Former defense minister Avigdor Liberman’s decision to resign just a few days after a short round of escalation with Hamas that ended poorly for Israel was defined by Maariv reporter Tal Lev-Ram as “At the very least, irresponsibility and political cynicism for its own sake; there is no greater reward than that for Hamas.”
Liberman’s entry into the position stemmed from the dispute that arose between minister Moshe Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a seemingly minor issue, the Hebron shooting incident and the military court-martial of Elor Azaria, the soldier who carried out the shooting. Ya’alon chose to back the IDF commanders and later resigned.
The outgoing minister, Ya’alon, was discharged as a sergeant in the Paratroopers brigade and reenlisted in 1973, after the war. In 1988, he led Sayeret Matkal’s assassination raid on Arafat’s deputy, Abu Jihad, in Tunis. Later he served as the IDF chief of staff during the Second Intifada and as defense minister in Operation Protective Edge.
The incoming minister, on the other hand, served in the IDF as an NCO in the territorial defense in Hebron and in reserve in an artillery unit. Although he did not command a division, He came with a very good introduction to the system and the security issues at hand. Among other things, he served as foreign minister and member of the cabinet during the campaign in the summer of 2014, and as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
The Israeli public prefers defense ministers with an extensive military background, but there were already a few very good defenses ministers (most prominent among them was David Ben-Gurion) who did not stand out as soldiers yet managed to influence the army and the state. Most defense ministers focused on their role as the sovereign of the territories and on appointing the next chief of staff, taking advantage of extending his term for another year as a whip to keep him in line. But some did more. Moshe Arens, for example, an aeronautical engineer, came to the post with a distinctly civilian approach, which dealt well with military thinking. Arens used the chief of staff’s appointment as means to force the IDF to form the Ground Forces Command.
When it came to appoint the next IDF’s chief of staff, Liberman run a thorough process and chose a worthy candidate, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who led the 35th Paratroopers Brigade during the Second Intifada and served as the head of Military Intelligence directorate. On the issue of force buildup, Liberman stressed the importance of the ground forces but did not give it practical expression. He did initiate a large-scale acquisition of rockets that would provide the IDF with a rapid, destructive and accurate operational response as an alternative to the Air Force. The IDF, for its part, did not like the idea because it contradicts the General Staff approach, that only way to shorten the duration of the next war, certainly in view of the serious threat to the home front, is by rapid ground maneuvers.
Alongside Prime Minister Netanyahu IDF’s chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot, Liberman took part in shaping Israel’s offensive policy on the northern front, a long series of covert air strikes and special operations mainly in Syria, against Iranian targets. On the southern front, things were different. Liberman was a partner in the containment policy and attempts to reach a ceasefire with Hamas, when he suddenly turned and demanded a more aggressive policy. The prime minister thought otherwise, and considering that a military campaign could bring Israel to the same point as it now, that would be a fair assessment.
That concept held until the last round of escalation with Hamas. The organization implemented a strategy of walking on the threshold. The operation of the IDF special forces in the heart of Gaza, in which seven Hamas operatives were killed, including a battalion commander, shortly after a ceasefire was reached, forced Hamas to respond, but though his operatives fired around 500 rockets toward Israel, there was no intention to “break the rules.” Liberman, for his part, felt that in order to preserve some degree of credibility among his voters, he must resign. But it would have been better to wait two weeks, if only to negate a Hamas achievement.
Since Hamas controlled the nature, time and place for the confrontation, the IDF found it difficult to hit quality targets and senior leaders and commanders, who preceded and went underground. In an article he published about the Second Lebanon War, Maj.-Gen. (Res.) Giora Eiland claimed that alongside the possibility of limited air or ground retaliation, the government could have chosen a third option, to go to war. His example was the decision to launch the first Lebanon war.
Eiland, a paratrooper officer who served as the head of Operations Directorate, wrote, “The government made a strategic decision removed from the tactical level. At the tactical level, the government decided not to put its decision into practice right away but to wait for the right opportunity. In the meantime, for an entire year, from the summer of 1981 until the summer of 1982, the army prepared and trained rigorously for battle.” This is a model that is best to adopt. The IDF has already embarked, at least twice, on large-scale operations in the Gaza Strip while relying on the element of surprise in order to ensure a successful strike against high-value targets. Israel must not make do with a bad result, like the one in which the last round ended. In order to preserve deterrence on the southern front as well as in other arenas, Israel must initiate, at its right time, a ground and air operation in the Gaza Strip, which will eventually lead to an arrangement with Hamas.
Liberman’s tenure in the ministry can be summed up as someone who has just passed through. The only influential move he made was the choice of the next chief of staff, Kochavi, which is important. At the end of the day, the system is the people in it, and the identity of the army commander has a significant impact on it. Unlike a defense minister who has a long military career and is always portrayed as the “responsible adult, a defense minister who comes from a civilian background must build his image during his term in office. He can influence the IDF, as Arens and Ben-Gurion did, and can make do with appointing the chief of staff.
It’s the man (or woman) who makes the job.
The writer is founder and operator of the blog “In the Crosshairs” on military, security, strategy vision and practice.
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