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Lieberman at the top of the military in Israel

June 7, 2016 at 2:21 pm

Avigdor Lieberman is a Jew from the former Soviet Union; he was born in the former Soviet Republic of Moldova. With his appointment as Defence Minister his wish has finally come true after 20 years in politics; he is now at the top of the military pyramid in Israel.

There is much to be said about Lieberman’s appointment as Minister of Defence, putting him second-in-command after the prime minister. There has also been talk of who will cover for him should he ever be absent due to travel or illness; who, for example, would hold the reins for a number of critical decisions associated with state security and military affairs.

Exclusion or containment

Many Israelis have said that the danger of the appointment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of his nemesis and former ally may be intended to achieve one of three things. He may, for example, be hoping to contain Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu Party, Russian Jews and a large section of Israel’s extreme nationalists. In doing so, Netanyahu would guarantee that he leads the entire right-wing camp and preserves his four-year term in government.

Alternatively, Netanyahu may want to “burn” Lieberman in the defence ministry and push him into a corner where he is surrounded by senior generals, who did not take the news of his appointment well. This would give them the final word in the future of the army’s decisions by means of coordination with Netanyahu; as such, Lieberman’s threats against the Palestinians would disappear.

It could even be that the prime minister has chosen a defence minister deliberately from outside the military establishment, unlike his predecessor Moshe Ya’alon, in an attempt to rein in a number of army officials who spoke out against his political circle. This was an attempt on their part to show the differences to the Israeli public that would give them an advantage over the government and its leader.

Whatever the reason behind Lieberman’s appointment, it may be considered as a real coup in Israeli politics with possible domestic, regional and international ramifications. This is because the man does not have any real military experience, although this is not entirely unique; there have been defence ministers who came from civilian life, such as Amir Peretz, who led the second Lebanon war in 2006, and veteran Moshe Arens, who served during the first Palestinian Intifada.

However, the danger of his appointment goes beyond his personality and his CV, which is full of promises and threats in numerous directions. Instead, it comes at a critical time for Israel in a troubled region. Apart from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, there is serious unrest in neighbouring Syria and Lebanon. Israel’s border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, meanwhile, preoccupies the political and military decision-makers in Tel Aviv.

As Lieberman enters the Defence Ministry surrounded by generals with chests full of medals — he has none — he does, nevertheless, have seniority over them. He will ask for a briefing on the priorities for the days and weeks ahead. They will include the following:

War on Gaza

Since Israel’s 2014 military offensive against the Gaza Strip, Lieberman has not hesitated to accuse Netanyahu of showing weakness in the face of Hamas’s efforts to develop its military capabilities, especially after more tunnels were discovered on the border and occasional rockets continue to be fired. The way to end the threat from Gaza, as far as Lieberman is concerned, is to eliminate Hamas by overthrowing its government and imposing a new Palestinian leadership on the territory.

During Lieberman’s first session with his generals and intelligence staff, they will probably ask their “impulsive and inexperienced” minister to calm down and not rush through with his threats against Hamas. Why? Because the movement has used the past two years to develop its military capabilities. The 2014 military confrontation with Hamas may have been a “rehearsal” of what both sides will experience in the next round, if it takes place.

This means that Lieberman needs to rethink his calls to eliminate Hamas because the human cost of any military confrontation will be too much for him to bear, and may bring about his downfall once and for all. That is what happened with one of his predecessors, for whom the second Lebanon war was the exit door from the defence portfolio. Is this what Netanyahu is hoping will happen?

This does not mean that Lieberman is necessarily seeking to carry out his threats against Hamas in Gaza; it means that the issue is dependent on developments on the ground more than his wishes. A lot will depend on his reaction to the first rocket fired from Gaza towards Israeli settlements. Will he be content to bomb open spaces in the Gaza Strip, without causing casualties, or will he assassinate some activists and start an avalanche of tit-for-tat violence?

Ousting Abbas

Lieberman does not disguise his loathing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who bears the responsibility for the outbreak of the current intifada and has not ordered it to stop. If Lieberman’s statements are anything to go by, he may copy his predecessor Shaul Mofaz who decided, with the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to hold Yasser Arafat responsible for the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. However, there is a difference in the situations of Abbas and Arafat, and the political environment today is also very different.

Does Lieberman have a Palestinian replacement for Abbas as he claims? He is on the verge of announcing that disgraced former Fatah official Mohamed Dahlan and some local officials in the West Bank are ready to take over the reins of the PA the day after Abbas has gone. There is some regional harmony about this choice, especially from Cairo, and it looks as if the regional and international situation is conducive to such a change given America’s clear preoccupation with its presidential election and regional agendas.

The Syrian quagmire

Lieberman’s appointment at the Defence Ministry comes as the bloody war continues in Syria, with unprecedented levels of fighting between local, regional and international forces. This scenario gives Israel some ease, allowing it time to implement its policies not to allow its red lines to be crossed, such as the shipment of weapons from Syria to Lebanon.

There may not be any fundamental changes in Israel’s policies towards Syria and Lebanon with Lieberman in his new role, largely because events there are not entirely dependent on Israeli decisions; regional and international parties are involved. Hence, Israel must have some form of consultation if it wants to make serious changes in its policies.

More importantly, what is happening in Syria and Lebanon places Israel within a geopolitical environment it has never even dreamt of before. The Syrian army drops explosive barrel bombs on its own people while Lebanon’s Hezbollah is involved deeply in its neighbour’s quagmire. Meanwhile, Iran is experiencing an exhausting war, day and night, in Syria.

A deal with the region

While Lieberman is vocal about the possibility of waging a war on the Palestinians, he also seems eager to strengthen Israel’s ties with the Arab states. He is the one who proposed reaching regional solutions, opening the lines of communication with the Arab governments, and advancing the resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians to an agreement with the Arabs in general, that may be in conjunction with similar Arab and regional wishes.

Lieberman’s appointment also came at a time when Egypt announced its political initiative to resume negotiations between Israel and Palestine through President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi calling for the formation of a national unity government in Israel to include the centre-left Zionist Union in the right-wing coalition. Netanyahu responded by appointing Lieberman to the defence portfolio rather than the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog. Furthermore, the Egyptians have not forgotten Lieberman’s threats to bomb the Aswan Dam.

Despite this, neither Cairo nor any other Arab capital has reacted to Lieberman being Defence Minister. This is perhaps due to secret Israeli contacts with some of these capitals, or maybe because the Arabs know that their communication will be directly with Netanyahu. It could also be because the Arabs, despite their hatred for Lieberman, expect that he will rid them of the chronic headache known as the Palestinian cause. Who knows?

Avigdor Lieberman, the former night-club bouncer from Moldova and the man involved in a number of corruption cases, is the Israeli Defence Minister. This opens the door wide to many expectations as well as a number of agreements with the Palestinians and Arabs. All we can do is wait and see.


Translated, 6 June 2016.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.