Is Netanyahu Playing Russian Roulette with Israel’s National Security?

Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon
Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon

Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has just made the biggest mistake of his political career. He has forced the resignation of the popular Defense Minister Moshe ‘Bogie’ Ya’alon, who has also resigned from the Knesset and threatens to challenge Netanyahu for ‘the national leadership’ in the future. This is nothing less than one of the biggest political bombshells in Israel’s history.

After two days of intense speculation, Ya’alon made a dramatic address to the nation, saying Netanyahu had left him no choice but to take a ‘time-out’ from political life, but he left no doubt about his future plans to take on Netanyahu.

Gen. (ret.) Ya’alon, a former IDF Chief of Staff, told the country: ‘I shall return!’

Ya’alon accused Netanyahu of pandering to what he called ‘extreme and racist’ elements that have taken over the ruling Likud party. His ‘I Accuse’ focused on internal Israeli events and domestic affairs, and has no link to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Ya’alon, a former Left wing Kibbutznik, also believes that there is no viable Palestinian peace partner, and Israel must reject international pressure to make territorial compromises that can jeopardize the country’s survival. But in his view, Netanyahu has failed in his role of leading ‘with a moral compass, instead of giving in to weather-vanes’ of the far Right both in the Likud and the coalition, a reference to Naftali Bennett of the ‘Jewish Home’ party.

In this sense, Netanyahu has deviated from the democratic and moral way of Menachem Begin, the former long-time Likud leader. And Ya’alon charged that Netanyahu is also responsible for what he called a ‘dangerous and divisive dialogue’ – rather than uniting the Israeli people. In this sense, Netanyahu and the far Right were campaigning against the rule of Law. In Ya’alon’s words: ‘This is not my way!’

Deeply moved, the stern-faced Ya’alon declared: ‘All my life, my goal has been to serve Israel both as a soldier and as political leader, always putting Israel’s, and not party or personal, interests first. I shall continue to do so’.

Obviously, shocked by Ya’alon’s condemnation, the Prime Minister’s Office made a statement saying: ‘It is interesting that Ya’alon decides to resign from the Likud and the Knesset only after the Prime Minister decided to replace him by Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the ‘Israel Our Home’ party’.

Lieberman is now due to be sworn in as Defense Minister next Tuesday in the Knesset. There will undoubtedly be fireworks galore, even by Israel’s standards! So why did Netanyahu decide to cash in Yaalon, who was, without doubt, a successful and popular defense minister, and with whom he had worked so well during the Gaza war of 2014? Here are several different opinions.

First, Netanyahu’s narrow coalition government commanded a very narrow majority of only 61 in the 120-member Knesset. This was hampering the ability of Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahalon to pass economic reforms and even the state budget. ‘Every bastard was a king’ – every coalition Knesset Member could prevent the passage of legislation by voting against, if he didn’t like it. And even in the Likud there are several loonies.

Netanyahu first conducted secret contacts with Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog of the Left wing Labor party. But Netanyahu’s real target was Lieberman of the Far Right. After leading Herzog down the garden path with hopes of fictitious offers about the Palestinian peace process, Netanyahu carried out a surprise pivot to Lieberman. Herzog should have realized there was no way that Netanyahu’s Likud party would ever accept Labor’s terms. So in the end, Herzog was played for a patsy with key Laborites calling for his resignation.

On the Lieberman track, the former immigrant from Russia demanded no less than the job of Defense Minister. Netanyahu has recently clashed with Ya’alon over the Holocaust comments of the IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan and the case of the IDF soldier who shot dead a wounded Palestinian terrorist in Hebron, whom other soldiers believed no longer posed a threat. The soldier will face a court-martial on suspicion of manslaughter. Some commentators also think that Netanyahu was eager to demote Ya’alon due to his growing popularity inside the Likud and with the public at large.

Netanyahu’s problem is that he is being viewed as a Prime Minister who has dumped a very good Defense Minister for a rank amateur. Lieberman barely did any military service. Lieberman has been a fierce critic of Netanyahu and Ya’alon for their handling of the war with Hamas in Gaza. Lieberman charged the two leaders didn’t have the guts to topple Hamas. In response Netanyahu cracked: ‘Lieberman is not even qualified to be a military commentator in the media let alone run a war!’

Nonetheless, Bibi has now appointed Lieberman to be his new Defense Minister, for whatever reason.

As expected, the reaction has been off the charts. Opinion polls indicate that an overwhelming number of Israelis believe Ya’alon should carry on and not be replaced by Lieberman. Likud Knesset Member Benny Begin, the son of the late Menachem Begin, was flabbergasted: ‘I think it’s a crazy idea!’

Another Likud stalwart Moshe Arens has also hauled Bibi over the coals. Arens actually served as Defense Minister with a record of doing a good job. So Arens has no qualms about a civilian filling the position:

‘Look at this simply from the point of professionalism. Ya’alon has been a great Defense Minister – there is no question about. It will take years for Lieberman to learn what Ya’alon already knows. It is wrong for Netanyahu to try and solve a coalition problem by messing with Israel’s security. This is a bad decision’.

But not only that. Lieberman is famous or infamous for his bellicose statements. In the past, he once warned the Egyptians:

‘If they provoke Israel, then the IDF could destroy their big Aswan Dam and that would inundate Egypt’.

As for the Palestinians, Lieberman proposed that Israel should offer that the ‘Arab Triangle’, and that this part of Israel where most Israeli Arabs live should be exchanged with Palestine for part of the West Bank. This enraged Israeli Arabs who want to continue living in the Jewish state and not a future Palestine. (Come to think about it, this would seem to indicate that Lieberman prefers the two-state solution, unlike the Likud. In addition, Lieberman proposes enacting the death penalty on Palestinian terrorists.

Many Israelis tend to view Lieberman as a sort of Vladimir Putin. While others say Lieberman’s bark is far worse than his bite. Like those other politicians trying to expand their base by making wild statements. Did I hear someone just mention Donald Trump?

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