Lieberman appointment is bad news for everyone
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s latest political manoeuvre looks like bad news for both Palestinians and Israeli Army commanders alike.
Netanyahu has installed his long-time protégé — turned rival, turned political ally, turned critic — Avigdor Lieberman in his Likud-led coalition government as Defence minister.
The move confounded liberal critics inside and outside Israel misled by Netanyahu’s protracted talks with the anaemic Zionist Union left-centre grouping led by Isaac Herzog. But Herzog was entirely outplayed by Netanyahu, arguably the greatest master of political machinations in Israeli history.
Netanyahu in the past has been alarmed by Lieberman’s appeal to extreme right-wing elements that previously supported the prime minister. However, the two men agree on all major defence and security issues, most of all in their opposition to pushing ahead with any two-state solution in the peace process.
Lieberman’s price for joining the Netanyahu government was high: He demanded the Defence Ministry. In the past, Netanyahu did not want to give Lieberman such a powerful base. The job of Defence minister is second only to that of prime minister in Israel in terms of public prestige and real power.
The previous Defence minister since 2013, former Army Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, has been a hardliner in the Likud tradition. He has also been a stickler for due process, army discipline and, along with current Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot demanded the prosecution of an Israeli soldier who shot a Palestinian attacker after he was already wounded and no longer a threat. The issue has become enormously emotional and divisive in Israel.
Ya’alon was an extremely successful Defence minister and worked well with the chiefs of staff under him. Along with the top army leadership, he has repeatedly opposed carrying out preventive air strikes against Iran’s nuclear programme. Lieberman, by contrast, is a super hawk on that issue but has no comparable military experience, prestige or respect among senior officers.
Netanyahu risks infuriating a Palestinian community already driven to despair and among whom random murderous violence against Israeli civilians has been breaking out with increasing frequency.
At the same time Netanyahu has thrown to the winds the harmonious functioning of the civilian-political and professional military leadership on which the fundamental security of the country and the reliability of its responses to attacks, long-term threats and unexpected crises depend.
The appointment of Lieberman is also a contemptuous gesture towards US President Barack Obama and reflects Netanyahu’s continued judgment that he can treat the American leader with increasing disdain during Obama’s final year in office.
Netanyahu appears to be confident he can expect less criticism and warmer support from either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump after this year’s presidential election in the United States.
Netanyahu offered Ya’alon the fig leaf of becoming Foreign Affairs minister, a job Lieberman has held in the past. But in Israel, the Foreign Affairs minister has been an increasingly impotent and marginalised figure over the past half century. Ya’alon, a proud man and no fool, turned it down flat.
Ya’alon will now seek to establish himself as the leading critic and challenger to Netanyahu among the broad right of Israel, which is the dominant national consensus.
Pundits in the United States and Israel have argued that Lieberman will at least at first keep a low profile and try to clothe himself in moderation while cautiously finding his feet in the job.
However, in his two decades at the centre of Israeli politics, Lieberman has never chosen that style of operating. Blustering, bullying and confrontation are his preferred style and he has always revelled in his self-image as a former nightclub bouncer, which he briefly was long ago.
In recent years, Israel’s top military leaders have consistently shown themselves to be more moderate and cautious in their approaches to challenges and crises than many, if not most, of their political masters. Ya’alon, who has impeccable political and security credentials, prevented these differences from escalating into outright clashes.
Now that he is no longer there to prevent such crises, they are likely to come thick and fast.