Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is in over his head.
Few had high hopes for Liberman when he was appointed to his post, but most observers on the political Right were willing to swallow the pill of having a man with an understanding of military and strategic affairs that began and ended with applause lines because his appointment solved two pressing political problems.
Liberman’s appointment to serve as defense minister brought his Yisrael Beitenu party into the government, which increased the size of the coalition from its razor-thin 61-seat majority to a more healthy 66 seats. Moreover, by appointing him, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to remove Moshe Ya’alon from the Defense Ministry. Ya’alon had become unacceptable to Likud voters due to his rush to convict IDF Sgt. Elor Azaria as guilty of criminal wrongdoing last March when Azaria killed a downed terrorist who had stabbed a fellow soldier in Hebron.
Monday morning Liberman showed that concerns about his suitability for his position were spot on.
Speaking to reporters at the Knesset, Liberman said that growing discussion among leading members of the coalition about applying Israeli law to parts of Judea and Samaria must stop.
“Anyone who wants to apply Israeli sovereignty to Judea and Samaria needs to understand that such a step will bring immediate repercussions from the new US government,” Liberman alleged.
He added, “We received a direct – not indirect – message: ‘Apply sovereignty and you will be cutting ties with the new administration.”
Liberman’s statement was both ignorant and damaging.
It was ignorant because it critically misrepresented how decisions are made in US administrations.
It isn’t hard to guess which Trump administration official is threatening Israel and trying to force the government to abide by the failed and damaging policy of surrendering Jude and Samaria to Palestinian terrorists.
As defense minister, he speaks to his counterpart, US Defense Secretary James Mattis. Mattis is no friend of Israel’s.
During his confirmation hearings in the Senate, when Senator Lindsay Graham asked him what the capital of Israel is, Mattis replied “Tel Aviv.”
Mattis also said that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a “vital [US] interest.”
After being fired from his command of Central Command in 2013, Mattis claimed that the US alliance with Israel harms the US. In his words, “I paid a military security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel, and... moderate Arabs who want to be with us... can’t come out publicly in support of people who don’t show respect for the Arab Palestinians.”
In the same address, Mattis argued that if Israel continues to allow Jews to assert their property rights in Judea and Samaria, it will risk becoming an “apartheid” state.
When President Donald Trump appointed Mattis, supporters of Israel in the US were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that his statements were the product of his service in the anti-Israel Obama administration and that once liberated from its intellectual straitjacket, he would abandon his preposterous positions on Israel. Concern over Mattis was abated by the fact that he opposed president Obama’s Iran policy.
But last week Mattis made clear that he actually shares Obama’s worldview when he decided to appoint Anne Patterson to serve as his undersecretary of defense for policy. Patterson, who served as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs under Obama, is a harsh critic of Israel and an apologist for the Palestinian Authority’s support for terrorism.
In testimony before Congress in April 2014 for instance, Patterson defended the PA’s practice of paying salaries to Palestinian terrorists and their families. The payments are legitimate, she told lawmakers, because “they need to provide for the families.”
Last year, when Mahmoud Shalan, a Palestinian terrorist with US citizenship was shot by soldiers at a checkpoint after he tried to kill them, and later died of his wounds, Patterson demanded an explanation from Israel for his death.
As Steven Flatow, father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists in Gaza in 1995, noted in an article at JNS news service, Patterson did not demand that the PA provide an explanation for why Shalan, who was a resident of the PA, was engaged in terrorism against Israelis.
Before being appointed to head the State Department’s Near East bureau, Patterson served as Obama’s ambassador to Egypt from 2011 to 2013, during tumult that saw two leaders outed in so many years.
Patterson supported the overthrow of longtime US ally then-president Hosni Mubarak.
She supported the Muslim Brotherhood regime that replaced him.
She urged Christians and others who were being persecuted by the Muslim Brotherhood regime not to demonstrate against it. She supported Morsi’s moves to seize tyrannical power and transform Egypt into an Iranian-allied Islamic state.
After the military overthrew Morsi and his regime, Patterson supported cutting off US military assistance to the regime of President Abdel Fattah Sisi.
For her pro-Muslim Brotherhood positions, Patterson became one of the most hated people in Egypt and a symbol of the Obama administration’s abandonment of Egypt.
Mattis’s decision to appoint Patterson was rejected by the White House, on the basis of Patterson’s record in Egypt and at the State Department.
The Patterson episode shows that Mattis continues to embrace Obama’s policy of supporting Islamists and opposing US allies. The White House’s rejection of Patterson shows that Mattis is not in charge of policymaking, the White House is.
The fact that Liberman has represented Mattis’s threats to Israel as the official policy of the Trump administration indicates that he doesn’t understand either who Mattis is, or how decisions are made in US administrations generally or how they are made in the Trump administration in particular.
Moreover, by claiming that Mattis’s positions are US policy, Liberman insulted Trump, attributing policymaking powers to Trump’s appointed adviser that belong to the president alone.
Trump, for his part, has clearly not made a determination of where he stands on the disposition of Judea and Samaria. But he has made clear that he has no intention of striking out at Israel. He similarly made clear that he has no intention of maintaining Obama’s position, which Patterson communicated to Congress, of supporting payoffs to Palestinian terrorists.
If this weren’t reason enough to be appalled by Liberman’s deeply destructive statement, the fact is that this isn’t the main problem with it.
Liberman’s argument that Israel must maintain allegiance to the failed and destructive policy of empowering the PLO lest it wreck its ties to America is most destructive because it undermines Israeli democracy and Israel’s international position. Liberman’s statement invites – indeed begs for – a foreign government to threaten Israel in order to cow elected officials and the public into accepting a policy they rightly reject and abandoning discussion of an alternative path that advances Israel’s strategic interests.
In behaving in this manner, Liberman is adopting the anti-democratic practice of Israel’s political Left. Incapable of winning the public’s support for their obsessive agenda of giving land to Palestinian terrorists, for years, leftist politicians like former justice minister Tzipi Livni have threatened the public and her fellow elected officials that if they dare step away from the disastrous policy, Israeli officials and citizens will face war crimes indictments in international courts.
To his great discredit, Prime Minister Netanyahu began engaging in this sort of behavior recently as he warned that passage of the Settlements Regulation Law would expose Israel to war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court.
Netanyahu was substantively ridiculous. There is no international legal basis for such charges. On its own, the ICC would be unlikely to initiate such proceedings, given their legal weakness. But by arguing that action by the ICC would be a reasonable response to the law, Netanyahu created the political opening for anti-Israel lawfare by the ICC.
After all, if the prime minister himself is saying such charges will ensue, far be it for ICC prosecutors to disagree with him.
This practice of alleging foreign opposition – and so inviting foreigners to attack Israel – in order to prevent Israel’s elected officials from loyally performing their duties in accordance with the wishes of their constituents has always been harmful to the country.
Liberman’s false statement regarding the purported policies of the Trump administration brings this practice to a new low.
Liberman should issue an immediate clarification.
Prime Minister Netanyahu should reject Liberman’s statement. And both men should affirm their commitment to Israeli democracy and the power of elected officials to determine the course of the nation in accordance with Israel law and on basis of their assessments of Israel’s national interests.
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