Reckless politicking: Lieberman to be named Israel’s defense minister

On May 17, Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi did something Egyptian presidents have done many times before: he urged Israel and the Palestinians to renew negotiations for peace, this time by backing an international conference promoted by the French foreign minister.

But what made Sissi’s call particularly interesting is that he called on not just the leaders but also political “parties” to seize what he called “a real opportunity to find a long-awaited solution.” Sissi’s call offered Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an opportunity to accommodate Israel’s newest best friend, Sissi, rather than the French themselves. It would not have brought peace, of course: though an international conference would offer a glimmer of hope to change some of the worst aspects of the current diplomatic deadlock, it would not solve any of the outstanding substantive issues between Israelis and Palestinians.

Sissi’s reference to political parties was no coincidence: it fit perfectly with the domestic political needs of Netanyahu and of Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog, who were angling to bring the Zionist Union joint list into the government and give Netanyahu a much-needed parliamentary cushion beyond his current razor-thin coalition. 

Herzog first had to convince his own highly-reluctant party of the need to join its rival Netanyahu—and if peace was about to break out, how could they refuse? For about 48 hours it seemed like Herzog was indeed about to announce his decision to join the coalition, face the battle in his party, and become Israel’s foreign minister.

Then something else happened. Rather than appointing Herzog as foreign minister, Netanyahu is now poised to bring back Avigdor Lieberman, a former foreign minister and Israel’s least diplomatic politician. Lieberman won’t be returning to diplomacy, however. Instead, he will get a significantly more powerful position, second only to the prime minister: minister of defense. In response, current Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon today resigned from the cabinet and the Knesset, refusing to take another cabinet position. He gave a scathing speech, saying that “[E]xtremist and dangerous forces have taken over Israel and the Likud movement.”

In what can only be considered brilliant politicking—and reckless policy—Netanyahu jettisoned Ya’alon and Herzog in favor of his former associate and bitter personal rival, Lieberman.

In what can only be considered brilliant politicking—and reckless policy—Netanyahu jettisoned Ya’alon and Herzog in favor of his former associate and bitter personal rival, Lieberman. Herzog is left wounded and humiliated, played for a fool—the gravest sin in Israeli political culture. Netanyahu finds himself at the helm of an enlarged coalition (Lieberman brings with him five members of Knesset, after one member of his faction left the party today in protest of the move), safer from parliamentary shocks and from attacks from the right (the whole right wing is now inside the coalition. Lieberman will still likely criticize Netanyahu from within the government, but not quite as fiercely). 

A cynics’ cynic

Lieberman’s pending appointment has been met with astonishment by the opposition in Israel, by many in the military which he will oversee, and indeed here in Washington—and with good reason.

Just these past few months, Lieberman has viciously attacked both Netanyahu and the military brass for what he claimed was a weak response to terrorist attacks. In but one example of many, Lieberman came to the defense of a soldier who the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had decided to prosecute for killing a Palestinian assailant who had already been thoroughly subdued. The contrast to current Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon is striking: Ya’alon defended the military’s decision and stressed the importance of ethical norms and of rules of engagement in the military. Ya’alon is very right wing on the Palestinian issue, but he has consistently shown an honorable stance in the face of attacks on democratic norms. 

Lieberman is ostensibly less right-wing on the Palestinian issue—sometimes. Though he is a settler himself, he has endorsed a two-state solution in very general theory, noting he would even move if peace necessitated it. His endorsement, however, has always been couched in the toughest language possible and in utter mistrust of Palestinian intentions or the chances of peace ever materializing. On the niceties of democratic norms, including military law, he is a cynics’ cynic. Benny Begin, another former Likud minister and an avowed hawk, has called Lieberman’s appointment “delirious.”

As minister of defense, these positions will be highly consequential. Not only will he be in charge of the military brass and its promotion, but he will have statutory authority over many affairs in the West Bank, which is under military rule. Any attempt to improve the daily lives of Palestinians (such as a project just announced to streamline checkpoints for Palestinians) will be under his purview. His open calls to bring down Hamas through a ground invasion of Gaza if there is another round of fighting with Hamas—voiced even while he was a cabinet member during the last round of fighting—will now carry the weight of the minister of defense.

What was Herzog thinking? 

For the past year, since Netanyahu formed his fourth government, Herzog had denied time and again that he was aiming to join Netanyahu rather than replace him. He bemoaned the cynicism of those who simply would not believe him. This week the masks came off. Negotiations between the sides were accelerated and Herzog began a difficult intra-party fight to justify such a move. “National unity” governments are quite common in Israel, starting with the emergency cabinet of 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day War, when a sense of imminent doom swept the country. 

These governments, however, are usually justified by either an acute crisis, like in 1967, or in order to resolve a political deadlock, such as between Shimon Peres’ Labor and Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud in 1984. Peres and Shamir even “rotated” the post of prime minister. Though the government was incapable of any meaningful diplomatic advances, on which it was divided, it succeeded in tackling hugely important challenges in the economy—bringing inflation down from an annual rate of over 444 percent (not a typo) in 1984, and in defense—extricating Israel from most of Lebanon, following the first Israeli Lebanon War. 

What would be the logic this time? Herzog was promising three things to his party members: a host of portfolios (jobs and titles but also influence on a range of domestic policy issues); a veto on some aspects of policy which Labor finds most damaging, including remote settlement construction and legislation seen as limiting democratic discourse in Israel; and a leading role in any negotiations with the Palestinians, staring with the French peace conference. 

The jobs for Labor would have been real. A veto on policy could have been important—Tzipi Livni, Herzog’s non-Labor partner in the Zionist Union, played a crucial role in protecting democratic norms as minister of justice in Netanyahu’s previous government. 

On peace, however, Herzog was offering fool’s gold. Put it this way: if you think Herzog would have real autonomy to run negotiations with the Palestinians while Netanyahu is prime minister, I have two suggestions. First, ask Tzipi Livni, who had that exact task in the previous government and was accompanied to every negotiation by Netanyahu’s personal lawyer, Yitzhak Molcho. Livni, incidentally, was strongly opposed to joining Netanyahu this time around. 

Second, I have some great real-estate in a swamp in Florida I’d like to discuss with you.

Herzog had a political rationale as well. He is a natural minister and backroom politician: smart, hardworking and prone to pragmatic compromises. He is not a natural public politician. As Leader of the Opposition he has wowed no one with his charisma or ability to stand up to Netanyahu and offer a bold alternative. Better to be in the halls of power than in the open arena. With the prospects of a fierce leadership challenge in his own Labor Party, moreover, he would have bolstered his bona fides as a national leader and therefore give himself a bit more time—the most a politician in Israel can really hope for. 

If there was a political benefit to Herzog personally, the outlook for his Labor Party would have been dismal.

If there was a political benefit to Herzog personally, the outlook for his Labor Party would have been dismal. Having joined Netanyahu, it would have been very hard to present the party as an alternative to his rule. 

What now?

Netanyahu can now feel slightly more secure in his coalition, though once again at the mercy of the mercurial Lieberman. Lieberman will enjoy a powerful post that usually bestows its occupant with new popularity in Israel (the converse is true of the finance ministry). Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon will enjoy a wider coalition to pass his domestic legislation and budget; indeed he’d been pushing for enlarging the coalition since it was formed. 

In the opposition, Herzog is weaker than ever. After being led on by Netanyahu for months, breaking his own word on the negotiations and then losing his gamble, he is severely exposed to challenges within Labor. His party’s image has taken a serious hit as well.

Herzog’s weakness will allow others in the opposition to claim the mantle of alternative to Netanyahu. Already, Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party is the main beneficiary, but others may emerge as well, especially from the ranks of former generals like Gabi Ashkenazi. 

Most importantly, Israel’s actual policy may be affected significantly by this move. Of all the governmental posts, defense is the one that has the most effect on the crucial questions of security for Israelis (and on the daily lives of Palestinians). Instead of grand peace plans Herzog was selling, Netanyahu’s political brilliance has wrought one of the most hardline governments Israel has ever had.