Netanyahu vs. Liberman: The clash that might topple Israel's government

Netanyahu’s Gaza policies may have staved off war but may have cost him his coalition.

Avigdor Liberman speaks at a press conference, October 22, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Avigdor Liberman speaks at a press conference, October 22, 2018
Each year on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, the day of founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s death, Israel’s prime minister – along with the president, opposition leader and security heads –go south to Sde Boker to pay their respects at his grave, and the grave of his wife, Paula.
And each year the prime minister, regardless of who it is, cherry-pick something from Ben-Gurion’s legacy to help explain their own current policies.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued this tradition on Wednesday, speaking at the ceremony marking Ben-Gurion’s 45th yahrzeit just hours before Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman dropped his bombshell resignation and framed the move as a protest to the government’s agreement to a ceasefire with Hamas a day earlier, something he termed a “capitulation to terrorism.”
“I stand here at the grave of David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of the State of Israel and a great leader of the Jewish people. In times of crisis Ben-Gurion made fateful decisions. Sometimes he did so against popular opinion, but in the course of time, these decisions proved to be correct,” Netanyahu said.
“In normal times, a leader must be attentive to the hearts of the people, and our people are wise. But in times of crisis, when making critical decisions in the field of security, the public cannot always be a partner in the crucial considerations that must be concealed from the enemy.”
Then, with Liberman obviously in mind, he said, “At these moments, leadership is not to do the easy thing; leadership is to do the right thing, even if it is difficult. Leadership is sometimes facing criticism, when you know confidential and sensitive information that you cannot share with the citizens of Israel, and in this case with the residents of the South, whom I love and appreciate greatly.”
His message was simple: Liberman took the low road – the easy, popular route; while he – Netanyahu – is taking the high road, doing the right thing even though it is unpopular, even though it will lead to criticism.
WITH PASSIONS fired up over the indiscriminate Hamas attacks on civilian targets, with people’s patience running out after nearly eight months of terrorism from Gaza, the popular path is the use of much greater force against Hamas; at least that is the popular path with the country’s right wing, which supports the Likud, Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party and Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi.
But for Netanyahu the right thing, in his mind, is to avoid a war in Gaza that will lead to the death of soldiers and civilians and leave Israel – afterward – back where it started: with no viable solution for Gaza.
Netanyahu said as much in a frank press conference in Paris on Sunday just hours before an apparent intelligence mission inside the Gaza Strip went bad, leading to the killing of an IDF officer and seven terrorists, including Qassam Brigades commander Nur Barakeh.
Asked about his vision for Gaza, Netanyahu said there is no diplomatic solution for the coastal strip as long as Hamas – with an ideology committed to Israel’s destruction – rules over it, just as there is no diplomatic solution to Islamic State or Iran, which also want to destroy the Jewish state.
“There are governments, there are organizations, with whom you are unable to get to a diplomatic arrangement, because they want to kill you,” he said, adding that at the moment the best solution is to try to restore calm and “go to some kind of arrangement, and anyone speaking of something else doesn’t know what they are talking about.”
And that is Liberman’s problem – the problem he laid out at the press conference where he announced his resignation. Rather than defeating Hamas, Netanyahu prefers – backed by all the top security heads – restoring calm through the use of carrots and sticks, and then reaching an agreement that will buy quiet for an extended period of time.
Liberman calls this capitulation to terrorism; Netanyahu has another name for it: a recognition of reality and leadership. Since Liberman’s move will sooner or later lead to an election, the nation will soon be able to decide what they think it is.
Netanyahu is already preparing for this, and preparing his arguments. At that Paris press conference he went on record with comments that for the last number of weeks he has been willing to make only in private and off the record, comments that explain his considerations.
In Paris to join leaders from around the world to mark the end of World War I – a war in which millions of soldiers marched to their deaths with the initial cheers of their countrymen ringing in their ears – Netanyahu said that just as that war was unnecessary, he felt it his duty to prevent an avoidable war.
“Every war brings with it casualties; I do not shy away from it if it is necessary, but try to prevent it if it is not,” he said.
Netanyahu then described his considerations, talking about young men who leave their parents and willingly go to war, some of whom do not return.
“I see what happens to their families, I see what happens to those youth – it is a very heavy price, to say nothing of civilian casualties. I see that, I live it. That does not prevent me from taking action – we take action when we must, and have done so often, but I always think about this, and I think every prime minister has to think of that.
“You are responsible for security, and when there is a need, you send people to risk their lives, and you do it – but if there is a way to prevent that, and to get the same results, that is your responsibility. Will you get criticism here and there? Yes, but for that people are chosen to lead,” he said.
In Netanyahu’s mind, if he is able to restore calm through a long-term ceasefire, that is preferable to achieving the same result through a widespread military campaign that would cost IDF and Israeli civilian lives – especially since neither will solve the Gaza problem once and for all.
He also indicated during the press conference that he is strong enough politically to pull this off.
“At the end you accumulate [political] credit and have to use it on a rainy day, and I am doing that in the understanding that this is my mission,” he said.
THIS POLICY, at a time when people are taking to the streets demanding a more aggressive Israeli response, and at a time when there is widespread sentiment that a stronger Israeli response is needed, is a political gamble. For this reason, Netanyahu would prefer to push off the election date for as long as possible, so the events of the last few days recede in people’s minds, overtaken by other events.
Which is exactly why Liberman wants an election now, why he forced the issue now. Just as Netanyahu is taking a political gamble believing that restraint will pay off at the polls, Liberman is gambling that pushing the envelope will save his party and his political career.
Liberman, in recent weeks, has called for more aggressive Israeli action, pushed in this direction by Bennett. Up until then he was backing what he said was the IDF’s responsible policy toward Gaza. None of this has helped his political standing, as polls over the last few months showed his support declining.
Sharon Gal, a journalist and former Yisrael Beytenu Knesset member, gave voice to the disillusionment with Liberman on the Right on Tuesday, going on a rampage against the defense minister in his radio show on Galei Yisrael.
Calling Liberman a “toy Rambo,” he said that while hundreds of rockets were fired from Gaza toward Israel, the defense minister sat quietly.
“I am embarrassed that I was a Knesset member in Yisrael Beytenu under this defense minister, who does nothing but talk. I will never forget that Shabbat cultural program in which he said, ‘Record me: If I will be defense minister, within 48 hours [Hamas leader Ismail] Haniyeh will be dead.’ What a zero. Haniyeh is alive, and you are silent.”
Liberman broke his “silence” with his resignation announcement, and though he framed it as a principled act of standing up for his positions, there was seemingly a political calculation as well: defusing arguments such as Gal’s.
An instant Channel 2 poll on Wednesday evening showed that the gamble paid off, and that were an election held today, Yisrael Beytenu – which in previous polls was picking up only five seats – shot up to seven, one more than it received in the previous election. The Likud, on the other hand, dropped to 29, one less than its current strength.
But that is only one survey. Sooner rather than later, however, the nation will go back to the ballot box, and one of the questions it will answer is whether Netanyahu’s restraint toward Gaza is leadership or capitulation, and whether Liberman’s move was a noble act of principle or stark political opportunism.•