Netanyahu’s appointment of Liberman as Defence Minister: Gewald on the Left, cautious welcome on the right

The last few days in have been a roller-coaster in Israeli politics, with coalition talks going on behind the scenes – but constantly leaked to the public – between Likud and, alternately, Zionist Union and Yisrael Beitenu. In the end, Yisrael Beitenu and Avigdor Liberman won the contest, but not without much antagonism and back-biting from all corners of the political spectrum.

Avigdor Liberman, new Defence Minister

Honest Reporting brings us a pretty good synopsis of the whole saga:

Israeli coalition politics is a combination of Game of Thrones and musical chairs. In a bid to expand his one-seat parliamentary majority, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lured Avigdor Liberman back into the government by giving him the Defense Ministry. This happened as efforts to form a national unity coalition with Isaac Herzog and the Zionist Union floundered.

According to Israeli media reports, ex-British prime minister Tony Blair, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi were key figures in trying to bring about a unity government, seeing it as a way to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. This might explain Egyptian anger at the Israeli government’s last-minute rightward turn. So how did the reported plan unravel?

“Herzog claims the talks failed because Netanyahu refused to provide written versions of the understandings they had reached over settlement construction and negotiations with the Palestinians, the two elements that were supposed to enable the regional move with the Arab nations. Likud sources say Netanyahu realized that Herzog did not have the backing of a majority of his Knesset faction for joining the coalition, and didn’t want to take the risk of making such far-reaching diplomatic undertakings.”

The far left predictably cried “Gewald!” (Translation: Disaster!) at Liberman’s appointment as Defence Minister as they protested the most dangerous government ever!

Hundreds of far leftists held a protest on Saturday night at Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, demonstrating against MK Avigdor Liberman being appointed Defense Minister as part of his Yisrael Beytenu party joining the coalition government.

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg and supporters at anti-government rally in Tel Aviv

Present at the protest was MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz), former Labor MK Yael Dayan, chairperson of Meretz’s management Ori Zachi – and counter-protesting the radical leftists, nationalist rap star Yoav Eliasi, better known by his stage name Hatzel.

The leftist protesters bore signs reading “Liberman is a fascist,” “the disaster government, we don’t want any more victims,” and “Liberman is war minister.”

Elad Wolf and Bar Gisin, two of the far left organizers of the event, told Walla that “the time has come to wake up the state of Israel.”

“The ground is burning, this right-wing government is the most dangerous Israeli government. We must stop this huge snowball before it will be too late. The Israeli public is sick of Netanyahu’s cynical survival games and the threats and incitement of Liberman and (Naftali) Bennett. We have no confidence in them, not in their sincerity and certainly not in their policy.”

Even the centrist David Horovitz at the Times of Israel was very wary about Liberman’s appointment, calling it no ordinary political maneuver: He starts by mentioning Channel 2’s veteran military correspondent Roni Daniel’s cry of mourning and his doubt about wishing his children to continue living in Israel:

Channel 2’s grizzled and gray-haired military correspondent Roni Daniel does not have the reputation of a bleeding-heart liberal.

In the midst of the evening broadcast, during a discussion on that day’s resignation of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and his imminent replacement by Avigdor Liberman, Daniel asked if his fellow panelists would keep quiet for a minute because there was something he wanted to say. He then declared, entirely unbidden, that he was “no longer sure” that he wanted his children to continue to live in Israel, because, he said, the “culture of government” was now so distasteful. He also reeled off a list of right-wing Knesset members to whom he took particular exception.

Jaws dropped around the studio. One of Daniel’s colleagues, Amnon Abromowitz, attempted to make light of the declaration, saying flippantly, “Before Roni leaves the studio and his children leave the country…” But Daniel was emphatically not in flippant mood. He banged his fist on the table, and protested that Abromowitz was not taking him seriously.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brutal ousting of the defense minister who has stood loyally at his side for the past three years, in favor of an unpredictable populist with a track record of castigating the government even when he’s in it, has produced predictable reactions across the spectrum. The further right, the warmer the support for the change in personnel; the further left, the direr the warnings of fascism and extremism in the governance of Israel. …

Outgoing Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, Avigdor Liberman and PM Netanyahu

The loyalist and the demagogue

The defenestration of Moshe Ya’alon, and the elevation of defense minister-in-waiting Avigdor Liberman, is no ordinary cabinet reshuffle.

Ya’alon had all the attributes Netanyahu could ever have wanted in this most prominent and sensitive of positions. As a military man, Ya’alon’s record is peerless. He was a veteran of the Yom Kippur War, a commander of the army’s most elite commando unit (Sayeret Matkal, in which Netanyahu also served), and, finally, the chief of staff who led the battle to suppress the onslaught of Palestinian suicide bombings in the Second Intifada. The son of a Haganah veteran father and a Holocaust survivor mother, he grew up working class in Haifa, and later moved to a kibbutz, but he moved gradually to the political right, and chose the Likud when he entered politics in 2008.

Ya’alon is also a man of steely moral principle, who immediately protested the breach of ethical norms that he saw in the alleged cold-blooded execution in Hebron on March 24, by IDF Sergeant Elor Azaria, of a Palestinian assailant who had been disarmed and was lying wounded. He also insisted, after Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan had warned this month of “horrifying processes” in today’s Israel that carried echoes of pre-World War II Germany, that the army’s commanders have the right and obligation to speak their minds.

Now Ya’alon, the military high-flier and the moralist, is to be replaced by former IDF Corporal Liberman, a man whose mediocre military career has never prevented him from prescribing one-sentence solutions to Israel’s various military challenges, and whose moral compass led him, far from condemning Azaria, to make a solidarity visit to the military court at which the soldier is being tried for manslaughter.

Perhaps in most striking contrast to Ya’alon, however, is the degree to which Liberman manifestly cannot be relied upon by Netanyahu. They have worked together on and off for some 30 years, and Liberman, set on becoming prime minister himself, has switched from Netanyahu loyalist to rival, from coalition partner to opposition critic, and back again, as and when he has spotted an opportunity for personal advantage.

Trump-style, he’ll say whatever he thinks it useful to his career to say. On Gaza, for instance, Liberman declared at the height of the 2014 war, when he himself sat in the inner cabinet, that Hamas must be smashed and the government was not going far enough. But later he decided that Gaza must be given over to the UN. And later still that the way forward was via the Strip’s economic development. When he deems the time ripe, he can be relied upon to ditch Netanyahu with the same ease that he ditched his Yisrael Beytenu party’s much-hyped social agenda in negotiating this coalition deal.

The beginning of the end, of what?

Why did Netanyahu trade the loyal, moral, militarily expert Ya’alon for the disloyal, demagogic, and militarily inexpert Liberman? Ultimately because Netanyahu needed to expand his unstable coalition, and Liberman would not have joined if he wasn’t given the defense post. The alternative potential coalition partner, Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog, was driving too hard a bargain, leads a disunited party and is reviled by the governing right.

But self-evidently, too, Netanyahu was unfazed by Liberman’s defense of the Hebron soldier, and unperturbed to be shedding the irritatingly ethical Ya’alon.

There’s much more at the link, and while I find myself somewhat sympathetic to Horovitz’s shocked reaction, I am simultaneously taking the whole saga with a strong dose of cynicism. Nothing is ever as bad as the Left claims nor as good as the Right claims. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and the sky is not really falling.

First of all, there are voices, yes, on the Right, which remind the very ethical Moshe Yaalon that the IDF is subordinate to the civilian government and is not a military junta. There is speculation in the  article that Yaalon’s support for IDF officers’ freedom of speech outside of the army is what probably tipped Netanyahu’s hand into finding a new coalition partner:

The Israeli political battle lines were clearly delineated once again late Sunday, with right wing-nationalist lawmakers denouncing Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon for his support of an army high command that has become more vocal in offering its opinions on the current state of society.

The fallout from the minister’s remarks reverberated into late Sunday, when Ya’alon was summoned for “an urgent meeting” with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

“Somebody needs to remind Bogie (Ya’alon’s nickname) that we live in a democracy, not a military regime,” Likud MK Oren Hazan said. “The IDF is not a junta. Its job is to implement the decisions of the civilian leadership and not to disagree with it and chart its own policy.”

Ron Jager in Arutz Sheva sees a positive spin in Liberman’s appointment, as he writes about “perception as deterrence“. He asserts that the Palestinians and the Left have built up Liberman into such a bogeyman, that they might very well do what Israel wants just to avert “the evil decree” of a Liberman backlash:

The recent news that Avigdor Liberman, a former Israeli  Foreign  Minister and head of the smal right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party,will replace Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon as the new Israeli defense minister has been greeted by the Israeli media and their elitist opinion makers with dismay and stupefaction.  In Tel-Aviv, a city known for its progressive and leftist inclination, many muttered that the municipality should start opening up the air raid shelters as Liberman’s appointment hit the airwaves.

Liberman, a politician feared and despised by the Israeli left, is being demonized and delegitimized before his appointment goes into effect. The potential appointment of Avigdor Lieberman  as Defense Minister has thrown the whole Palestinian Arab leadership and Israeli Arab politicians into a frenzy, making the reaction of Israel’s leftist elite seem mild. Claiming that Israel is adopting characteristics of a fascist regime and calling for boycott of Israel; stating that “the Israeli government is sending a message to the world that Israel prefers extremism, dedication to the “occupation” and “settlements over peace” and encouraging blatant racism, are only a fraction of the derogatory and slanderous accusations against a veteran politician who has been democratically elected.

The potential appointment of Avigdor Lieberman to the position of Defense Minister may very well herald a new and more effective deterrence against the Palestinian Arab desire to get up in the morning and murder a Jew. The Palestinian Arab perception of Lieberman is as a person who believes in the sanctification of power, ruthlessness, violence, and who has murderous potential might very well be exactly the change that causes the Palestinians to adopt a more realistic assessment of what a negotiated settlement will look like.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin expressed great satisfaction with the new appointment saying that “now the government can finally do what we were elected to do“.

And Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself reassured the government that Yisrael Beitenu’s joining the coalition and Liberman’s appointment will not impact talks with the Palestinians:

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu began the weekly government cabinet meeting by defending efforts to expand the coalition, stating that the inclusion of the Yisrael Beytenu party will not impact on the government’s diplomatic efforts vis-a-vis the Palestinian Authority.

“From the beginning, when we established the government, I said that my intention was to expand the government,” Netanyahu said. “61 [the government’s current narrow majority of one – ed.] is better than 59, but a government which is as wide as possible is an important thing for the State of Israel.”

Emphasizing that talks were still “underway”, the PM added that a “wider coalition” would enable the government to better deal with the wider range of challenges facing the country.

He further emphasized that the secular-nationalist party’s inclusion into the coalition would not alter the government’s commitment to engage in direct talks with the Palestinian Authority, despite Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s critical views on the matter.

One final critique of the Left’s criticism of Liberman’s appointment, and a blistering attack on their hypocrisy, is produced by Kalman Liebskind at NRG (Ma’ariv, Hebrew only). Here are some highlights and my free translation of some of his comments:

Liebskind accuses the Left not of criticizing Netanyahu – we all do that! – but of always wanting precisely what is bad for Netanyahu, not necessarily what is good for Israel. He also reminds us that the Left were very happy to consider Liberman as Defence Minister back at election time when everyone was jockeying to create a coalition:

On Wednesday evening Fate sat on the couch, watching the news and rolled with laughter. The panic that attacked all those journalists and the social media highly amused him. Why? Because for a long time, these people, who built up in their imagination all kinds of strange coalitions of “Just Not Bibi”, saw Liberman as a senior and legitimate partner for all intents and purposes. Raviv Druker [Haaretz journalist] published an “imaginary scenario” where Yair Lapid would make a government coalition and Liberman would be Defence Minister.

So let’s all calm down and give this new coalition a chance – not that we have any say in the matter, which is a whole different story about Israel’s democratic system.

Final update: It’s not over till the fat lady sings – Netanyahu has just announced that he is still holding out hope that the Zionist Union will join the coalition. Never say never…

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4 Responses to Netanyahu’s appointment of Liberman as Defence Minister: Gewald on the Left, cautious welcome on the right

  1. micky wanderer says:

    From everything I’ve read about Ya’alon I could see him appearing on TV one day, flanked by the generals, to announce that ‘for the good of the country’ he was suspending the government temporarily. It would be so the hard decisions that were mired in politics could be accomplished and that there would be peace in our time. Hard decisions like a pull out to be behind the green line.

    What would be the population’s reaction to a junta? Even more importantly, what would be the individual soldier’s reaction? Would they obey or would they desert like the French troops did after the ‘Generals putsch’ in Algeria?

    • anneinpt says:

      I’m not sure that Ya’alon would have gone that far, but his endorsement of Col. Yair Golan’s accusation of Israeli society resembling 1930’s Europe and then his insistence on endorsing officers’ right to speak out in public – not in a closed military forum – about non-military matters, was practically mutinous. There was no way Bibi could keep on such a loose canon on his staff who was working to undermine him and not making too much of a secret about it.

      I would also love to know what Yaalon’s reaction would have been had right-wing or religious soldiers decided to speak out against withdrawals from the settlements or in favour of building new settlements, or approving of the right to pray on the Temple Mount. I can’t see either Ya’alon or Golan approving of such a thing and those soldiers would find themselves in military prison within hours.

      It’s the double standards that infuriate me – and the Israeli public. We are not fools, despite what our leaders both military and civilian think.

  2. Reality says:

    I for one am not so upset that Ayalon has gone.He didn’t back the soldier(Azaria)and pre-judged him ,imprisoned him on base before any facts emerged.And it’s not the first time.As for allowing soldiers to speak their minds,in Yaalons book,it entirely depends on which soldiers and which words.Anyone stating their feelings in line with right wing policies are immediately brought up on charges,and demoted.Although similar things can be said about radical leftist soldiers,it mostly happens with right wing ones.
    Then again, during the last war,and prior to the war,and since too, whenever people in the southern communities stated and complained to the army about fears of tunnels being dug under their houses,they were brushed off.If our army can’t protect us,the top soldier has to leave

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