Analysis

Lieberman's Enemy Number 1 Was Abbas. Only One of Them Is Still in the Ring

It was after his appointment that Avigdor Lieberman began to grasp the strategic reality. Still, signs of relief were apparent when he announced his resignation

Avigdor Lieberman speaking to reporters in the Knesset after he resigned as defense minister, November 14, 2018.
Emil Salman

In June 2016, two weeks after becoming defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman held a get-to-know meeting with military correspondents. Unlike his predecessor Moshe Ya’alon, who loved to wear Uniqlo jackets, Lieberman arrived wearing a suit and tie.

This is how he intended to dress for every meeting with military people, he explained. It was part of the responsibility. He promised the correspondents they would meet twice a year – at Passover and Rosh Hashanah.

The new defense minister then briefed the reporters on current affairs, during which the differences in approach between Lieberman and his predecessor were clear. Israel’s main problem wasn’t in Lebanon or Gaza, Lieberman said, surprising the journalists. It came from the man sitting in Ramallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who used “diplomatic terrorism” against Israel in the international arena, Lieberman added.

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As for the Gaza Strip, a war against Hamas was unavoidable, but Israel needed such a war only when it had no choice. And when it happened, it would have to be the last war. We have to bring down the Hamas government and hand over control to another body, though not Abbas – he can’t be relied on, Lieberman said.

The suits and ties disappeared as Lieberman’s first summer in the post got hotter. Then he discovered that riding in the Gaza Division chief’s armored Hummer while wearing a bulletproof vest was unbearable in formal attire.

The number of meetings with journalists dwindled as his term went on; they were replaced with short, personal telephone conversations. Lieberman would open with how wonderful everything was, before recognizing the complexity of the situation and the limits imposed on Israel’s actions.

Even though his fans in the media continued to report that Lieberman was flourishing in the job and enjoying every minute, reality was a bit different. Lieberman discovered the limits of his influence under a powerful prime minister and a sophisticated and determined General Staff. Very slowly the trap he was caught in could be seen in the fading popularity of his Yisrael Beiteinu party in the polls.

As for the 83-year-old Abbas, he’ll soon be watching a new Israeli defense minister take office (maybe it will be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself), the sixth since Abbas became president in early 2005. The strong security coordination with the Palestinian Authority has been preserved despite the periodic attacks by Netanyahu and Lieberman on Abbas.

And of course, we all know what just happened with Lieberman and Gaza. Also, before Lieberman was defense minister, he said that if he had that job, if he would give Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh 48 hours to return the bodies of dead Israeli soldiers or be assassinated.

Very few Israeli politicians have paid such a heavy price for a poorly thought out boast. Lieberman has now closed the door on his depressing and frustrating term. At his press conference in the Knesset where he announced his resignation Wednesday, he looked relieved, like someone who had just lifted a heavy burden from his shoulders.

The honorable Dina Zilber

In 2012, long before she was marked as public enemy number one, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber was invited to Ramallah for a working visit with PA officials. The Israeli army officers who accompanied her noticed something unusual about the hosts.

The Israeli convoy was accompanied by much heavier than usual security, while spit-and-polish traffic cops could be seen at every main intersection, ensuring that the visitor wouldn’t be held up for a moment. Zilber was received with the same honor as a cabinet minister, well above her rank as a senior civil servant.

When the Israelis asked their Palestinian colleagues about the VIP treatment, they discovered that the order had come directly from Abbas – but was based on a misunderstanding about the division of labor at the top of the Israeli legal system. “This woman needs to decide soon on the criminal case against Lieberman,” Abbas said. “Give her all the appropriate respect.”