Netanyahu and Lieberman Will Seek to Reeducate Israel's Military Brass

Avigdor Lieberman’s pending takeover of the Defense Ministry reflects Netanyahu’s war against the elites, of which the military high command remains the last target.

Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never felt comfortable with the army. When the cameras are rolling, it’s clear there’s something forced and artificial about his encounters with soldiers. It’s not his natural element; he has been suspicious of generals since, when he was prime minister two decades ago, he clashed with the Israel Defense Forces chief at the time, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.

Netanyahu has had more accounts to settle with the security chiefs, notably what the chiefs did between 2009 and 2012: the near rebellion by Mossad head Meir Dagan, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin to thwart Netanyahu’s plan to strike Iran’s nuclear sites. The current chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, didn’t play a major role in these intrigues because for most of that time he headed the Northern Command.

But Netanyahu still remembers the letter Eisenkot sent to Ashkenazi explaining the possible damage such a strike could do. At the end of 2014, when then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon urged Netanyahu to appoint Eisenkot chief of staff, the prime minister wavered until the last minute after considering alternatives like Golan and Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant. We can assume that Netanyahu hasn’t always been pleased with Eisenkot’s opinions since the general became chief of staff in February 2015.

In Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu has chosen as his next defense minister a man to whom military DNA is utterly foreign. Unlike Netanyahu and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, Lieberman can’t look back at glory days as a young officer in an elite unit. Bennett has used his brief military career to befriend secular voters; he adds a thick layer of honey on any mention of his military experiences.

But Lieberman’s IDF experience amounts to a short stint in basic training for older immigrants. Senior officers who have dealt with Lieberman describe him as distant, almost suspicious. As chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he didn’t make life easy for officers. More than once he showed impatience, but he also asked pointed questions (and fought tirelessly against leaks).

For years the left wing has portrayed every right-wing trick as a sure sign the country’s end is near. In endless articles, right-wingers’ bills that rarely make it into law are compared to the dark days of far-off countries. The mountain’s shadow is perceived as the mountain.

And yet Netanyahu’s current term a back-from-the-brink victory on Election Day itself conveys another line. Netanyahu is more self-assured and aggressive than in the past.

Netanyahu and IDF chief Eisenkot touring Israel's eastern border, February 9, 2015.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

After the immediate profit he gained from his “Arabs streaming to the polls” speech, the prime minister seems certain he knows everything better than his colleagues, whether allies or opponents. The forging of a 61-MK coalition was a work accident orchestrated by Lieberman. Now it is to be corrected, with Lieberman joining the government and Ya’alon leaving.

But the explanation isn’t just political expedience; it’s also the crisis of confidence between Netanyahu and Ya’alon and the IDF brass in recent months. And as my colleague Yossi Verter has written, Lieberman’s entry reflects Netanyahu’s war against the elites, of which the military high command remains the last target.

There will now be an attempt to reeducate the General Staff, now without Ya’alon, as Bennett is doing to the Education Ministry and the civics teachers, and as Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is trying to do with the state prosecution and the Supreme Court.

Lieberman doesn’t need to smash heads. He can make the officers’ lives miserable slowly but surely. And as always, some people will bow enthusiastically to the new leadership, especially when the temptations are so great (promotions and even the office of the next chief of staff). In only a few weeks we’ll read an article saying that the new minister isn’t what we feared; he’s attentive, original and respects officers.

Still, in replacing Ya’alon with Lieberman, Netanyahu has turned the rudder sharply right. The significance of this move cannot be overestimated.

And it seems nowhere does the rudder need more careful navigation than Gaza, where Israel is two mistakes away from another war with Hamas. Netanyahu and Ya’alon had been treating this well and prevented an escalation even after the recent discovery of two tunnels dug by Hamas into Israel, apparently before the 2014 Gaza war.

Gaza is a powder keg. Statements by Lieberman, who only a month ago threatened to kill Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh are like throwing a match into that keg. We can only hope that from the minister’s office on the 14th floor of the Defense Ministry, things indeed look different.

Gaza will also be a test case because the army’s recommendation was completely different from what Lieberman conveyed. The army says Israel should seek any economic means to relieve Hamas’ distress and reduce the threat of war.

Other sensitive areas regarding the army involve the terror wave in the West Bank. Just two months ago, the chief of staff made clear to ministers that the IDF’s rules of engagement were none of their business. The Palestinian question, in all its aspects, is expected to rise again between this November and January: Netanyahu fears harsh steps by Washington at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency. This might be the political tsunami that Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned about in 2011 and never came.

And there’s another issue, far from the public eye: weekly discussions of operations and urgent telephone consultations in which the prime minister and defense minister approve sensitive operations. Most of these operations are carried out successfully and aren’t even mentioned in the media.

Ya’alon, who was conservative about fielding large forces, tended to take calculated risks in small actions, in coordination with Eisenkot (his predecessor, Benny Gantz, was often even more cautious). It’s possible Lieberman’s entering the picture will change the system of checks and balances.