Analysis

Populism and Empty Threats: Lieberman Earned the Public's Disdain

The ex-defense chief, who once vowed he would assassinate Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh within 48 hours, will reap little benefit from his attempt to outflank Netanyahu from the right

Avigdor Lieberman announces his resignation from the post of defense minister, November 14, 2018.
Emil Salman

“Lieberman is the worst defense minister Israel has ever had” tweeted the Habayit Hayehudi party's Bezalel Smotrich, one of the most effective leaders of the settler movement. What an irony.

Who remembers that just two and a half years ago, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was fed up with the slim majority of 61 Knesset members that his government depended upon, it was the settlers who concocted the perfect deal to oust Moshe Yaalon as defense minister, to be replaced, scandalously, by Avigdor Lieberman, who had claimed that if he were defense minister, he would eliminate Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh within 48 hours. It was also Lieberman who had just demonstrated against the army and its values outside the trial of Elor Azaria, the soldier convicted of manslaughter for killing a subdued terrorist.

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The settler lobby was on overdrive. Rumors spread among the settlements suggesting that the Zionist Union would enter the coalition, with its leader at the time, Isaac Herzog, assuming the post of defense and foreign minister; that Habayit Hayehudi would be ejected from the coalition or would leave on its own, given the new dynamics; and that West Bank mountain ridge settlements — Elon Moreh, Itamar, Yitzhar and Har Bracha — would be evacuated after some diplomacy.

Yossi Dagan and Shevah Stern, leading Likud activists involved in promoting the interests of the settlers, pressured Knesset members and cabinet members to support bringing Lieberman into the government instead of the Zionist Union, to outflank Netanyahu from the right. Figures such as Smotrich and former Habayit Hayehudi Knesset member Orit Strock were involved in these moves.

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

Dagan hosted cabinet members Yisrael Katz, Haim Katz and Zeev Elkin at his home in Shavei Shomron on Independence Day in 2016. This was the same Elkin against whom Lieberman promoted his associate Moshe Leon as mayor of Jerusalem. Elkin had himself wanted to be mayor of Jerusalem, looking for a respite from the travails of Netanyahu. Now it turns out that Lieberman, the key figure in that deal, has been nothing less than the worst defense minister the country has ever had.

Lieberman rightfully earned that disdain. His conduct did not reflect the more sober judgment that comes with the attainment of real decision-making power, or as the late Ariel Sharon had put it: "Things that you see from here you don’t see from there.” Sharon was an expert at making a lot of noise while in the opposition, but turned into a mild grandfatherly figure after becoming prime minister, daring to evacuate 7,000 Jews with an extreme right worldview from their homes in the Gaza Strip. No one would deny his deep understanding of the diplomatic, economic and defense umbrella protecting Israel, which is why he was deeply respected.

Lieberman’s inflammatory statements just before he became defense minister exposed not only his empty populism but his lack of understanding of how the defense establishment and the political system work. This cast him in a pathetic light in the eyes of senior defense officials and in the public's eyes. One can’t promise something as empty as the immediate elimination of a Hamas leader and not later be subject to a barrage of contempt.

Despite his attempt to cut his losses and outflank Netanyahu now from the right, it's hard to believe that the right-wing electorate would vote for Lieberman for ideological reasons. The outgoing defense minister will fight over the leftover crumbs of Netanyahu's political support with Bennett, who from his standpoint is trying to leverage strong political pressure on the prime minister. Here's further proof that the only significant opposition to Netanyahu comes from the right wing.