Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman addresses the media in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Avigdor Liberman’s entry into the Defense Ministry earlier this month was accompanied by concerns over what his term would look like: Would he be the aggressive Avigdor Liberman, who in opposition called countless times for Israel to go “all the way” in Gaza and overthrow Hamas, or would he display the relative pragmatism that characterized his stint as foreign minister? Would he be the belligerent politician who once suggested Israel could bomb Egypt’s Aswan Dam, or would he be the responsible statesman who sees the opportunities presented by regional circumstances – and recognize that national unity is more important that territorial integrity?
It is too early to say. But just a couple of weeks into office, Liberman’s Defense Ministry is already taking a far more aggressive tone than that adopted under his predecessor, the no less hawkish but far more cautious Moshe Ya’alon.
In a briefing with defense reporters on Wednesday, an unnamed senior source in the ministry said that the next war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza will be the last for the Islamist regime.
“Israel has no desire to control the Gaza Strip,” the unnamed official said. “But it will not tolerate an endless war of attrition. Therefore, the next clash must be the last in which there is Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip. We are not seeking adventures, but conflict with Hamas is inevitable.”
The army has for some time been moving toward a strategy of “victory, not deterrence” in the event of a conflict with Hamas. However, the IDF command saw such a “victory” in terms of defanging Hamas by decapitating its military wing. The IDF until now has spoken of leaving Hamas’s political wing in power, and leaving it with a police force. Wednesday’s speech, however, ramped up the volume, first by making public the strategy of “definitive victory,” and second, by raising the possibility of overthrowing Hamas altogether.
The unnamed official did not discuss what Israel would do after overthrowing Hamas. Would it transfer power to the Palestinian Authority? Highly unlikely, since in the same briefing the unnamed official also describe PA President Mahmoud Abbas as Israel’s No. 1 problem. Would it seek an international force, perhaps as part of the convergence of regional interests that Liberman has spoken of? Unlikely to materialize any time soon. Would Israel return to occupying and policing Gaza?
Recent history in the Middle East shows that attempting to change geopolitical reality by force doesn’t always work out as planned. One former defense minister with a preference for force and unilateralism over diplomacy tried that in Lebanon. The result was two decades of occupation, some 1,000 IDF casualties, and the rise of Hezbollah.
That defense minister, Ariel Sharon, was the one who pulled Israel out of Gaza as prime minister – the job Liberman aspires to – after realizing it was no longer tenable for Israel to remain in control of close to two million Palestinians.
Getting rid of Hamas is the easy part; what comes after is where it starts to get tough. You never know what will arise in its place.
Getting back to Abbas: the unnamed official quoted a poll showing 65 percent of Palestinians would like to see the PA president leave office. Abbas though, while playing with fire and making incendiary and inciting statements – and of course being a bitter enemy on the diplomatic front – has maintained security cooperation with the IDF, and has not let the intifada of the past several months spiral out of control. Abbas’s replacement could be far worse for Israel on that count, and the violence could get far worse. Here too, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”
But that isn’t what concerns the unnamed official.
What worries him is Israel’s weakness on the diplomatic front.
“We are strong in the military arena, and weak in the diplomatic arena,” he said, adding that Abbas spends his time in European capitals, not in the West Bank, to exploit this weakness to attack Israel.
Does the unnamed official imagine that all-out war in Gaza will improve Israel’s position, rather than provide Abbas with more ammunition to erode its standing? As former navy commander and Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon told me in a recent interview, victory in today’s battlefield is not obtained just on the military front, but must also take into account various overlapping fronts such as the diplomatic front, the battle for legitimization, the battle for public perception, and the battle over how the rules of war apply.
Before seeking all-out confrontation – which could cost Israel dozens, if not hundreds of casualties in a worst-case scenario – the unnamed official would do well to make sure Israel is prepared on all fronts.