Benjamin Netanyahu was probably just aiming to broaden and stabilize his shaky coalition, with its precarious one-seat parliamentary majority, when he decided to bring in Avigdor Lieberman, the bombastic ultra-nationalist, as defense minister and de facto second-in-command. It’s often the case with Netanyahu, however, that what begins as a simple survival tactic quickly escalates into a full-scale political drama.
This time the maneuver turned into something even larger: a crisis of Israeli democracy and security doctrine. Without intending to, Netanyahu managed in his latest machinations to bring to a head all the internal tensions and contradictions between security, ideology and democracy that have been bubbling just below the surface of Israeli politics for a decade.
Netanyahu’s first choice for a new coalition partner hadn’t been Lieberman but rather Labor Party head Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left Zionist Union. Bringing Herzog aboard would have helped to moderate the current government’s hard-right image and reduce international pressure on Israel. Netanyahu and Herzog had been negotiating secretly for months. Herzog, despite his repeated public denials, was eager to join the coalition both to win cabinet perks for his followers and to avoid being forced into a leadership primary after losing the 2015 elections.
Herzog was also pressing for the authority as foreign minister to renew a vigorous peace process with the Palestinians, but there’s no evidence that it was ever on the table from Netanyahu’s viewpoint, and that didn’t seem to faze Herzog.
Negotiations with Herzog failed, though. Once the talks became public in mid-May, anger erupted on Herzog’s left flank. The Labor leader claimed that Netanyahu’s refusal to budge on the peace process had made agreement impossible.
The collapse of the Labor option was the cue for the Lieberman option to surface. Born and raised in Soviet Moldova, Lieberman was a onetime top Netanyahu aide who broke bitterly with his boss in the late 1990s. Blessed with a Trump-like ability to read the public mood and change his positions at will, he left the Likud and formed his own vehicle, the secularist, immigrant-led Yisrael Beiteinu party. Since Netanyahu began his long run as prime minister in 2009, Lieberman has been an on-again, off-again coalition partner despite strained personal relations. Over the past year their relationship had turned intensely bitter. While Netanyahu was negotiating with Herzog, though, secret talks with Lieberman were initiated by a pair of conservative junior Likud ministers, Yariv Levin and Ze’ev Elkin. Those talks bore fruit with the May 18 announcement that Lieberman had agreed to join the coalition as defense minister.
Lieberman has had his eye on the Defense Ministry for years. The post is the second most powerful in the country. It’s commonly seen as an essential grooming station for a politician who doesn’t come from the army and wants to be taken seriously as a potential prime minister. In addition to providing civilian oversight to the military and approving its budgets and strategic decisions, the defense minister is the sovereign in the West Bank, which has been under Israeli military control since 1967.
Accordingly, the minister’s temperament, attitude toward Palestinians and familiarity with international law all have a critical impact on Israel’s relations with its neighbors and with the world community.
It was Netanyahu’s willingness to give the defense job to Lieberman that caused the current meltdown in the political system. The incumbent defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, a onetime chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, was considered a consummate professional. Lieberman, by contrast, had no military background — his own army career ended with the rank of corporal — and little grasp of the complex systems involved in running a modern army, much less governing an occupied territory.
What Lieberman does bring to the Defense Ministry are strong views on what the army is doing wrong in defending the country. Like many on the far right, Lieberman has repeatedly accused the army of being too accommodating toward the Palestinians. Before and during the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, while serving as foreign minister, he called for Israel to reoccupy the Gaza Strip and eliminate Hamas rule.
Ministers from Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party and some within the hawkish wing of the Likud took the same position.
The military command told the cabinet at the time that reoccupying Gaza would take up to two years and cost thousands of Israeli lives. Privately, generals grumbled that the ministers calling for the more sweeping measures had little grasp of military operations and were driven by ideology rather than practical security considerations.
Instead Israel reached a cease-fire with Hamas that August that has largely ended rocket attacks.
Lieberman still rails against the Hamas leadership periodically. This past April, while still in the opposition, he called for Israel to assassinate Hamas leaders if Hamas didn’t release three Israelis being held hostage and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers
Lieberman has also called occasionally for Israel to remove Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, from power in the West Bank. The army cooperates with Abbas’s security services and military intelligence credits Abbas with working to restrain terrorism and violence.
Netanyahu himself straddles the two positions, accusing Abbas of inciting terrorism but permitting Israeli-Palestinian security coordination and offering to negotiate with Abbas as a legitimate Palestinian leader.
More recently, Lieberman has been involved in the protests against the army command over the arrest of a soldier who was filmed killing a Palestinian terrorist who had been wounded and immobilized. The incident occurred March 24 in the West Bank city of Hebron. The soldier went on trial for manslaughter in military court May 9. Lieberman joined protesters who demonstrated in support of the soldier outside the courtroom.
The shooting incident followed a series of heated public exchanges between military commanders and right-wing public figures over the use of deadly force against Palestinian attackers. IDF rules of engagement require the use of the minimum force necessary to neutralize a threat. The military chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, told a group of high school students February 17 that soldiers should not “empty their ammunition clips” against Palestinian “teenage girls armed with scissors.”
Eisenkot’s remarks touched off a storm of criticism from politicians and others on the right. On March 13, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said it was a religious commandment to kill an attacker, and soldiers should “not be afraid of some supreme court or army chief of staff” telling them otherwise. The Hebron shooting came 11 days after the chief rabbi’s talk.
Another furor erupted after the army’s second-in-command, deputy chief of staff Yair Golan, delivered a Holocaust Remembrance Day speech May 4 in which he warned that “certain trends” in current Israeli society are alarmingly reminiscent of “processes that took place in Europe and especially in Germany 70, 80 and 90 years ago.” He was referring specifically to growing signs of intolerance and vigilantism toward minorities and dissenters of the sort that plagued Germany in the 1920s, but opponents claimed he was reinforcing foreign accusations of Nazi-like behavior by Israeli troops.
The debate over the use of deadly force and the army’s rules of engagement, beginning with Eisenkot’s talk to students and peaking with the Hebron shooting and the Golan speech, has thrown open a long-running rift among Israelis over the role of the military in Israeli life.
On one side, leaders of the military and intelligence services, both active-duty and retired, have been pressing with steadily increasing vehemence in favor of greater use of diplomacy and compromise rather than relying solely on force in addressing threats from Palestinians, neighboring Arab states and Iran.
On the other side, an increasingly conservative political leadership has pointed with growing alarm to what they see as military leaders overstepping their boundaries and interfering in civilian affairs.
Military leaders accuse the political echelon of making policy decisions that undermine Israel’s security in both the short and long range, driven by thinly veiled ideological and religious considerations wrapped in security arguments that are poorly thought-out and often ignorant. Politicians and public intellectuals, mostly but not only on the right, say the generals’ outspokenness undermines the democratic principle of elected civilians making policy.
The debate is filled with ironies. For one, it upends the usual Western pattern of armies staking out the right flank in most national debates. In Israel, especially given the paralysis of the political left, the security establishment has emerged as one of the main voices on the left flank of national discourse — on relations with Palestinians, on strategy toward Iran, on adherence to international law.
Another irony is the current campaign by Bennett, head of the settler-backed Jewish Home party, to reform the security cabinet that is legally responsible for declaring and waging war. Bennett charges that the security cabinet was largely kept in the dark during the Gaza war, which was essentially conducted by a triumvirate of the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff. Bennett demands that cabinet members be given their own colonel-rank military secretary or secretaries to explain the operations and the significance of decisions in real time so that the ministers can participate intelligently in the conduct of the war. He believes that if the cabinet had been involved, the war would have been prosecuted more forcefully and Hamas would have been severely damaged or toppled. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that he’s presenting the best argument of all for the generals’ claim that the politicians on the right don’t know what they’re talking about.
Yet another irony: The voices on the right that tend to be the most vocal in defending Israel’s military as “the most moral in the world” are the ones pressing hardest on that military to ignore its own moral standards, to shoot first and ask questions later, impose collective punishment and ignore international humanitarian law.
By appointing a blustering know-nothing to head up one of the world’s most powerful and complex military machines, Netanyahu hasn’t just given in to the larger band of know-nothings seeking to pummel the army into submission. He’s also proved the generals tragically right.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).