Israel's New Defense Minister Eases Up on the Belligerence

Avigdor Lieberman knows that his actions will be examined meticulously, so he will be cautious for a change. He has even broached hopes for peace with the Palestinians.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (center) shakes hands with the IDF's top generals at military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, May 31, 2016.
Moti Milrod

The 48 hours Avigdor Lieberman gave Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to live once the Israeli became defense minister have come and gone, as expected, with Haniyeh escaping unscathed.

It seems Lieberman, who has quipped that he has undergone surgery to extend his short fuse, has also volunteered to receive a new policy transplant. The gaps are instructive; on side are his declarations at his swearing-in ceremony and later at meetings with the General Staff. On the other are the declarations in his last appearances as a member of the opposition.

At his much-quoted appearance at a conference on the Gaza tunnel problem, held by a Sderot radio station in April, Lieberman didn’t only threaten to execute Haniyeh if the bodies of two soldiers weren’t returned.

He described Hamas as a strategic threat, warning that Israeli leaders' alleged weak and defeatist approach would cost us dearly. He dismissed the idea of building a new port in Gaza (“pipe dreams,” in his words), saying that the question was when, not if, the next round of hostilities would erupt. Israel, he claimed, was greatly mistaken in leaving to Hamas the decision of when to escalate.

Upon assuming his new role, Lieberman lowered Hamas’ profile in his pronouncements. Instead of threatening Gaza with war, he addressed his hopes for peace to Ramallah and the international community, vowing again to strive for a two-state solution.

In his meeting with the generals he emphasized the social role played by the Israel Defense Forces, the “army of the people.” He reiterated the need to close the gaps between Kiryat Malakhi and Ra’anana. (Somehow, the city where Naftali Bennett lives slipped into his remarks.) He warned against sliding into wars of choice that Israeli society couldn't afford, saying that the “unity of the nation comes before the unity of the land.”

He had said similar things in a meeting with reserve officers on the eve of his appointment. He knows that his actions will now be examined under a microscope and he intends to act cautiously and responsibly. Officers who heard him seem convinced.

Lieberman’s words were received positively, even with relief. His lack of experience and incendiary words while in the opposition were difficult for defense officials to digest. His restrained expressions and turn to the center are more welcome.

Lieberman gave the army brass and senior defense officials the message that he had come to learn. A folder including briefings on a variety of topics, mostly classified, was prepared, and Thursday he held talks with his predecessor  Moshe Ya’alon. The ministry’s director general, Maj. Gen. (res.) Udi Adam,  will probably remain, as will, for now, most senior officials.

Only minor changes will be made in the minister’s office. In three weeks Lieberman will travel to the United States for a ceremony marking the first F-35 made by Lockheed Martin for Israel. This will be an opportunity to discuss the unresolved U.S. aid package with the Obama administration.

Bennett's whimper

It was portrayed as a threat to Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister and a principled battle over the government’s functioning: Education Minister Bennett’s demand to upgrade the status of the diplomatic-security cabinet, based on lessons learned from the last wars in Lebanon and Gaza. Well, that spat has ended with a whimper.

Israel's Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Moti Milrod

It’s doubtful the compromise crafted by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman will do anything to improve the supervision of decisions by the prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff.

Traditionally, the National Security Council briefs members of the diplomatic-security cabinet, but many say it does so only partially and poorly. Bennett wanted an IDF officer appointed as the diplomatic-security cabinet’s military secretary, to improve the way panel members receive and absorb intelligence and other information.

Litzman persuaded him to temporarily accept briefings from the deputy head of the NSC – in other words, to continue the status quo – while a committee studied his idea, which is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had proposed. Not only is appointing a committee a surefire way to bury such ideas, but its chairman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, and another member, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yohanan Locker, are both former senior Netanyahu aides.

Bennett’s demands were especially important in light of the way Israel has been dragged into wars over the last decade. Both in Lebanon in 2006 and in three wars in Gaza thereafter, successive governments never declared war. They merely ordered large-scale military operations, usually in response to enemy provocations, and sometimes without the ministers fully understanding the meaning of their decisions.

In two cases – Lebanon (the only one of the conflicts to be recognized as a war) and 2014’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza – the body that finally defined the fighting for the public was the medals committee, which decided which medals to award only after the fighting had ended.

Ya’alon’s departure and the failure of Bennett’s effort to upgrade the diplomatic-security cabinet’s status place even greater responsibility on Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot. He’ll now need broader shoulders than ever.

Dahlan back in the limelight

This week’s prattle about peace by Netanyahu and Lieberman was the opening shot in a new spin campaign aimed at portraying Lieberman’s entry into the government as stemming not merely from simple math (the coalition has grown to 66 from 61 Knesset members). It’s also being depicted as a rare diplomatic opportunity that, unfortunately, can’t be explained to the public at this stage.

AP

Once again, we’re hearing vague hints about the possibility of advancing the Arab Peace Initiative, strengthening relations with Egypt and even resuming negotiations with the Palestinians.

This claim has been tried in the past – to justify bringing the Labor Party, in its various incarnations, into the government, not to mention the short-lived romance with Kadima in 2012 (the party stayed in the government for only a few weeks). So the burden of proof is on Netanyahu.

Until then, one can safely assume that behind these new hopes lie old considerations: presenting a moderate face amid fears U.S. President Barack Obama will use his lame-duck November-to-January period for anti-Israel moves, appeasing Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi and reviving his idea of a regional peace conference, and leaving the door open for opposition leader Isaac Herzog to join the government, if he’s still naive enough to buy these arguments.

These hints could also refer to the expected signing of a reconciliation agreement with Turkey, six years after relations ruptured. But such an agreement would at most yield indirect advantages in dealing with Hamas in Gaza. It surely wouldn’t revive the Israeli-Turkish love affair of the 1990s.

A different angle on the Palestinian issue could be glimpsed in Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin’s decision to attend a conference at Bar-Ilan University on Wednesday titled “The Day After Abbas.” Three months ago, at that same university, Elkin declared that the Palestinian Authority will collapse, the only question is when.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Shalom Harari, one of the defense establishment’s leading experts on Palestinian affairs, has told Haaretz to pay attention to what Mohammed Dahlan is doing. Dahlan, whom PA President Mahmoud Abbas considers his main domestic rival, recently paid an official visit to Jordan, which “upset Abbas. Egypt is also embracing Dahlan, and the Gulf emirates are giving him huge amounts of money, which his wife distributes as charity in the Gaza Strip.”

“It’s already clear that Dahlan sees himself as part of the future leadership after Abbas, despite Abbas’ attitude toward him – and that he has set his sights on the PA’s defense portfolio,” Harari added.