Analysis

Avigdor Lieberman: The Israeli Defense Minister Who Never Was

Lieberman's tenure as defense minister will not leave behind the mark that he had hoped for

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman addresses the media during a visit to the Quneitra crossing in the Golan Heights, September 27, 2018.
Gil Eliyahu

Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as defense minister had been simmering for weeks. When the escalation in Gaza began, beginning with the protests Hamas orchestrated along the Israeli border in late March, Lieberman toed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s line. He also believed, as Netanyahu did, that the conflict with Iran in Syria, which was spiking at that point, was more important; and he was persuaded by the army’s reasoning that it would be better not to have relatively intense military campaigns on two fronts at once.

The dispute erupted at the end of the summer, when Netanyahu, backed by the army and the Shin Bet security service, began actively promoting moves to come to a long-term arrangement for the Strip. Lieberman expressed objections, at first in discussions behind closed doors and gradually in the media as well. He objected to allowing Qatari fuel into the Strip, to hasty truces after each round of fighting, and certainly to letting in suitcases with millions of dollars in cash from Qatar into the Hamas-controlled territory.

Lieberman speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem, on November 14, 2018
Emil Salman

But Netanyahu did not take Lieberman’s opinion into account and at the same time struck an agreement with army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot that turned the prime minister into an acting defense minister of sorts. Lieberman himself recently admitted in interviews that he no longer had any influence over policy regarding the Strip.

>> Bennett's party warns Netanyahu: Give us defense portfolio or we'll quit coalition ■  Hamas hails defense chief's resignation: We caused political earthquake in Israel

All of this was apparent this week. Netanyahu aimed to reach agreement on another cease-fire in Gaza despite the rocket barrages and public criticism. At the security cabinet meeting on Tuesday, he imposed his will on the ministers — and then, not content with that, the prime minister’s staff misleadingly leaked that assertion that the security cabinet's decision on a cease-fire was reached unanimously, including Lieberman and the Habayit Hayehudi leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

Sick of the situation, Lieberman took advantage of the incident as grounds for his resignation. It also came, of course, against the backdrop of political calculations. It is impossible to reconcile Lieberman’s tough rhetoric on Gaza and his forced acquiescence to the containment policy Israel is implementing in practice on the ground. He probably believed that going to elections while he was still defense minister, and with missiles continuing to rain down on the Israeli communities near the Gaza border every week or two, would have imperiled his party’s chances of even passing the minimum vote threshold required to make it into the next Knesset.

Lieberman at a press conference in Jerusalem, on November 14, 2018
Emil Salman

A civilian and a gentleman

Lieberman became defense minister in a whirlwind in late May 2016. Netanyahu had fired Moshe Yaalon as defense minister following their dispute in the case of Elor Azaria, the soldier who was ultimately convicted of manslaughter for killing a terrorist in Hebron who had already been subdued. It was suggested at the time that Netanyahu viewed Lieberman as another weapon in his war against the elites. The prime minister always had fraught relations with the leaders of the defense establishment. Lieberman, it was argued, would help Netanyahu put the generals in their place.

That scenario did not pan out. In fact, Lieberman did not lead the charge against the military elite. On the contrary, in his personal contacts with the top brass, he proved to be a gentleman. He also scrupulously backed them up in public. He did not try to constrain moves by Eisenkot, even when the chief of staff publicly contradicted him on the handling of the Azaria case; over the rules of engagement for soldiers facing a wave of lone-wolf terrorists armed with knives; and Eisenkot's opposition to collective punishment in response to terrorist attacks in the territories.

Lieberman visiting the Israel Amry's Gaza division, October, 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkowitz

But by the same token, Lieberman also had difficulty leaving his mark. Like Amir Peretz, another defense minister who came from a civilian background, Lieberman seemed to be perceived by the top brass as an outsider. He did not have the natural authority that is the result of experience and prior roles. The military establishment gave him the same treatment it has given to previous civilian ministers. It embraced him, chewed him up and spit him back out — as if he had never existed.

The Israel Defense Forces will bid him farewell with the traditional ceremony on Friday. In the days to come, his picture will surely be hung next to the framed pictures of his predecessors, in the hallway leading to the office he is leaving. But in practice, his tenure as defense minister will not leave behind the mark that he had hoped for. He is the defense minister who never was.

Nor did Lieberman do much damage. Peretz, by comparison, was among those responsible for a terrible failure, the 2006 Second Lebanon War. But Peretz will always deserve credit for Iron Dome, the anti-missile system he approved and promoted contrary to the army’s opinion. Lieberman tried to do something similar with regard to a new missile arsenal, but the branding of the effort didn’t help him and the long-range significance of the decision remains unclear. On Wednesday, while enumerating his achievements at the ministry in response to a challenging question at his press conference, it wasn't long before he got to mentioning the establishment of an Arabic-language website aimed at reaching for Palestinians — not exactly a resounding achievement that will be recalled for generations.

No personal attack on Netanyahu

The press conference, like his entire term in office, looked like a frustrating experience for him, despite his usual banter with reporters. Lieberman attacked Israel's decision to allow the fuel and cash into Gaza and accused the government of having a lax policy on terrorism, but he avoided attacking Netanyahu personally.

In their power struggle, however, he did achieve one important thing: Aviv Kochavi’s appointment as the next chief of staff. That went through despite Netanyahu’s delaying tactics, as Lieberman took advantage of the prime minister’s visit to Oman.

The appointment hasn’t yet been approved by the appointment committee that is to consider it or the cabinet, but there appears to be no chance that Netanyahu will try to sabotage it now. On the other hand, the question regarding a new deputy chief of staff will be reopened. Netanyahu tried to press for the appointment of Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, but Lieberman opposed it, and the issue has not been settled.

The more important and burning question is who Lieberman’s successor will be. Netanyahu will have difficulty, in practice and politically, to hold three portfolios simultaneously — the premiership, foreign minister and defense minister. Naftali Bennett, who still regrets not standing firm on his demand for the post in 2016, hastened to announce that he wants the job. Bennett may be forced on Netanyahu to keep the coalition alive, albeit on artificial respiration, for a few more months, even with 61 Knesset members (out of 120), but obviously that’s the last thing the prime minister would want.

Another possibility over which rumors have been swirling is that former chief of staff Benny Gantz will be appointed to the post. The move would be the political equivalent of a checkmate. Gantz is a key anchor in the hopes the opposition is nurturing about a lineup that could run against Netanyahu in the next election. He is also perceived as statesmanlike and unbiased. On the other hand, Gantz wouldn’t make it easier in any way for Netanyahu to manage a coalition of 61 and would also leave other contenders for the position feeling frustrated.

The bottom line is that Netanyahu has to mull over the situation and has some complicated political maneuvering to do. The top army brass will be watching the situation, but it is hard to say that Lieberman's departure leaves the same sense of shock and anxiety as was caused by the dismissal of Yaalon two and a half years ago. The generals have gotten used to it.