Israeli Defense Chief Talks Tough on Gaza but Fails to Present Concrete Plan

Lieberman has been a fairly moderate voice in the past. Senior officials attribute his combative tone, which contradicts the army’s stance, to political distress

Avigdor Lieberman visits the southern city of Sderot, July 20, 2018
AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Despite his statements about the necessity of landing a “harsh blow” on Hamas and declarations of punitive measures against the Gaza Strip, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has yet to present a military plan of action in the Strip, nor the desired results of such an action.

Senior diplomatic and security officials attribute Lieberman’s combative tone, which contradicts the army’s stance and that of other cabinet members, to political distress.

Lieberman’s comments on the Strip have been fairly moderate thus far, both on rounds of fighting and the killing of Israeli soldier Aviv Levi. His statements, which came after consulting  with army chiefs and the intelligence apparatus, reflected a desire to avoid a broad confrontation.

For example, in response to criticism regarding Israel’s containment policy several months ago, Lieberman said: “We are guided by level-headedness and nerves of steel, not by media pressure.” On another occasion, he said: “Our response to terror will come soon — not when it’s comfortable for Hamas, but when it’s comfortable for us.”

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In recent days Lieberman has emboldened his tone towards Hamas, declaring the need for military action in the Strip. Last week, he announced his decision to cut the fuel and gas supply to the Strip, “as long as any violence continues in the Gaza Strip, including the dispatch of incendiary balloons and burning tires toward Israeli settlements,” notwithstanding the opposition of the security establishment and diplomatic echelon. 

On Wednesday, Lieberman said he was closing the Kerem Shalom and Erez crossings to Gaza and narrowing the fishing zone to three miles from the coast.

The messages emanating from Lieberman’s environment this week present him as someone who is determined to exact broad military action in the Strip, and is being blocked by the prime minister and the army.

Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot is also in favor of complying with Egypt’s request to restore calm in the Gaza border. This opinion is sharedby most members of the security cabinet, and is informed by the perception that Cairo’s position in the Middle East, and specifically the struggle against Iran, justifies tolerating isolated incidents.

On Wednesday evening the cabinet convened for a discussion on the situation in Gaza, to which Eisenkot arrived straight from the airport after cutting a visit to the U.S. short due to recent developments.

Members of the security establishment, as well as Lieberman's colleagues in the government, have tried to understand his shifting stance. There are those who attribute it to political motives. Polls present his party, Yisrael Beitenu, on the cusp of the electoral threshold and recent verbal clashes with Naftali Bennett, who is signaling that he may contend for Lieberman’s post, have attacked his “weak” and “leftist” policy. 

Lieberman’s statements are also seen as a possible bargaining chip in the struggle for the role and appointment of the next chief of staff.

Another consideration is the recent addition to Lieberman’s bureau – the military secretary, Brig. Gen. Ofer Winter. Eisenkot firmly opposed Winter's appointment as the prime minister’s military secretary, due to the gap between their operational outlooks. When it was suggested that Winter be appointed as Lieberman’s military secretary, Eisenkot’s resistance seemed to wane, as he perceives Netanyhau to be the “acting” defense minister and the one who would lead any military operation.