REALITY CHECK: We have the right to be worried

As foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman was ineffectual. Israel can’t afford that in a defense minister

Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman
Looking on the bright side, if Avigdor Liberman achieves as much as defense minister as he did as foreign minister, then at least Israel will have suffered no great harm following his appointment to this new role, which the Knesset is expected to approve today.
To recap: after six years as foreign minister, Liberman left absolutely no legacy behind him. In fact, he was the worst foreign ministry in Israel’s history, due in no small part to his status as persona non grata in Western capitals because of the racist, anti-Arab policies he espoused as Israel Beytenu’s leader This resulted in Liberman wasting energy and resources on trying to turn Moscow and selected Latin American countries into Israel’s new allies, with absolutely no success. The low point here came when Liberman was the only Western political leader to endorse Russian President Vladimir Putin’s election victory as being cleanly achieved. Such kowtowing before the Kremlin, however, failed to change Moscow’s stance on reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, while the Latin American countries failed to change their voting habits in the United Nations.
As foreign minister, Liberman also systematically undermined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appearing after him at the UN General Assembly and pouring scorn on the prime minister’s speech in favor of peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Although, to be fair to Liberman, with Netanyahu as prime minister, any promises of any peace talks are not worth the paper they’re written on.
More worryingly, as foreign minister in the midst of Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in the Gaza Strip two years ago, Liberman publicly criticized the aims of the military operation, as set out by Netanyahu. While the prime minister talked of “significantly harming the infrastructure of Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip,” Liberman loudly demanded a reoccupation of Gaza.
Such disloyal behavior, on the part of a senior member of the cabinet, merited his immediate dismissal, but Netanyahu was too cowardly to pull the trigger.
But in the final analysis, Liberman’s stint as foreign minister passed without any great damage being caused to Israel, mainly because he was so ineffectual.
For a foreign minister to make a real contribution to Israel’s standing, he or she either has to be a close ally of the prime minister and be entrusted with sensitive diplomatic missions, which Liberman certainly was not, or have the vision and perseverance of a Shimon Peres – but hard work, clear goals and attention to detail have hardly been the hallmarks of Liberman’s political career.
THE PROBLEM is that Israel cannot afford a defense minister who, in the best-case scenario, only succeeds in not causing any damage. Given the region in which we live, we need a defense minister who can further Israel’s military deterrence for years to come without embarking on any unnecessary military adventure.
Here the portents don’t look so bright. One of the most important cornerstones of Israel’s military policy is ensuring the peace agreement with Egypt, the largest country in the Arab world, but a country Liberman has continually insulted, first with his threats to bomb the Aswan Dam should the two countries ever face off again militarily, and secondly with his comments in the Knesset some years ago that then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak “could go to hell.”
When Liberman was foreign minister, Netanyahu could always deal with the Egyptians over his head, but the close military relations between Jerusalem and Cairo, particularly over ensuring quiet in the Gaza Strip, demand the active involvement of the Defense Ministry.
The same is true for relations with the United States. Again, Liberman’s position as foreign minister had no impact on Jerusalem’s icy relations with Washington, as these were exclusively (mis)handled by Netanyahu and his ambassador in DC, Ron Dermer.
But now, with negotiations surrounding the Memorandum of Understanding regarding US military aid to Israel for the next decade coming to fruition, the Defense Ministry have a vital role to play here too.
Of course, Liberman is not the only defense minister not looked upon kindly by American policymakers.
Before he becomes elevated to sainthood, let’s not forget that outgoing defense minister Moshe Ya’alon also antagonized the White House with his remarks about US President Barack Obama being weak on Iran and misreading the importance of the Israel- Palestinian conflict within the wider context of the Middle East.
But at least Ya’alon was a military professional, who understood firsthand the implications of using force and the importance of the IDF adhering to military ethics. As Netanyahu’s Likud Party said so memorably in a statement about Liberman only a couple of weeks ago, “the only thing that has whizzed past his ears is a tennis ball,” and that he is “a man who never led even one soldier into battle and never made an [operational] decision in his life.”
This is the man that Netanyahu has entrusted with Israel’s security. We all have a right to be worried. Very worried.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.