Israeli Collective Punishment, À La Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman

Defense minister's ideas put him in tension with Israeli army's top brass, as he demands IDF adhere to public fury and employ harsh collective measures against Palestinians, while army tries to maintain calm.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman with generals, summer 2016.
GPO / Ariel Hermoni

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman broke his media dry spell Wednesday with a press briefing on a new diplomatic-military plan for the West Bank. Basically, Lieberman seeks to distinguish between “good” Palestinians and “bad.”

Villages from which terrorists set out to commit attacks will be severely punished. Villages and areas where quiet is maintained will enjoy extensive economic benefits and be able to pursue infrastructure projects.

The defense minister also announced that he would seek alternative contacts with Palestinians. Under his guidance, defense officials will talk to other people in the Palestinian Authority, not just those linked to aging President Mahmoud Abbas.

The carrot-and-stick method and the alternative channels sounded like a return to the 1970s and ‘80s, when a military administration governed the territories. The chances that Lieberman’s new ideas will be successful are questionable, and it would be interesting to know what the people at Central Command and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories think.

Officials at these two units have been asked in recent weeks to present to Lieberman ideas on addressing the current situation. Lieberman correctly identified Abbas’ weakness and the commotion stirred by the PA’s overt wars of succession.

But it’s hard to see how Lieberman will promote open contact with elements that don’t operate under the direct guidance of the Palestinian president. It’s hard to see how Abbas won’t act to undermine them.

As for carrots and sticks, Israel has been employing this strategy over the past violent year. A formal definition of a village as “quiet” (or “green” as Lieberman denotes the “good” ones – “red” for the “bad”) could depict its inhabitants as collaborators with Israel, pushing them to prove their loyalty to the Palestinian cause through violence.

Lieberman’s press briefing was convened after two embarrassing missteps. First there was his attack on the Obama administration regarding the Iranian nuclear accord and his comparison to the 1938 Munich Agreement. Lieberman was uncharacteristically obligated to withdraw within three days.

Then a leak to the Yedioth Ahronoth daily revealed that Lieberman had instructed the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, to stop soldiers from volunteering with nonprofit groups that help children of asylum seekers and foreign workers in south Tel Aviv.

In the “Munich” case, the question is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who claims no connection to the incident, knew about the verbal assault in advance. In the second case, in addition to pandering to Lieberman’s electoral base, there seems to have been a PR stunt at Eisenkot’s expense. This looked like a second insult in a row to the chief of staff; the assault on Obama came as Eisenkot was heading home from a successful visit to the Pentagon.

The Defense Ministry's announcement seemed to suggest that the miliary was strongly bearish on the nuclear accord, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the chief of staff’s position. In earlier times, such as during the days of Ehud Barak and Gabi Ashkenazi, it’s hard to imagine two incidents like these passing without a response.

These incidents show the always-present potential for tension in the relationship between a defense minister and a chief of staff. In the case of Lieberman and Eisenkot, this gets expressed in the first 72 hours after a terror attack, when the minister demands that the IDF employ harsh collective measures against the Palestinians against the backdrop of public fury, while the army tries to keep events under control.

Fortunately, in recent weeks the number of terror incidents in the West Bank has decreased. Netanyahu, incidentally, is taking credit for much of this. He says this has happened after he noticed that soldiers were sometimes getting run over in attacks after not adhering to safety regulations on highways. Netanyahu summoned his military secretary and commented on this, and since then things have improved, he says.

In practice, most of the attacks are still stabbings, while weak points enabling car-rammings were addressed by the General Staff some time before Netanyahu’s comments. As an international statesman, the prime minister may not be bothered by such trivial facts.