Middle Israel: The dangers of Avigdor Liberman's public warnings

Contrary to Avigdor Liberman, for decades, Israel said little while its enemies boasted and grandstanded.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot leave the scene of the deadly attack in Halamish, July 22, 2017. (photo credit: ARIEL HERMONI / DEFENSE MINISTRY)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot leave the scene of the deadly attack in Halamish, July 22, 2017.
It’s a pattern.
In 2001, Avigdor Liberman was perceived as warning Egypt that if it would attack Israel, Israel would bomb the Aswan Dam. Seven years later he said that if then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak doesn’t want to visit Israel, “let him go to hell.”
Another seven years on, Liberman said that if he were to become defense minister, he would “liquidate Hamas.” The following year he vowed that “if I am defense minister, I will give Mr. [Ismail] Haniyeh 48 hours: either you return the [IDF troops’] bodies... and the [captive] civilians – or you are dead; from my viewpoint you will simply be purchasing your lot in the nearby cemetery.”
Last month, turning his gaze north, Liberman’s seasonal bravado targeted Hezbollah and its hosts: “Lebanon should know that we will respond with great power should missiles be fired at our civilians.”
Lavrov meets Liberman in Moscow (credit: REUTERS)
Finally, this week, Liberman promised that “the next confrontation in the North, should it break out, will end with a clear decision in favor of the IDF and the State of Israel.”
As would befit the 59-year-old defense minister’s illustrious career, his shots from the lip checker the resumé he has built since climbing his political ladder’s first rung a quarter-century ago, when he became director-general of the Likud.
Liberman’s swaggering thus followed him from his pre-ministerial days (“Aswan Dam”) and the years after his first cabinet post as national infrastructure minister (“liquidate Hamas”), to those after his subsequent stint as strategic affairs minister (“go to hell”) and those after his protracted era as foreign minister (“you are dead.”)
The common denominator among these comments was that they were all delivered while Liberman was out of power, a setting that made us dismiss his bluster as something between a has-been’s comic pause and a wasted actor’s rendition of Ian Fleming’s General Grubozaboyschikov in From Russia with Love.
Now, alas, Liberman is in power, and not just in power, but the defense minister. Someone had better tell him to shut up.
THE RISK of firing words in an enemy’s face became famous in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, when Tuco delivered the dictum “When you have to shoot – shoot, don’t talk,” after his gunshot cut short his victim’s five-sentence lecture that began with “I have been looking for you for eight months.”
In our own history, one wonders what might have happened if Goliath had focused on the pebble in David’s sling rather than on selecting and uttering the words “Am I a dog that you come against me with sticks?” and “Come here and I will give your flesh to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field.”
The Israeli way was different.
For decades, Israel said little while its enemies boasted and grandstanded. When Gamal Abdel Nasser said in May 1967 that the impending war will be “total” and its “objective will be to destroy Israel,” prime minister Levi Eshkol remained verbally subdued, while preparing the blitz that decided Nasser’s war and also doomed his career. When Yasser Arafat said on Al Jazeera “Millions of shahids are marching on Jerusalem,” Israel said nothing and invented the targeted killing.
Having left the blustering to its enemies, Israel was freed to focus on how to reach its pistols ahead of its foes.
That, generally, was the Israeli way until the Six Day War, whose euphoria sparked Israeli bluster, like Moshe Dayan’s statement in 1972 to officers in the Southern Command that “if the Egyptians dare cross the [Suez] Canal, we will sweep them away easily within several hours.”
The following year’s events restored Israeli humility, though there were still some exceptions.
In 1981 Menachem Begin warned Syria’s president from atop a cinema in Ramle, to the applause of a cheering mob: “Assad, watch out! Yanush and Raful are waiting for you!” referring to the IDF’s chief of staff and OC Northern Command. The subsequent war resulted in a dispirited Begin’s inglorious resignation. Assad remained in power for another 17 years.
In 2006, after the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, Israel’s defense minister of the day boasted that “Hassan Nasrallah will not forget the name Amir Peretz.” Eleven years on, Nasrallah is still there and has long forgotten Peretz, as have most Israelis.
Liberman’s statement last month “I suggest to our neighbors in the North not to enter any confrontation, because it will end very badly” picks up from where Peretz left off, and is alarming on three planes: the military, the political and the global.
MILITARILY, THE fact that the defense minister issued threats on which he did not deliver, like killing Haniyeh within 48 hours, damages Israel’s deterrence. A threat is not a threat if the threatened assume it is hollow. The damage will be greater if Hezbollah survives a future bout any better than Liberman’s rhetoric suggests.
Politically, Liberman’s babbling is not only about his boisterous personality, but also about the anomaly whereby Israel’s most sensitive office is given to the leader of a minuscule Knesset faction (five members, after Orly Levy-Abecassis’s departure).
Such a politician’s pressing need to wow impressionable voters is fine when he or she heads ministries such as Culture, Science or Tourism. The Defense Ministry is different. It demands a big-party minister who does not have personal political needs he might confuse with the national interest.
Globally, and most ominously, Liberman’s conduct is but a pale imitation of Kim Jong Un’s “If the American imperialists provoke us a bit, we will not hesitate to slap them with a preemptive nuclear strike,” and of Donald Trump’s threat to respond in kind with a show of “fire and fury.”
Now, these characters, who might well have been screenwriters for spy flicks and Westerns, are the Zeitgeist, while those of us who still appreciate poise, humility and understatement increasingly feel like relics from a distant past.