Analysis

Farewell to Avigdor Lieberman, a Cartoon Defense Minister

Benjamin Netanyahu was and remains the sole custodian of Israel’s security. The authority and responsibility always stayed in his hands, with Lieberman or without him

Lieberman, Netanyahu and Bennett making coffee under a tank

“Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman” was never anything more than a cartoon. It is hard to discern any contribution the Yisrael Beiteinu leader made in his two-and-a-half years in office, of any influence he had.

To his credit, it should be said he didn’t do any harm – in contrast to the fears aroused by the appointment of an Arab-hating, right-wing, extremist populist as minister in charge of the Israeli army.

In the army, do-nothing people like him are called “sambasim” – a cynical acronym meaning “just wanders around the base.” The only order he signed off on, the appointment of Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi to be the next chief of staff, was reasonable and obvious. Even so, Lieberman still wrapped it in babble about “deliberations” and “searching for a bold and surprising candidate.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was and remains the sole custodian of Israel’s security. The authority and responsibility always stayed in his hands, with Lieberman or without him – just as the previous defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, was ignored despite his impressive military record.

The events of the past week offered conclusive proof of this: Netanyahu declared in Paris that he didn’t want “unnecessary wars,” and stood by his words even as Hamas rained rockets and mortars down on Israel’s south. He also stood firm against the demonstrations by Likud supporters, and the incendiary tone adopted by the right-wing media. Netanyahu wanted a cease-fire, fast, and achieved it without too much effort.

But Lieberman hadn’t been named defense minister in order to solve security problems. He was appointed to fix Netanyahu’s political distress when he wanted to expand his governing coalition. In the spring of 2016, a year after winning the Knesset election, Netanyahu was mulling whether to add the Zionist Union (then headed by Isaac Herzog) to his government, at the price of moving center-ward and a diplomatic process with the Palestinians. After protracted but futile negotiations – backed by the Obama administration and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi – Netanyahu abandoned Herzog and decided to hunker down on the far right, with Lieberman and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, and sans diplomatic process.

Choosing Lieberman over Herzog shows that, in Netanyahu’s eyes, his political stability is dependant on a diplomatic freeze. Following Donald Trump’s election in the United States at the end of 2016, Netanyahu was relieved of any international pressure to show magnanimity to the Palestinians – at least until Trump’s “deal of the century” was raised. Netanyahu entrusted his political fate in the hands of his two partners-cum-rivals on the right. As I wrote at the time in May 2016: Netanyahu “wanted more power and ended up weakened. The negotiations with Herzog showed that Netanyahu cannot make any diplomatic move in Likud. From now on his role in the national leadership will be to minimize the catastrophes cooked up by Bennett and Lieberman.”

And that is exactly what happened, until the partnership ended on Wednesday.

Bennett sought to oust Netanyahu, but didn’t want to be the far-right party that topples a right-wing government – as happened to Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 and Netanyahu in 1999 due to progress in the peace process. On the last two occasions, bringing down the government brought the left to power, bequeathing us the Oslo Accords and Camp David.

Avigdor Lieberman, right, meeting with the General Staff at army headquarters in Tel Aviv while he was Israeli defense minister.
Ariel Hermony / Defense Ministry

This time around, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi was smarter. Instead of attacking a popular prime minister, he focused his criticism on the defense policy of the weakest link, Lieberman, who Bennett portrayed as a doormat – and a left-wing one to boot.

Lieberman fell into the trap. Bennett managed to locate the one loose brick that would bring the whole wall crashing down.

And from Lieberman’s vacuous tenure at the Defense Ministry, all that will be remembered is that he fell, and that Hamas' Ismail Haniyeh – whom he once vowed to eliminate within 48 hours – is still standing.