Security and Defense: Liberman and IDF brass get down to business

Since taking up his position as defense minister, Avigdor Liberman has worked hard to project a new, moderate image and allay concerns of alarmed critics.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (center) at the Defense Ministry's Kirya complex in Tel Aviv, May 30, 2016 (photo credit: ARIEL HERMONI / DEFENSE MINISTRY)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (center) at the Defense Ministry's Kirya complex in Tel Aviv, May 30, 2016
Now that the speeches and media storms have passed, newly appointed Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman will be getting down to business, which in the first stage means huddling with the IDF General Staff and being brought up to date about a range of critical security issues.
Liberman will hear about Hezbollah’s ambitious force-buildup process across Lebanon, its costly intervention in Syria, and its massive surface-to-surface rocket and missile arsenal, which threatens Israeli strategic installations and the home front. He will also hear about the air force’s unprecedented strike capability, and Military Intelligence’s treasure trove of intelligence on the Shi’ite army in southern Lebanon, which the IDF now considers to be a kind of military – a hierarchical, highly trained, heavily armed fighting force with special forces and the ability to seize territory, concentrate firepower, gather intelligence and deploy drones – and not a mere terrorist organization.
He will also hear about the IDF’s progress in detecting tunnels from Gaza, intelligence assessments on how Hamas’s military and political wings interact, and the latest assessments on the threats posed by Islamic State in Sinai and Syria. There is every chance Liberman will hear about the latest IDF assessments on Iran, regarding its nuclear program and its regional terrorism sponsorship and weapons trafficking programs.
The IDF’s senior brass will show the new defense minister how a mix of firm security measures and steps designed to improve the economic well-being of West Bank Palestinians helped quell a five-month wave of unorganized terrorism, and why something has to be done to improve Gaza’s economy – which is being held hostage by Hamas – if another war is to be avoided.
The briefings come after Liberman, in a speech few could have imagined him making just a few weeks ago, tried to allay those alarmed by his appointment.
After the initial shock of the sudden departure of the experienced, pragmatic Moshe Ya’alon faded, Liberman marched into the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, and was greeted by an IDF honor guard, in scenes that seemed almost inconceivable until this week.
From the ranks of the opposition, Liberman had clashed with the defense establishment at every turn. In the past, he has called for the toppling of Hamas, contrary to the policy of deterring it, and for containing the Gazan Islamist regime. He had questioned the military justice system, by expressing solidarity with the soldier who is on trial for shooting dead a wounded Palestinian knife attacker as he lay on the ground.
Liberman is famous for making ultra-hawkish statements that made headlines in recent years, and which flew in the face of the defense establishment’s nuanced and pragmatic approach to Israel’s complex, challenging security environment.
The defense establishment today seeks to achieve a balance that can keep future wars at bay for as long as possible, though it is also questioning past assumptions about what to do once war does break out. The concept of waging war to achieve deterrence now seems to have been binned by the General Staff, and the idea of decisive military defeat, when conflict becomes inevitable against hybrid semi-state foes like Hamas and Hezbollah dominates military planning.
Against this background, Liberman delivered his first speech as defense minister on Tuesday and appeared to have made a distinct U-turn, at least on the verbal front. In an address to the IDF General Staff, he said, “We do not have the luxury of managing wars of choice. As the society in Israel, we are authorized only to manage wars of no choice, and we must win them.”
He said he sees the IDF’s first role as safeguarding national unity.
In democratic society, issues of war and peace must express the will of “the big majority of the nation, and not rely on a single coincidental [majority] seat in the Knesset,” the new defense minister said.
Whenever the values of Greater Israel or the wholeness of the Israeli people collide, the interests of nation must take priority over attachment to land, Liberman said.
This last point is consistent with Liberman’s long-standing support for a two-state solution, a position that he has held despite his otherwise hawkish views.
“I believe in diplomatic pragmatism and a powerful defense policy,” Liberman said, attempting to placate critics.
In terms of what he is authorized to do, Liberman, like all defense ministers, cannot make fateful decisions on peace and war by himself. Those policies are set by the prime minister, and require cabinet approval, which arrives only after lengthy debate and (usually) classified briefings by IDF General Staff.
But Liberman will be able to recommend that the IDF carry out any number of classified operations against its enemies, and may or may not exhibit the same mixture of caution and daring exhibited by his predecessor, Ya’alon, who did not appear to shy away from covert operations at times, but shied away from rhetoric that could lead to an escalation.
During the ongoing closed-door conversations, Liberman will receive an enormous quantity of secret information, intelligence and evaluations, which will take him a long time to master.
He will also hear the clear recommendations made by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and his generals, none of whom is shy about making their professional judgments heard, and who often have the hard data to back up their positions.