There are nights that Avigdor Liberman doesn’t sleep.
The defense minister stays awake at his home in Nokdim, waiting for a telephone call from his military aide letting him know that all of the soldiers have returned home.
Another covert mission has ended in success.
His job was unexpected – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surprised the country and the political establishment last May when he appointed Liberman to Israel’s top defense post.
The world expected the worst. Media reports claimed at the time that Liberman would be a disaster for Israel, with one paper calling his appointment a “black day” for the country. Others pulled out some of his old controversial quotes and warned that with him as defense minister, war would be imminent.
Based on the last eight months, they couldn’t have been more wrong.
Since becoming defense minister, Liberman has turned into one of the sole pragmatic and moderate voices in the current government. The Palestinians, for example, had requested for years to build in Area C, but were always rejected. Liberman recently approved 11 projects.
Another example: While members of the coalition and the ruling Likud Party claim that a two-state solution is dead, Liberman says – in a wide-ranging exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, his first with the Israeli press since taking office – that it is still the right path.
But, he claims, the paradigm has shifted: Instead of a plan based on the Oslo model, real peace will only be reached if it includes land and population swaps, particularly of areas where Israeli-Arabs live.
Some political adversaries warned that Liberman as defense minister would clash with the IDF, but in reality he has developed strong and harmonious ties with Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot.
Moreover, while sitting as an opposition MK, Liberman attended Elor Azaria’s trial, but as defense minister, he was one of the only politicians to call on the public to respect the court’s verdict last week. He might not like the conviction of the Hebron shooter, but he likes even less the way some politicians are politicizing the trial at the IDF’s expense.
LIBERMAN’S OPINIONS remain firm.
According to the defense minister, Iran is the primary source of evil in the region – “The No. 1 threat to Israel is Iran, Iran, Iran.”
When I tell him that Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s candidate for secretary of defense, gave the same answer when asked as head of CENTCOM what were his three greatest challenges, Liberman smiles. “I’m happy to hear I think like great people,” he responds, adding that while he does not know Mattis personally, the ex-general is well-known and respected within the IDF as an intellectual and a brave combat officer.
Liberman views the new administration of Donald Trump as a unique window of opportunity for Israel. But unlike some of his fellow ministers – like Naftali Bennett – Liberman does not believe that talking about unilateral annexation of parts of Judea and Samaria is effective. On the contrary, he says, Israel needs to work with the new administration and coordinate how to move forward considering the ongoing deadlock with the Palestinians.
“We fought enough for eight years with Obama,” Liberman concedes.
“We shouldn’t fight with the Trump administration.”
But Liberman does have a word of caution for the new administration: don’t fall into the same trap that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama fell into, by believing that they could quickly and fairly easily solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel’s defense minister has a clear strategy for how to move forward, not just with the new administration and the Palestinians, but also with the larger Arab world. It is worth contemplating, since one of its key focuses is building trust between Jerusalem and Washington as well as between Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Arab capitals like Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
FOR LIBERMAN, there are currently four key issues on the Israeli-American agenda: the Palestinians, Iran, Syria and the war on terror. Moving the embassy to Jerusalem is important, he says, but should not be the focus of Israel’s relationship with the new administration.
Instead, Israel should first focus on working with the administration to establish a new anti-terror coalition comprised of the United States, Israel and moderate Arab countries from across the Middle East. In effect, it is similar to the coalition that the US established in 1991 ahead of the First Gulf War, only this time with Israel as a member.
“Terror and extremism hit everyone,” he said. “This is the common denominator for the moderate Arab world, the US and Israel.”
But how will Arab states agree to sit down at the same table with Israel? The answer is twofold, he explains: partly because it is in their interest, and partly because the US will pressure them.
“The moderate Arab world understands that the real threat against it is not Jews, Zionism or Israel, but rather the radicals in the Muslim world. I think they would join a coalition with us under pressure from the United States.”
But why is this even important, I asked.
“It creates a new atmosphere between us and our neighbors,” Liberman answered. “The biggest problem between us and the Palestinians is lack of trust. Before we talk about negotiations and solutions, we first need to create trust. The coalition is a way to create that trust.”
In addition to the coalition, Liberman has other suggestions on how to build trust and confidence between Israel and the Palestinians.
The projects he approved in Area C are one piece of the puzzle, but Liberman is looking to improve the overall quality of life for Palestinians, and to create more job opportunities in the West Bank and Gaza. He supports building a new industrial zone for Palestinians at Tarkumiya, renovating crossings between the West Bank and Israel, and upgrading the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings with the Gaza Strip.
In exchange, Israel would build in the settlement blocs – places like Ma’aleh Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel – as well as in all of the “new” neighborhoods of Jerusalem, the ones built after 1967 like Pisgat Ze’ev, Gilo and Ramot.
“That is where 90% of the Jews who suffered from a de facto freeze for the last eight years live. We need to restore normal life for Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria, and the Palestinians. We need to build in the settlement blocs... and [there’s] no reason not to build an industrial zone in Turkimiya for the Palestinians.”
The insistence on building in the blocs is important, he said, since it serves as a declaration to the Palestinians that they belong to Israel, and will always remain part of the Jewish state.
WHEN I ASK about annexation – Bennett is pushing legislation for the Knesset to apply Israeli law to Ma’aleh Adumim – Liberman insists that it cannot be done unilaterally.
Now is the time to work with the Americans to reach “strategic understandings,” he says.
“Applying Israeli law cannot be done without agreement with the Americans. Also, if [it’s] done, you don’t talk about it. When [Menachem] Begin passed the Golan Law [in 1981], there was no campaign and no talking. In one day he brought the law and passed it in three readings in the Knesset.”
According to Liberman, there are two reasons why Israel has not yet reached peace with the Palestinians: the first is that Mahmoud Abbas does not really want peace, and the second is that the Palestinian leader is simply ineffective and corrupt.
“Unlike Hamas, he understands that he cannot defeat us on the battlefield, so he replaced the military war with a campaign of diplomatic terror.”
Liberman said the “land for peace” principle that Oslo was based on is wrong, and after 24 years of trying, it is time to internalize what Albert Einstein once said: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.”
As a result, Liberman believes in a different model: while declaring that he “supports two states,” the Jewish state needs to be “more homogeneous.”
Based on the Oslo model, Liberman explained, Israel will only get half a state while the Palestinians will have a state-and-a-half – one in Judea and Samaria, and another half in Israel since 20 percent of Israelis are Arabs who identify with the Palestinians.
“It doesn’t make sense that there is a state with no Jews, and we are a binational state.”
So what should be done? “Land and population swaps,” he says, explaining that Israel needs to reduce the number of its Arab citizens from 20% today to 10% with the establishment of a Palestinian state, since anyhow the Israeli Arabs overwhelmingly identify with the Palestinians. The Triangle region, for example, is a place that can be swapped into the future Palestinian state.
“We need to reassess,” he said.
“There will soon be a real partner in the White House that will be easier to communicate with, and we need to try to open everything again including the idea of trading land for peace.”
ANOTHER NEEDED reassessment, according to Liberman, is the Iran nuclear deal. While he refrained from giving details of what exactly Israel plans to ask Trump to do with the deal – cancel, modify or simply enforce it – Liberman said that Iran is in consistent violation of the agreement, as well as numerous Security Council resolutions.
“We need to open the Iran issue again,” he insisted. “We need to continue to use sanctions against the Iranians for supporting terror, for human rights violations, and for developing and testing ballistic missiles.
This is even without the progress they are making on their nuclear program.”
Regarding Syria, Liberman seems to be advocating for more American involvement, as long as it matches Israel’s interests which are the removal of Bashar Assad as leader of Syria, and a refusal to allow Hezbollah or Iran to remain in the country.
“Otherwise, we don’t care who is there, but someone who is responsible for 500,000 deaths and the use of chemical weapons against his own people cannot stay in power.”
Liberman revealed during the interview that the Defense Ministry has compiled a list of new requests for funding assistance from the incoming administration, with a focus on missile defense and intelligence cooperation. Contrary to some reports that Israel might seek to open the $38 billion, 10-year military aid package signed in September, Liberman said he is against doing so.
“We need to respect agreements that we sign. The MOU goes into effect in 2019, and we can now focus on cooperation on missile defense and intelligence. We can talk and increase the missile defense. I would not touch the MoU,” he says.
Turning to Israeli politics, Liberman said that his party – Yisrael Beytenu – should not be written off, despite having only six seats in the current Knesset.
“What is clear is that all pollsters and analysts have failed,” he said.
“There was Brexit, the elections in the US, and other events. I don’t know commentators or pollsters who said the British would vote for Brexit or Trump would win. I try to do what I believe. I lead with policies, and I don’t talk about politics and elections.”
An example of these policies was demonstrated on Sunday, when Liberman’s party was the only one that opposed advancing a bill that would force the closure of all stores on Shabbat.
“I am in favor of Judaism, but I am against religious coercion. I believe in keeping the people united not just when it comes to the Palestinians, but also with relation to matters of religion and state.”
Liberman is now working to restore authority over conversions of soldiers to the IDF, the way it was until 2012 when the authority was transferred to the Chief Rabbinate.
“It doesn’t make sense that 5,000 soldiers who enlist annually and are not Jewish according to Halacha risk their lives for the state, but then cannot get married here and face difficulties when trying to convert.”
It seems that Liberman is enjoying his position. He entered government in 1996 as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Netanyahu, and then proceeded to climb the political ranks, most recently serving as foreign minister, and before that as chairman of the Knesset’s prominent Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Nothing really surprised him in his new job, he says. The main difference is the resolution of detail, and the responsibility which ultimately rests on his shoulders.
“The decisions I make have longterm impact, often on matters of life and death.”
What he takes pride in is the quality of people who serve in the IDF, from the young 18-year-old combat soldiers to the top officers who sit on the General Staff. Sometimes he asks for small groups of soldiers to come over to his house at night to meet and talk with. “We have amazing motivation among our soldiers, alongside a General Staff of the highest caliber. It is a pleasure to work with them.”