Netanyahu-Lieberman Clash Over Gaza Strikes Comes to a Head

Prime minister, foreign minister trade verbal blows at cabinet meeting; Netanyahu: Those criticizing me are doing so for political ends.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor LiebermanCredit: Dror Artzi / Emil Salman
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Differences that surfaced in the government over the past few days over how to respond to rocket fire from Gaza became on Sunday a full-on confrontation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The two traded verbal blows during the weekly cabinet meeting, much to the astonishment of the ministers seated in the room.

In his televised statement at the beginning of the meeting, Netanyahu jabbed at Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who have been calling for a large-scale operaion in Gaza and criticizing the government's policies. "In these moments we must be level-headed and responsible," Netanyahu said, not use "inflammatory and brash" rhetoric. "We will do everything possible to restore calm in the south," he said.

When the photographers left the room, Netanyahu turned to the ministers and pressed on with his criticism of Lieberman and Bennett. He called on ministers not to fan the flames, saying that "those who criticize me and the government over our conduct is irresponsible and doing so for political ends."

Lieberman was quick to respond to Netanyahu: "You were the one who held a press conference after the kidnapped [teens'] funeral and before the cabinet and only spouted slogans without backing them up."

"What I said about Gaza and Israeli Arabs," Lieberman added, "are things I have been telling my constituents for years. You promised to deal a harsh blow on Hamas but nothing came of it and they continue to shoot at citizens."

Netanyahu reacted angrily. "You should first come to cabinet meetings, and only then talk in the media about policies," he told Lieberman. The foreign minister, however, brushed off his remark.

"Don't put me on a scorecard," he said. "I was in Germany on a political visit and I immediately returned when I heard that the bodies of the kidnapped teens had been found, so I missed one cabinet meeting." The second cabinet meeting, Lieberman told Netanyahu, was hastily scheduled and held while he was meeting with Albania's parliament speaker. "I, at least, cannot be accused of leaking information from cabinet meeting."

Environment Minister Amir Peretz also lashed into Lieberman and Bennett during the meeting. "I am not a minister in the security cabinet and a political cabinet meeting is the place in which I can voice my opinion," he said. "There are ministers who come for five minutes for the broadcasts and incite the public, making it think that the government doesn't do anything for them, and that the security apparatus is not functioning."

Tourism Minister Uzi Landau protested to Netanyahu about what the prime minister had said against other ministers regarding Gaza. "You can't complain that we are talking or making proposals," he said.

"You don't include us in the cabinet, so how are we to know what is on the agenda and what isn't. Don't complain to us for things being said in the press when at the same time your justice minister is traveling to Abu Mazen in London after the government decided not to negotiate with him," Landau said, in reference to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Lapid: Government must quell flames

On Friday, Lieberman said during a visit to Sderot that "the messages being passed on to Hamas about a cease-fire are a grave mistake." It is unacceptable, he added, "that after three of our boys were kidnapped and murdered, and after two straight weeks of rockets falling, Israel's approach is that 'quiet will be met with quiet.'"

On Saturday night, Bennett said that "restraint in the face of targeting women and children is not power. Restraint in the face of an execution of three boys is weakness." The head of Habayit Hayehudi added that the response to rocket fire on Be'er Sheva should be the same response as though they had been fired at Tel Aviv.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid also attacked Lieberman and Bennett at Sunday's meeting. "The government can't conduct itself like a talkbacker," he said. "We need to quell the flames, not fan them."

"What need to be done now," Lapid added, "is to let the law do its job, to convene and talk and not to let the extremists, both Jews and Arabs, run the State of Israel, but rather let the government and the security forces handle what is going on at the moment."

On the Israeli Arabs who clashed with police forces in the past few days, Netanyahu said, "It is unacceptable that people receive social security from the state of Israel and at the same time break the law. This will not continue." On Saturday, Lieberman said Israeli-Arab rioters don't belong in Israel.

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