Netanyahu, the New Voice of Restraint in the Israeli Government?

Security remains Netanyahu's chief electoral asset, the one that has kept him in office election after election. And right now especially sensitive leadership is needed, because Israel faces sensitive situations on several fronts.

Avigdor Lieberman, head of far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, (L) sits next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they sign a coalition deal to broaden the government's parliamentary majority, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem May 25, 2016.
Emil Salman

The fight over expanding the coalition and appointing Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister had narrowed by the end of the week to a single issue: The demand by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, chairman of the Habayit Hayehudi party, to upgrade the status of the diplomatic-security cabinet. This time Bennett’s demand had nothing to do with portfolios or budgets; it was based on weighty considerations of principle. But the unstated message was clear: Strengthening the diplomatic-security cabinet was essential to counterbalance a controversial appointment to the second most important post in the government.

Statements made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the same aim, even if he didn’t say so explicitly. Speaking to his Likud party’s Knesset faction on Monday, he noted that the defense minister doesn’t make decisions by himself. And when the coalition agreement with Lieberman was signed on Wednesday, Netanyahu similarly stressed that defense issues will be managed in partnership with the heads of the security services.

Lieberman himself hinted at these concerns when he joked that he underwent “an operation to lengthen my short fuse.”

Netanyahu knows how to divest ministers he distrusts of some of their powers. During his last government, for instance, even though Lieberman was foreign minister, he focused on eastern Europe and Africa while other ministries largely handled relations with western Europe.

In the Defense Ministry, once of the most sensitive issues is deciding whether to approve military operations, many of them secret. Under former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, the venue for making such decisions was the minister’s office in Tel Aviv. It will soon become clear whether Netanyahu intends to tighten his control over this process by holding additional discussions in his office in Jerusalem.

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, in an interview broadcast posthumously by Channel 2 television, mocked Netanyahu’s hesitancy about approving military operations. Under the current circumstances, that hesitancy might be a good thing.

Netanyahu backtracked on a decision to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and has generally dealt carefully and responsibly with the unstable Syrian and Lebanese fronts. Similarly, during the two operations he waged in the Gaza Strip, in 2012 and 2014, he refrained from escalating to large-scale, dangerous maneuvers.

Since October, a wave of Palestinian terror attacks has spurred coalition members to make far-reaching proposals for collective punishment, including mass demolitions of the homes of terrorists’ families, closures on parts or all of the West Bank, and barring Palestinians from working in Israel. But Ya’alon and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot were always there to restrain Netanyahu.

Now, the prime minister is switching hats: Instead of the one being restrained, he will be the one doing the restraining. He has no choice. Security remains Netanyahu’s chief electoral asset, the one that has kept him in office election after election, despite repeated scandals over his financial conduct (most recently this week’s state comptroller’s report about the way he financed overseas trips as finance minister in 2003-05). And right now especially sensitive leadership is needed, because Israel faces sensitive situations on several fronts, from the northern border to Gaza.

Given the international community’s concern about his appointment, and the fact that he will need to move to the center in any future prime ministerial race, it seems Lieberman, too, has an interest in following relatively moderate policies as defense minister. But if not, Netanyahu has essentially promised to restrain him: Ya’alon is gone, but I remain the responsible adult, he implied. What remains to be seen is how all this stands up to the test of reality.

Not everyone thinks restraint on defense issues is enough. This week, ministers, jurists and current and former defense officials showed unusual interest in questions of good government and ethics; most of the issues were covered in a list of 29 questions posed to Lieberman in an article by Haaretz correspondent Gidi Weitz. Nevertheless, there has been little public follow-up of these questions. Former defense officials are reluctant to anger the Defense Ministry’s current tenant; there’s always a chance of getting some appointment or making a profit off some defense deal.

Unsurprisingly, the one exception was Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Or, who chairs the public council of Ometz, an NGO concerned with public-sector ethics. Or and Ometz’s acting director, Maozya Segal, wrote to Netanyahu on Wednesday that Lieberman’s appointment could undermine both national security and “public trust in the authorities,” given Lieberman’s “dubious past” and his appointment to a ministry that controls vast budgets and sensitive defense deals that are largely hidden from the public eye. The letter won’t do much good, but perhaps it will interest some future commission of inquiry.

The person who talked explicitly about inquiry commissions this week was Bennett, basing himself in part on a draft state comptroller’s report that harshly criticized the functioning of the diplomatic-security cabinet. Bennett used this report, along with Lieberman’s entry into the coalition, to raise demands that Netanyahu rejected more than a year ago: appointing an IDF colonel as the panel’s military secretary and giving its members better access to information.

Both are good ideas. But they may also reflect skepticism about Lieberman’s appointment – which Bennett lacked the political power to prevent – and a desire to compensate for it by bolstering the diplomatic-security cabinet.

That body isn’t the only weak reed; the draft comptroller’s report also lambastes the marginal impact of the National Security Council. The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is a paper tiger as well. Thus currently, none of them can serve as a counterweight to the dominance of Netanyahu and the IDF.

Anyone seeking a silver lining in the current situation might find it the fact that Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant (Kulanu) is being upgraded from observer to full member of the diplomatic-security cabinet. The lack of experienced security figures on the panel forced Netanyahu to promote the former major general, who has recently adopted a moderate stance and supported the IDF against political attacks despite a longstanding feud with Eisenkot. Netanyahu as the voice of restraint? Galant defending Eiskenot? Truly, we live in interesting times.