Before Resigning as Defense Minister, Lieberman Acted to Gain Control of Sensitive Security Unit

The Defense Ministry’s security department is among the state’s most highly classified units, responsible, among other things, for the nuclear research center in the Negev ■ Decision was not implemented, Netanyahu is examining the matter

Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman with Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot during a military exercise in northern Israel, April 2018
Israel Defense Ministry

One of Avigdor Lieberman’s last actions before resigning as defense minister was an abortive attempt to place the ministry’s own security department under his direct authority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also the defense minister, is reviewing the affair.

The Defense Ministry’s security department is among the state’s most highly classified units; little has been disclosed about it over the years. Known by its Hebrew acronym, Malmab, and under the authority of the ministry’s director general, the department is responsible for the security of the ministry itself and its facilities, Israel’s arms industry, the nuclear research center in the Negev and other security bodies.

Malmab officials visit installations and investigate corruption and leaks of classified material. The Defense Ministry does not disclose the activities or budget of Malmab, which has been headed for the past three years by Nir Ben-Moshe.

Over the years Malmab has amassed powers and status. Some have described it as an intelligence agency in addition to Military Intelligence, the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad. But the public knows even less about Malmab than it does about these agencies.

External oversight of the department is mainly by the State Comptroller’s Office and meetings of the intelligence subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

In recent years Malmab has been mentioned as having investigated aspects of the Defense Ministry’s actions after the so-called Harpaz affair blew up.

The department was also mentioned as warning journalists not to release details of a planned attack in Syria against its nuclear facility in September 2007.

Lieberman initiated a number of meetings in the past few months on bringing Malmab under his direct authority. A senior security official involved in the matter told Haaretz that Lieberman believed that Malmab should report directly to the defense minister rather than to the ministry’s director general, like the ministry’s other administrative departments.

According to Lieberman, shortening the chain of command would make Malmab more efficient.

Defense Ministry Director General Udi Adam opposed the decision, saying that removing Malmab from his authority would put the department in disarray.

Although it was never said outright, as far as is known, it seems that the professionals in the ministry were also against the idea that a body with such extensive intelligence and investigative capabilities would be directly under the authority of a political official, the defense minister.

Although discussion of the matter ended with Lieberman’s decision to take direct control of Malmab, and a document was apparently issued on the matter, the decision was not implemented.

Shortly thereafter, Lieberman announced his resignation in protest against the government’s policies vis-a-vis the Gaza Strip.

When he announced his resignation, about two weeks ago, he called the cease-fire arranged with the Gaza Strip “surrender to terror.” Lieberman noted a number of disagreements that had emerged recently between him and Netanyahu on issues like brining fuel and money from Qatar to the Strip and the postponement of the evacuation of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank.

Lieberman also called Israel’s conduct with regard to Gaza “weak,” and said: “What we are doing now as a country is buying short-term quiet at the cost of our long-term security.”

According to Lieberman, the security cabinet and the government were responsible for this. “I have no complaints against the security establishment – the political echelon failed,” he added.