Lieberman Takes a Dovish Tone, but for How Long?

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An illustration showing Netanyahu and Lieberman flying on the back of a dove while the prime minister tries to catch Herzog with a hook. The latter walks is depicted walking toward Egypt's Sissi, who is awaiting him with open arms.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman

The beating of doves’ wings is heard above the defense establishment’s towering headquarters in Tel Aviv. Since confirmation of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister, Israelis and the international community alike have been bombarded with conciliatory, moderate messages of peace, equality and fraternity.

The new minister has sounded as if he’s experiencing an acute attack of responsibility and judiciousness. He has spared no effort to prove that our region is witnessing the dawn of a new day – by reprising Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s expressions of support for the two-state principle and willingness to examine elements of the Arab League initiative in a positive light; by asserting that Israel must not launch wars of choice (whereupon Ismail Haniyeh emerged from his bomb shelter); and by recycling his old adage that, between wholeness of the nation and wholeness of the land, the former takes precedence.

In the past seven years, two defense ministers who served under Netanyahu positioned themselves as the responsible adults next to the button. For a time, Ehud Barak was considered the chief proponent of an Israeli attack on Iran, until, at some point, he got over it. Moshe Ya’alon acted coolly and intelligently and didn’t look for trouble until – in the last few months, during budget discussions and in the cases of the soldier who shot a defenseless Palestinian and the speech of the deputy chief of staff – he became contrarian.

At least for the time being, Lieberman doesn’t want to be seen as akin to a pyromaniac who’s been given the key to the biggest fuel reserves in the Middle East and is just waiting for an opportunity to light the match. His first test will come when the calm is breached on any or all of Israel’s fronts. The prevailing view in the political arena, on both the right and the left, is that Lieberman will go to extremes not to be extreme, in order to signal to all and sundry that there is no cause for alarm.

A person who knows Lieberman well said that he is determined to make Netanyahu grab his head in his hands one day and mumble to himself, “Why did I ever appoint him defense minister? Look how he’s running the ministry! Soon people will say he now has the experience to be prime minister.”

A source who bestrides Israel’s political and security corridors said this week that he’s waiting to see how Lieberman will react when he discovers that the most substantive talks with the White House and the Pentagon on next year’s defense aid to Israel are being conducted by Netanyahu’s emissaries, attorney Isaac Molho and ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, who is considered persona non grata by the U.S. administration. The prime minister's bureau said however that Molho isn't involved in the talks with the U.S. 

“Lieberman will have to represent the Defense Ministry in contacts with Netanyahu,” the source notes. “He will have to decide how to pave his path to success, to garner credit in the eyes of the public – via cooperation with Netanyahu, or independence from him. In one sense, he has already made his choice: He is going to coexist peacefully with the Israel Defense Forces General Staff and be the minister of the army, not the minister over the army.”

The cooing emanating from the direction of Lieberman and Netanyahu – including praise for the recent speech of Egyptian President al-Sissi, urging Israel and the Palestinians to conduct talks – are also aimed at the leader of the opposition. Let there be no mistake: Bibi and Bougie – Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog – are still talking. Netanyahu continues to ask Herzog to join the coalition. Herzog is reciprocating with small gestures of his own, such as lauding the moderate declarations by Netanyahu and Lieberman.

In the meantime, the potential candidates for leadership of the Labor Party, Zionist Union’s chief component, are trying to reach agreement on a date for the primary. The focus now is on early 2017, but Herzog is awaiting diplomatic developments. If a regional conference is organized, and Netanyahu calls on him publicly, Herzog will not place obstacles in the path of history. He will convene a Labor Party convention and put forward a two-pronged agenda: entry into the government, and postponement of the leadership primary until late next year. Without that basic, latter condition, which obviates the potential removal of a just-appointed foreign minister (Herzog, in the event that he joins the coalition) – Netanyahu sees no point in a deal.

A Herzog-run peace conference is more than a meager bone (tossed at the opposition leader by Netanyahu, to use MK Shelly Yacimovich’s brutal imagery), even if peace won’t come of it. Labor’s senior figures, who covet a return to positions of power after spending six years in the political wilderness, will leap at the offer to get back into power.

In the meantime, though, Herzog’s status at any party convention has worsened: Histadrut labor federation head Avi Nissenkorn has abandoned the fray. Nissenkorn, who’s up for reelection in another year, had urged a postponement of the primary until the end of 2017, for reasons of his own. But, he left Herzog to his own devices when he understood, before the party leader did, which way the wind was blowing from the Prime Minister’s Bureau. Herzog, then, has to go it alone. He hopes to compensate for the loss of his ally with the aid of Netanyahu, Lieberman, Sissi, “regional leaders” and other good folks. Those who never believed that Herzog would be part of a government with Naftali Bennett, may now get him in a government with both Bennett and Lieberman. All for the sake of peace.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, MK Naftali Bennett and MK Avigdor Lieberman in the Knesset, May 14, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Traumas and ticking bombs

On Tuesday, minister of education and security cabinet member Naftali Bennett was invited to the office of the head of the National Security Council. For the first time in the three years that he’s been a member of the cabinet, he received a detailed hush-hush update. He and all other security cabinet members will now get such a report daily. But, as Bennett himself admits, the real test will come when the next military confrontation erupts. Only in an emergency situation, when decisions must be made instantly, will it become clear what security cabinet members know and don’t know.

Bennett hoped to achieve several goals when he initiated a crisis that for a short time looked like a serious threat to the coalition. 1. To teach Netanyahu a lesson for appointing Lieberman, with his five Knesset seats, defense minister. 2. To make Netanyahu grovel and show how susceptible he is to pressure. 3. To prove to his voters, and to the right wing overall, that “their man in the coalition” is ready to risk his seat when it comes to issues of national security.

In the matter of groveling, a stalemate was reached. Netanyahu – who initially refused to give Bennett anything as long as Bennett continued to threaten that his party, Habayit Hayehudi, would not vote for the cooption of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party to the coalition – stuck to his guns. Netanyahu wanted the following things to happen, in this order: the lifting of the threat, support for the expanded coalition, and only then an agreement to Bennett’s proposal to improve the operation of the security cabinet. Bennett demanded that any agreement with Netanyahu, even one that maintained the current situation with the cabinet, address the threat that was floating around and not in disconnect from it

In the third aim, Bennett was roundly beaten. As he galloped forward issuing threats, he looked back and saw that he had no troops. The national-religious public did not cotton to his narrative. The religious-Zionist movement will move heaven and earth trying to prevent the evacuation of three mobile homes from a windswept hill in Samaria, but when it comes to the appointment of a military secretary for the security cabinet, for example, they won’t lift an antenna. That’s not their thing.

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, leader of Tekuma and Bennett’s partner in Habayit Hayehudi, insinuated himself into the crack in the party and castigated Bennett for getting embroiled in an unnecessary, harmful confrontation with the prime minister. The assault caught Bennett off guard. Netanyahu’s people were pleased. They’ve been investing in Ariel, viewing him as a kind of old, Mapai-style type who adapts to things, and is thus easier to get along with than the nightmare duo of Bennett and Ayelet Shaked.

The trauma undergone by Bennett in his fight with Netanyahu took the wind out of his sails, as witnessed by his (relative) silence in the wake of the pro-peace show performed by Netanyahu and Lieberman. He published a single post: “To all those who are against the division of Jerusalem and the establishment of a Palestinian state on Route 6, and who were saddened by today’s flood of concessions – have no worry, we are here.” In private conversations, Bennett is promising that he will henceforth take his membership in the security cabinet even more seriously than he once did. Such sentiments are aimed primarily at the new defense minister, but also at the prime minister.

Bennett set off the next ticking bomb in his relations with Netanyahu on Monday in the Knesset. He was asked to state his position on a bill submitted by MK Merav Michaeli (Labor/Zionist Union) that would limit a prime minister to two consecutive terms in office. Bennett spoke of the idea positively and promised Michaeli that he would soon put the motion to his Knesset faction. In a private conversation later in the week, he said he is favorably inclined toward the bill, meaning that he will recommend that his party support it. Even if it doesn’t take effect until the election after the next one, the legislation, if passed, would be construed as a slap in the face to Netanyahu by the parliament.

Judge Dita Pruginin.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

House of horrors

It’s no longer a case of “frustrated, vengeful, lying employees,” or “leftists who want to oust Netanyahu and Likud,” or “the media that’s persecuting Sara Netanyahu.” All the horror stories from the Prime Minister’s Residence that are occasionally reported by a few courageous employees who survived the inferno and lived to tell the tale have a court imprimatur now. That is what is driving The Lady up the wall and turning night into day and day into night in the Balfour Street residence in the center of Jerusalem.

Of the three lawyers who were sent to the front lines to defend the “Angel,” as one of them termed her, the most authentic is Dr. Yossi Cohen. He is her ultimate sounding board. Her voice cries from his throat. When Cohen blasts Labor Court Judge Dita Pruginin, accusing her of “bias” and of having “ignored” the testimony of his client, he does so with permission and authority. When he tells Israel Radio, “Mrs. Netanyahu looked after her father in that pitiful house in Balfour Street” – those are not his words. The woman who lodged with her husband for free in palaces and suites that cost thousands of dollars a night truly believes that the Prime Minister’s Residence is not fit for her or for him. We haven’t yet forgotten the clip in which she’s seen walking gloomily through the house, lamenting its shortcomings to a minor television personality, as though she were some hardscrabble woman in a moldy public-housing apartment.

But what should really disturb every law-abiding citizen is the implicit message in the words of the distinguished attorney about the Labor Court judge. By the way, in the meantime, Cohen, too, has apologized, for fear that the Bar Association’s ethics committee will punish him. The target of his abominations was not Judge Pruginin. She has already spoken her piece. His and his client’s target are the other gatekeepers: the police investigators, the state attorneys, the staff of the State Comptroller’s Office and the judiciary. Any of them who will have to deal with Sara & Bibi matters in the future should know what he’s in for – prime-time mudslinging, delegitimization, shaming – if he does his job honestly, without fear or favor.

Tell me who your lawyer is and I will tell you who you are. The Lady is undoubtedly pleased with Dr. Cohen. He’s the only one who’s defending her properly, who is lying on the fence for her, who is telling the nation the truth to its face.

Justice Minister Shaked came out vigorously and aggressively against the wild incitement and in favor of the judges and their independence. Initially she hesitated, fearing to be seen as vengeful or biased against the Lady – their shared history is tainted by bad blood. Never mind, the important thing is the condemnation. Had she not spoken out, she would not be worthy of her post.

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