5/18/2016 Lieberman Likely to be Defense Minister


Today was one of the wildest day in the history of Israeli politics. The day started with the political turmoil generated by talks of including the Labor party in the government. By the afternoon those talks had been suspended. After a successful meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman it was announced that a committee had been formed to negotiate his right-wing party (Yisrael Beiteinu) joining the government. This is the same Lieberman who one month ago called Netanyahu “a degenerate liar and swindler”. All of this took place against a larger story of continuing tensions between the military and the government.

Today’s saga began with members of the Israeli Labor party seemed to be conducting their own circular firing squad. After vehemently denying that he was negotiating to enter the Netanyahu government, head of the Labor party, MK Yitzchak “Buji” Herzog admitted he was in advanced negotiations to do so. The exact reasons why he is doing this now remain a bit of a mystery. Most observers believe that it is related to the Labor party’s steep drop in popularity in recent polls; polls which show Labor losing between a third and half of its seat in the parliament, if elections were held today. Yesh Atid party’s Yair Lapid has been the main beneficiary of the Labor’s projected loses, with Lapid’s party gaining almost all of the lost seats.

Herzog’s moves have not been appreciated by almost any of the other Parliament members of his party – with all but three declaring they oppose the move, and some maintaining further that there is no circumstance under which they would accept any position in a Netanyahu government. Opponents of the Labor party agreeing to enter into a Unity Coalition all claim that any government under Netanyahu will make no changes in policy, despite having the Labor party inside.

In his defense, Herzog asserts that there are extraordinary opportunities for negotiations with the Arab world at this moment; negotiations in which he alone would be able to engage. Yesterday Herzog cited a speech by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil el-Sisi calling for renewed talks under Egyptian auspices, between Israel and the Palestinians as one of those opportunities.

Today, the Leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that he would be willing to enter the government, if he was offered the post of Defense Minister, and if Netanyahu supported his bill to impose the death penalty for terrorist. This afternoon Netanyahu invited Lieberman to meet and Herzog announced that he was suspending his discussions with Netanyahu until Netanyahu decides what sort of government he wants – that is, according to Herzog, a government of fear and isolation, or a government of hope and possibilities. By this evening, it was announced that the Yisrael Beiteinu and the Likud had created a joint committee to negotiate their entry into the government. MK Stav Shafir, one of the most popular members of the Labor party called on Herzog to resign tonight, saying the only thing his negotiations brought was the possibility of Lieberman becoming Defense Minister.

These discussions were held in the shadow of rising tensions between the military and the political echelons that have been mounting over the past few months. This past month that strain reached a completely new level. Fairly, or not, in most of the world the military has the reputation of being the ones who take extreme actions – much more so than the political leadership. Traditionally, however, that has not been the case in Israel; where the senior leadership of the armed forces have been politically cautious and seemingly more aware of the limitations of power.

Such has been the position of the military during the last few Gaza wars – and even more so, over the past few months (during the sharp uptick in terror, primarily perpetrated by young Palestinians). Some members of the Netanyahu government have been calling for stronger military action. At the same time, many in the military have stated that there is no military solution to the current wave of hostilities. Over the course of the last month the different approaches between the military and the civilian government have become ever more apparent. After the shooting of a subdued attacker by an Israeli soldier, (an act that seemingly violated military rules of engagement) the soldier’s actions were immediately condemned by the top military leadership, including Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon. The soldier was promptly arrested.

At first, PM Netanyahu condemned the shooting. Shortly after, Netanyahu seemingly switched his position, when right-wing politicians (led by Minister of Education Naftali Bennet) came to the soldier shooter’s defense. The Prime Minister called the family of the accused soldier to express sympathy, leaving the top military brass exposed to further criticism.

Then, two weeks ago, a new controversy developed, when Army Deputy Chief of Staff, General Yair Golan gave a speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day warning of certain phenomena in Israeli society today that remind him of events in Europe 70, 80, and 90 years ago. Golan was met with a wave of attacks leveled at him by politicians from the right-wing, among them, the Prime Minister. These legislators chastised Golan for having the audacity to make any connection between the Holocaust and events taking place in Israel. Some called for Golan’s resignation. Minister of Defense Ya’alon was the only government minister who defended Golan. For his part, Golan clarified his remarks and said it was not his intention to compare Israel today to Nazi Germany in any way.

Over the weekend Ya’alon found himself in the eye of the storm, once again, when he gave a speech in which he called on senior IDF officers not to be afraid to speak their minds – even if their opinions differed from those of the political leadership. Ya’alon was immediately attacked by numerous politicians and was called to a meeting with the Prime Minister. At the end of the meeting a joint statement was issued, in which Ya’alon acknowledged the primacy of the political branch over the army; and Netanyahu stated he respects the right of the military to express their judgement in areas of professional concern.

This controversy, however, shows no sign of dying down. Last night, Israel’s Channel 10 showcased a secret recording of the commander of the Hebron area, Colonel Yariv Ben-Ezra, giving an orientation briefing to the officers of reserve battalion about to be deployed there. In the recording Ben-Ezra attacks the soldier who killed the subdued Palestinian, saying there was no danger to life in that case, and that that soldier’s actions is what has endangered his soldiers. On the tape, Ben-Ezra goes on to say that the army must resist the efforts of the politicians and rabbis to influence soldiers to develop their own code of conflict. Finally, Ben-Ezra contends that there is no real military means to end the current round of violence, which he predicts will get worse, unless there is an overall change in direction.

With the latest developments this evening there is a real chance that Ya’alon will find himself replaced by Lieberman, a politician who publicly leapt to the defense of the soldier who killed the attacker in Hebron.