manipulative as he is, and has his eyes fixed on Netanyahu’s throne.