Israel is still reeling after Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu appointed Avigdor Lieberman as his new Defense Minister. Half of the country thinks Bibi has lost his marbles while the other believes Lieberman is just what the doctor ordered to cope with the violence and bloodshed running rampant in the Middle East. In the past, Lieberman has called for imposing the death penalty on Palestinian terrorists, who have been killing Israeli civilians in the streets, and suggested that Israel should topple the Hamas regime in Gaza and target Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for backing terrorism against the Jewish State. In addition, if Cairo ever threatened Israel again, Jerusalem should destroy the huge Aswan Dam in Egypt.
Former Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak has fueled the flames by warning that the Lieberman appointment has ‘sown the seeds of fascism’ in Israel. MK Tzipi Livni, a former Foreign Minister has climbed the barricades – she has called for a merger of all the Centrist and Left Wing parties in Israel to oust the new Netanyahu coalition. But in the short run this is a pipe dream. The Obama Administration has also kicked in with this reaction to Lieberman’s party joining the Netanyahu coalition:
‘This raises legitimate questions about the direction it may be heading in and what kind of policies it might adopt’.
No question, the Lieberman appointment is a shocker both at home and abroad and does raise a number of vexing questions.
Why did Netanyahu do it?
After the latest Israeli election, Netanyahu could only muster a paper-thin majority of 61 in the one 120-member Knesset. Therefore, he was at the mercy of individual MKs in the coalition who could either block or blackmail him over government policies. This, they proceeded to do. So Bibi decided to make his job easier by burying the hatchet with his bitter rival Lieberman. This gambit will boost the coalition majority to 66.
But Lieberman squeezed Bibi for all he was worth and came away with the all-important position of Defense Minister. This in a country that is in a state of low-intensity warfare with Hamas and Hezbollah; waiting in the wings is Iran, and all three have vowed to wipe Israel off the map. (A senior Iranian adviser to the Revolutionary Guards has just bragged that Tehran can even do it ‘in less than eight minutes’, if Ayatollah Khamenei gives the order.) And no, I haven’t forgotten Daesh, but at the moment they have their hands full in Syria and Iraq. In the meantime they have warned:
‘We haven’t forgotten, we’re coming for you after we’ve finished our sacred mission in Syria’.
Just how dangerous will Lieberman be as Defense Minister in charge of possibly the most powerful army in the Middle East?
Lieberman has repeatedly beat the war drums to bolster his popularity with Far Right voters who want Israel to hit back hard for every Palestinian or Arab provocation. His big stick applied to the rockets from Gaza and Lebanon or from any Arab country, and certainly Iran. During the summer war of 2014 with Hamas in Gaza, Lieberman harangued Bibi for not finishing the job by ordering the IDF to occupy all of Gaza and destroy Hamas once and for all.
But what has Lieberman actually done when he has served in office? Take for example, his record as foreign minister in a previous Netanyahu cabinet. When he took over as Israel’s top diplomat, the pundits predicted that this ‘bull in the china shop’ would wreck Israel’s foreign relations altogether. But surprise, surprise! Lieberman turned out to be a reasonably diplomatic foreign minister, who suddenly toned down his former tirades. In fact, he got along well with US Secretary of State John Kerry who had infuriated former Defense Minister Ya’alon by his ‘messianic’ drive for a deal with the Palestinians that ignored Israel’s security risks on the West Bank.
Lieberman has been propelled into a key role as boss of the IDF and close to the buttons of what the international media calls Israel’s secret and potent weapons? How dangerous might this be?
No one official in Israel, not even the PM or defense minister, can decide on overnight shifts in the state’s military and strategic moves. The decision-making process is an orderly and comprehensive result after a detailed examination by all the relevant organs of the military, political and intelligence organs of the state. Moreover, the 7-member security cabinet must also give its approval. (On this score minister Naftali Bennett, who sits in the security cabinet, is pressuring Bibi to supply its members with more info than in the past. Bibi will apparently have to comply if he wants Bennett’s party to vote for the pending Lieberman appointment).
Consider this: in 2010-11, according to the late Mossad Director Meir Dagan, Bibi and Ehud Barak favored launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities. However, former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Dagan vehemently opposed such an operation. They held their ground that Iran was still far away from producing nuclear weapons although that was its eventual goal. Guess what? Bibi and Barak had to back down. They knew that the security cabinet, which must approve such a strike, might very well vote against, if Ashkenazi and Dagan opposed it. For the same reason, public opinion might rebel furiously to the idea of going to war, if the top military and intelligence officials said there was still time.
(It remains to be seen if Netanyahu and Barak were in cahoots on pressuring US President Barack Obama to start imposing serious sanctions on Iran. Ben Rhodes has recently disclosed the White House really feared that Israel would attack and this apparently prodded Obama into action on the sanctions).
On this score, Ehud Barak has said Israelis do not have to worry about Lieberman taking any reckless solo actions. But he added that in the long run the new Defense Minister’s lack of military and strategic experience could result in grave damage. In any case Bibi, who is considered to be cautious about launching risky ventures, will be peering over Lieberman’s shoulder with his own hot line to the IDF Chief of Staff.
One of the first tests will be the sporadic rocket fire from Gaza at Israeli communities. It works like this: Hamas is not prepared to go another round with the IDF at this time. However, other rogue terror groups in Gaza charge that Hamas has agreed to an unofficial cease-fire with Israel. This while Hamas rebuilds its strength and digs more tunnels into Israel. Therefore, the rogue terrorists fire their own rockets into Israel from time to time to embarrass Hamas and to heat up the situation. There have been ten or so this year. If the rockets do not hit Israeli civilians or soldiers, the IDF policy is to fire back within a few hours to destroy an abandoned Hamas position without harming anybody. Israel holds Hamas, which rules Gaza, responsible for all attacks from its territory. It appears that the Israeli tit for tat is often delayed for several hours to give Hamas time evacuate its men from possible targets. But if the Gaza rockets kill or injure any Israelis, that’s a different story. Israel will retaliate in kind. These are the current rules in Gaza.
The rogue terrorists egged on by Iran are trying to drag Hamas into another destructive confrontation with Israel and Israel knows it. So a modus vivendi has been agreed between Hamas and Israel. This in fact has been put to the test by Israel’s chutzpa in destroying Hamas tunneling into Israeli territory. The Hamas goal is to launch surprise terror attacks into Israel when it does decide to provoke Israel once again. All eyes will be watching Lieberman the next time some Palestinian rockets come flying across the border but land harmlessly. The odds are that Lieberman will continue to play by the current rules.
How will Lieberman, who likes to throw his weight around, get along with IDF General Staff?
Picture this: The IDF General Staff, the cream of the crop, will snap to attention when the portly Lieberman strides into his first meeting with the country’s top commanders. What will run through the minds of these hardened veterans who have spent their lives defending the Jewish state? Most Israeli defense ministers are invariably former generals. How could it be otherwise in a tiny country that has been at war since its rebirth in 1948? There have been the odd civilians who served in the post with different results. Moshe Arens, a respected professor of aeronautical engineering did a good job but he didn’t have to fight a war. Amir Peretz did. Peretz was defense minister during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and he was a washout. Now, in comes Lieberman with the Middle East going up in flames around Israel. Great time for a rookie defense minister to start learning on the job; and novice he is. Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union served as a clerk in the Quarter-Master Supplies Branch!
But Lieberman is not stupid, and has proved to be a shrewd politician. If he’s now made it big time to the Defense Ministry, he will not want to screw up. Who knows, it could be a stepping-stone to becoming prime minister one day. The last thing he needs is for IDF generals to start leaking that although Lieberman hasn’t a clue he is actually trying to ram rash plans down their throats. It’s more reasonable to assume that he will listen carefully and follow the lead of IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. That way he will reap the benefit of being recognized as a quick study who has the sense to go with the flow of the High Command on strictly strategic matters. It will also supply him with more clout in discussing political affairs in the cabinet.
This also is not the ideal situation, but it is probably the wisest for him until he gains enough experience to know what’s going on. Obviously, it was far easier for him previously to pander to Israeli hotheads by urging the government to finish the job and drive Hamas out of Gaza without taking responsibility for the IDF soldiers who would be killed and wounded in such an operation.
Has Israel ever had to face such a situation of a highly controversial politician taking control?
As a matter of fact, yes. The Likud’s Menachem Begin was elected prime minister after the Yom Kippur War when Golda Meir and super general Moshe Dayan were caught with their pants down by the Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack on Yom Kippur, 1973. Begin was a super-hawk if ever there was one, and with the credentials to show for it. Moreover, he was a spellbinding orator. And he was Number One, not number two on the totem pole, with immense personal popularity from the Right wing, unlike Lieberman. Unlike Lieberman, Begin was also considered to be a straight shooter – what you saw was what there is.
On the other hand, there is a shady side to Lieberman and his rumored ties with foreign tycoons. He was the subject of an intensive investigation for years by a state prosecutor who recommended charging Lieberman for financial monkey business. However the Attorney General, a former defense lawyer, decided to drop all charges in a highly controversial ruling. The state prosecutor resigned in protest and has written a book explaining why Lieberman should have been brought to trial. Meanwhile, several members of Lieberman’s party, including his top MK, have resigned and are under police investigation for financial fraud. This leads to another perplexing question: Lieberman is known to rule the roost with an iron fist. So how come he knew nothing about the suspected graft going on under his nose in his own party? That would mean he is an idiot. And if he did know???
But that is now water under the bridge. Some commentators and political rivals have come close to pushing the panic button with predictions of ‘après Lieberman le deluge!’ But Lieberman is not stupid. If he wants to prove he is not Dr. Strangelove, as he did as foreign minister, and if he has now set his eyes on becoming PM one day, he will want to be a success in Israel’s holy of holies, the Defense Ministry. This will require him to walk a tightrope. When it comes to terrorism in the territories, he will want to preserve his tough image with his base on the far Right. But on the other hand, when it comes to reckless military adventures he will likely toe the line.
Take for example the message from Washington about ‘legitimate questions’ that are being asked in the White House and the Pentagon. And there is one burning issue on the table – the renewal of the US military aid package so critical to Israel’s defense. Does anyone in his right mind think Lieberman would do anything that might affect it?
Finally let’s return to Israel’s ultimate firebrand, Menachem Begin. When he was elected, his critics were serious about ‘get your bomb shelters ready, and start wearing a helmet to work’. Begin will take us to war! Lo and behold, Begin amazed Israel and the world by leading to the historic peace treaty with Egypt. He gave back the last grain of sand to Egypt’s Anwar Sadat when he became convinced the Egyptian leader was on the level about making peace. But neither was Begin stupid. In return, Begin demanded and got an Egyptian demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula from where Egypt had repeatedly launched wars against the Jewish state. This is a lesson that Israel will not forget. This is not to compare Menachem Begin with Avigdor Lieberman in any way, shape or form. Rather it raises the possibility and hope that Lieberman does have all his marbles.
In any case, all is now sweetness and light between Netanyahu and Lieberman, at least for the time being. And in a new smiling mode, Lieberman joked as if to pacify a lot of worried Israelis:
‘I want to reassure you I have undergone an operation to lengthen my short fuse’
PS: Arik Sharon entered the PM’s office as a super-hawk and gradually saw the light. He later declared:
‘What you see from here (PM’s office) you can’t see from there (outside the PM’s office)’.
Sharon then accepted President George W. Bush’s Road Map peace plan (which Yasser Arafat side-stepped) and also conducted a highly controversial IDF and civilian withdrawal from all of Gaza (which the Palestinian turned into a launch pad for rocketing Israel to this very day).