Analysis: Returning terrorists' bodies divides the Israeli establishment

The Defense Ministry's view on returning bodies has changed with Liberman switching Ya'alon.

Former defense minister Moshe Yaalon (photo credit: REUTERS)
Former defense minister Moshe Yaalon
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There has been a split in the security establishment about whether to return terrorists’ bodies for some time.
But not long ago, the split had Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon being pro-returning terrorists’ bodies to the West Bank with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan anti-returning terrorists’ bodies to east Jerusalem.
Each of them had their fiefdoms, the defense minister the West Bank, and the public security minister east Jerusalem, and that was that.
But then there was a U-turn.
Ya’alon was out and Avigdor Liberman took his place.
Moshe Ya’alon had been pro-returning bodies because he and his Shin Bet and IDF intelligence advisers all concluded that returning bodies quickly helped maintain calm, and that holding onto them created far more instability than the loud martyrs’ funerals which would occur.
Erdan had been anti for the limited security goal of taking away the propaganda tool aspect of the funerals.
He was fine returning bodies as long as funerals would be held in the middle of the night, with few attendees and no publicity.
In contrast, Liberman did not view holding off returning bodies as merely a means to avoid “martyrs” funerals as propaganda and recruiting events. He wanted to hold off returning bodies as part of the broader policy of home demolitions, closures and his vision of red and green Palestinian villages (red is for bad behavior, bad treatment from Israel, and green is for good behavior, good treatment).
So he is against returning bodies even now when Erdan has shifted to pro-returning bodies, satisfied that his security conditions for returning them without propaganda events have been met.
In the days when Ya’alon was defense minister and Yehuda Weinstein was attorney-general, the defense minister likely would have won as the much stronger 800- pound gorilla in the room.
But Ya’alon was a lifelong general who also became defense minister – meaning he had unimpeachable security credentials.
Weinstein was a mostly career private sector lawyer who was very deferential to the security establishment and rarely willing to question its members’ judgment on what was needed for national security.
Liberman may be a political heavyweight, but he has none of Ya’alon gravitas in the security sphere.
In contrast, Weinstein’s successor, Avichai Mandelblit, spent most of his career in the IDF Legal Division and is considered a leading expert on security issues.
When Liberman tries to make fun of Erdan as “grotesque” for having a different policy than him and puts down Mandelblit as “not the High Court of Justice,” what he really is doing is protesting for his right to disagree with Mandelblit’s and Erdan’s security judgment.
The same is true with his highly unusual statement that if Mandelblit will not defend his decision in the High Court, he will send his own Defense Ministry lawyers to handle the case.
Further, he made it known that he could disagree with the Shin Bet.
But Liberman’s gambit here is likely to end similarly to his trying to butt heads with the US over the Iran deal.
Mandelblit and Erdan are far more on the same page with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than Ya’alon or Weinstein were.
So even as Liberman has temporarily flipped the Defense Ministry from being the most pro-returning terrorist bodies body to being the most anti, whether lined up against Mandelblit and Erdan or going into the High Court without the attorney-general’s support, he is likely to be doing yet another flip relatively soon.