The Obama administration has remained silent regarding the political makeover of Netanyahu’s coalition government, which is set to put right-wing leader Avigdor Lieberman in charge of Israel’s defense ministry and push out Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief of staff and Likud party pragmatist, from the position he’d been holding since 2013.
But as the swap is being finalized in negotiations between the Likud and Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party, both Washington and American Jewry are looking closely into the planned changes, which portend bigger consequences that just another cabinet reshuffle. Here are six reasons why:
1. As foreign minister, Lieberman was practically persona non grata in Washington:
Lieberman’s extreme positions on the Israel – Palestinian conflict and occasional threats against Arab countries in the region have made the Obama administration do its best to avoid any contact with Lieberman. Among other things, Lieberman has suggested bombing Egypt’s massive Aswan Dam in the event of a conflict with that state; he has suggested, though he later partially backtracked, stripping Arab citizens of Israel of their citizenship en masse and transferring them to a future Palestinian state, and he has staunchly supported the expansion of exclusively Jewish Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Avoiding Lieberman was no easy task given his previous position as foreign minister, the person formally in charge of U.S.-Israel relations. But with some creative thinking and practical maneuvering, a solution was found. Lieberman hardly visited Washington as foreign minister, and the Obama administration channeled the top-level policy dialogue to then defense minister Ehud Barak, who, thanks to his close ties to then secretary of state Hillary Clinton, served as de-facto foreign minister, at least when it came to Israeli-American relations.
2. After the falling out between Obama and Netanyahu, U.S.-Israel relations rely mainly on defense cooperation:
With the lack of any viable Middle East peace process and given the fraught relationship between the White House and Israel’s prime minister’s office, defense relations remained the most steady and functioning channel of communication between the two nations. President Obama and his administration often praise defense ties with Israel, and even Netanyahu and his aides acknowledged that when it comes to security and defense, the Obama administration has been just great. But will this last-standing pillar of the relationship remain intact with Lieberman as Israel’s top defense official? That remains to be seen. Ties between defense establishments on both sides are deep and multi-faceted, but much also depends on the personality and ideology of the person at the top.
3. Yaalon had his issues with the Obama administration, but learned to overcome:
Back in 2014, Moshe Yaalon, known as a straight shooter who lacks a sense of diplomatic decorum, had some choice words for secretary of state John Kerry, who was trying at the time to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. He called him “obsessive and messianic” and suggested Kerry “win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.” The Obama administration offered its revenge several months later, when Yaalon visited Washington: The Israeli minister found closed doors at the White House and State Department and was not able to meet any senior official outside the Pentagon. But Yaalon and the Obama administration overcame the incident. The Israeli defense minister apologized, the Americans accepted and Yaalon went on to forge what former Pentagon official Dov Zakheim described as an “excellent relationship” with defense secretary Ash Carter and his predecessor Chuck Hagel.
4. A huge challenge for Israeli-American defense relations is just around the corner:
Negotiations are have been underway for six months on a massive ten-year Memorandum of Understanding establishing new levels of military aid to Israel. The talks are in their final stage. As defense minister, Yaalon was a key player in negotiating the deal with the Obama administration, and that task that will now shift to Lieberman. Given the significant differences still remaining between the two sides, on the size of the American aid package and how it can be used, negotiations will require delicate diplomacy and a measure of flexibility, not necessarily fields considered to be Lieberman’s forte.
5. Lieberman has shown a preference to Russia over the United States:
Soviet-born, Russian-speaking Lieberman has never made a secret of his desire to improve ties between Israel and Putin’s Russia. As doors shut in Washington, Lieberman focused his work as foreign minister on improving ties with Russia and found a warm welcome in the Kremlin.
Lieberman has stressed that he does not view ties with Russia as a substitute to Israel’s alliance with the United States, but spoke frequently of the need to expand Israel’s circle of allies to include Russia. With friction between Washington and Moscow on the rise after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its involvement in the Syrian civil war, Lieberman’s approach isn’t likely to buy him many friends in Washington.
6. He has a complicated relationship with American Jews:
At a high-profile forum in Washington last December, when asked whether he cared about the increasing alienation of young liberal American Jews from Israel under its rightward drift and what he thought could be done about it, Lieberman answered forthrightly, “To speak frankly, I don’t care.”
In fact, Lieberman’s views on issues close to the heart of American Jews are all over the place. He does not come from a long tradition of ties with American Jewish institutions, but did manage to forge a working relationship with many in his years in politics.
Reform and Conservative leaders found in him, at times, a surprising ally in the battle over easing Israel’s strict Orthodox-controlled conversion rules. But then there were his views on the Israeli Arabs and his hallmark legislation proposing a mandatory “loyalty pledge” to the state, crafted with its Arab citizens in mind, that turned off many liberal-leaning Jewish leaders.
He also reached out to the Russian speaking Jewish community in New York, a move that set him apart from most other top Israeli politician, but which was not followed by other actions to improve the community’s ties with Israel.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.