A week after Avigdor Liberman was appointed defense minister in 2016, he went on his first field trip.
It was June 7, a Tuesday, the day defense ministers traditionally tour the military. The reason they go on field trips on Tuesday is because the week is pretty much set in stone: Sundays are the first day back in the office from the weekend, Mondays and Wednesdays are voting days in the Knesset, and on Thursdays they need to be at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv to approve operations with the chief of staff. That leaves Tuesdays to traverse the country, attend military drills and visit army bases.
That Tuesday, Liberman flew by Black Hawk helicopter to the northern border, received a briefing from then-chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot about the fighting in Syria as well as Hezbollah’s military buildup in Lebanon, and then went to the Northern Command headquarters in Safed for a series of meetings and intelligence updates.
It was like any other defense minister’s visit before him – except for what Liberman was wearing. He spent the day in a suit and tie, including his trademark silver tie clip. It wasn’t what the IDF was used to. On days out in the field, defense ministers usually come dressed casually. If they are going to wear a jacket, it is only in the winter and is usually a North Face fleece or one from Uniqlo.
That is because defense ministers have a unique and rare asset that no other politician in Israel can benefit from except the prime minister: the ability to be constantly surrounded by IDF soldiers, taking pictures with them in helicopters and fighter jets, on Navy ships and submarines, and inside tanks and armored personnel carriers. In a country like Israel, this is serious political capital.
It took Liberman a few weeks, but after a while he began to ditch the suit, tie and sport jacket. By the winter of 2016 he started coming on field trips wearing fleece jackets, like Moshe Ya’alon, Ehud Barak and Shaul Mofaz before him, and by the summer he was wearing short sleeve polo shirts.
I mention this because if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeds in forming a new government by Wednesday, there is a good chance that Liberman will be returning to the 14th floor of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv and the spacious office he left just six months ago.
WHEN LIBERMAN became defense minister, he initially thought it would be a political springboard: the media follows Israeli defense ministers closely; they are involved in all of the state’s delicate matters, from running the military to weighing in on Israel’s most sensitive diplomatic relations; they are sought-after interviews almost on the level of the prime minister; and anything they say or do is an immediate news item.
The problem was that it didn’t work that way for Liberman. He constantly butted heads with Netanyahu over the right policy to implement in the Gaza Strip, and how to curb the threat posed to Israel by Hamas. His position always seemed to be sidelined – Gaza would flare up, and while Liberman was talking tough, in the end the government would agree to another shaky ceasefire.
His resignation in November was exactly because of that, coming on the heels of more Gaza violence that ended with what he believed was the wrong solution. None of that, though, helped him in the polls. While he initially predicted that Yisrael Beytenu would end up with close to 10 seats, in reality the party finished with just five, a big comedown from what he expected.
What this all means is that if Liberman returns to the Defense Ministry in the coming weeks, he will be a different Liberman than the one who left in November.
During his last term, Liberman was mostly led by the IDF. He decided not to clash with Gadi Eisenkot and stayed out of his way. When asked to point to the mark that Liberman left on the IDF during his two-and-a-half-year stint, defense officials have difficulty providing an answer. There was his decision to establish a missile corps, but that seemed on its way anyhow. Beyond that, there is not that much.
WHAT WE can be sure of though is that this time, Liberman will be different. He now has the experience of serving as defense minister and learning from his mistakes. He will not want to repeat them. This means being more dominant and not being led by the generals, but leading them to where he wants the IDF to go.
One area where we can expect to see changes is on the Gaza front. It is no secret that Liberman was opposed to the past government’s policy of doing everything possible to avoid a ground offensive in the Hamas-controlled territory and constantly trying to reach a ceasefire instead. Liberman wants a more aggressive approach, and Netanyahu – who will be dependent on Liberman’s party to pass the controversial legislation he needs to escape an indictment – will not be able to push him aside so easily this time around.
Does that mean that the IDF will invade Gaza the day after the new government is formed? No. But it does mean that the next time there is a provocation by Hamas in the likes of 700 rockets fired into Israel, Liberman will be pushing for a more forceful response – and that is exactly what we should expect.
Then there is the daily management of the army. When Liberman took up his post in June 2016, Eisenkot had already established himself as a powerful and well respected chief of staff. The same cannot be said about his successor, Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
Kochavi owes his appointment to Liberman and is in his debt. Just before resigning in November, Liberman decided to bypass Netanyahu – who wanted another general for the top spot – and announced Kochavi’s appointment while Netanyahu was overseas.
Now publicly weakened by the failure to appoint his confidant Gil Messing as the next IDF spokesperson, Kochavi will be less likely to push the lines with the incoming defense minister. He will need Liberman’s approval for any future appointments – and the new defense minister will not simply be a rubber stamp this time around. He will get involved in the appointment process, and will veto or promote officers he either doesn’t like or wants to see move up the ladder.
Liberman knows he barely made it into the Knesset in the recent elections. And with each year that passes, more of his longtime voters – immigrants from the former Soviet Union – become more integrated and start moving across party lines. He will need to use this term to leave a mark on the IDF in a way that he will be remembered. That will not mean just being more outspoken, but also enacting reforms that will have an impact on the military today and for years to come.
The suit and tie will be the least of his worries.