Netanyahu’s ‘military coup in reverse’ shakes Israel

Sunday 05/06/2016
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman walking with Israeli Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizenkot

BEIRUT - Binyamin Netanyahu’s terms as Israel’s prime minister — he is currently on his fourth — have tend­ed to be tempestuous af­fairs frequently involving pitched battles with his generals who dis­trust his security policies and what they see as his recklessness, partic­ularly an obsession with launching pre-emptive strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
In the autumn of 2012, Netanya­hu was forced to abandon plans to unleash Israel’s military on such an offensive, largely involving the air force, after senior figures in the se­curity and defence establishment, past and present, refused to en­dorse the dangerous operation that would undoubtedly have triggered all-out war with the Islamic Repub­lic and its allies and would probably have engulfed the entire region.
But on May 18th, Netanyahu threw down the gauntlet to his re­calcitrant generals by ditching a respected member of the military elite, Major-General Moshe “Bo­gie” Ya’alon, as Defence minister. He placed him with the bombastic, rabble-rousing Avigdor Lieberman, an ultra-nationalist former corporal in the logistics corps whom US ana­lyst Philip Giraldi, a former senior CIA official, describes as “astonish­ingly unqualified” to hold the sec­ond most important post in Israel’s government.
Ya’alon declared after being forced out: “To my great sorrow, extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel and the Li­kud Party and are shaking the coun­try’s foundations and threatening to wound its inhabitants.”
Other senior defence establish­ment figures echoed his alarm.
Netanyahu, a former captain in the army’s elite special forces, is the second-longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history behind David Ben-Gurion and he wants that title for himself. Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer, has his eyes on the premiership himself, which suggests there may be more twists to come in this tale of politi­cal intrigue and betrayal.
By bringing in Lieberman and his far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party’s six seats in the 120-member Knesset, Netanyahu transformed his Likud-led coalition’s precarious one-seat majority into a dominant position. Many Israelis see Netanyahu’s con­solidation of political power and his driving ambition to beat Ben-Guri­on’s tenure as the shape of things to come.
Netanyahu appears to have the upper hand in the escalating dec­ade-old confrontation between the ultra-right and the security estab­lishment, although how long that will last is anyone’s guess.
It is clear that, for now at least, Netanyahu has outflanked the generals with what J.J. Goldberg, a columnist with the Forward, the leading US Jewish newspaper, and an astute observer of Israeli life and politics, calls “a military coup in re­verse”.
That said, the domestic political turmoil the Lieberman affair has caused is likely to affect Israel’s foreign relations, which have been precarious for some time, most no­tably Netanyahu’s confrontation with US President Barack Obama and how this could imperil rela­tions, military aid in particular.
The military establishment fears Netanyahu’s recklessness has en­dangered the Jewish state’s rela­tions with its strategic ally and ben­efactor at a particularly precarious time in the Middle East but his deci­sion to appoint the ultra-nationalist Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet state of Moldova who has threatened to nuke the Gaza Strip, to the second most important post in the government sharpened the rightward drift in Israeli politics and threatens to polarise the coun­try.
“In addition to securing the loyal­ty of his hawkish base, Netanyahu probably sees another advantage in replacing Ya’alon with Lieberman,” observed Israeli military analyst Amos Harel.
“The prime minister has been worried for some time that Ya’alon and the IDF’s (Israel Defence Forc­es) top brass… the last of Israel’s old elites… were operating as a last pocket of resistance against him, dictating a more restrained attitude towards the Palestinians.
“The change, however, was greeted with shock at army head­quarters in Tel Aviv… While Ya’alon is a former (IDF) chief of staff who was perceived as a genuine part of the military establishment, Lieber­man enjoys no such relationship with the generals,” Harel wrote in the liberal Haaretz daily.
He stressed the feuding “at the top of the Israeli government re­flects a larger societal rift, which has been exposed to the recent surge of violence that has claimed dozens of Israeli lives since last Oc­tober”.
Netanyahu has created Israel’s most right-wing government since the Jewish state was founded in May 1948 and this augurs ill for the country and the entire Middle East.
It is likely to extinguish any ex­pectations of a peace agreement with the Palestinians to establish an independent state for them. That process, begun in 1993, has been so mutilated and manipulated that it barely exists.
Netanyahu’s running fight with the military establishment is be­coming more acute, and his per­emptory dismissal of Ya’alon, a respected pillar of that establish­ment, underlines the deepening polarisation of Israeli society and the effect this could have on region­al developments at a time when the Muslim Middle East appears to be disintegrating.
Tensions between Israel’s politi­cians and the security establish­ment have been worsening for more than a decade.
One of Netanyahu’s chief pro­tagonists was Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad intelligence service in 2002-10 who died March 17th after a long battle with liver cancer. Da­gan was no bleeding heart liberal but a former army general with a fearsome reputation for brutal­ity against Israel’s Arab and Iranian foes.
In 2002, he urged prime minister Ariel Sharon to welcome the Arab peace plan put forward by the Sau­dis at an Arab League summit in Beirut. In 2003, four former heads of the General Security Service, best known by its Hebrew acronym Shin Bet, called for an Israeli with­drawal from the Palestinian territo­ries.
That has been repeatedly en­dorsed by security chiefs ever since. Ironically, the only signifi­cant service chief who opposed it was Ya’alon.