Israel's Lieberman, a Playground Bully, Becomes Star Pupil in Washington

The new defense minister made all the right noises when the Israeli F-35 was unveiled in Texas this week. Is this a new Lieberman, or will normal service soon be resumed?

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the rollout of the Israeli F-35 fighter plane, at Fort Worth, Texas, June 22, 2016.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the rollout of the Israeli F-35 fighter plane, at Fort Worth, Texas, June 22, 2016.Credit: Beth Steel/Lockheed Martin
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

“Where the West begins,” boasts the municipal slogan of Fort Worth, Texas. During World War II, the dusty ranchers’ town became a defense center, hosting one of the largest airplane manufactories in the world alongside an air force base, and it’s now home to Lockheed Martin, Boeing’s main rival.

Like Elbit and Israel Aerospace Industries in Israel, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are in a battle of life and death. Anyone who invests in Boeing’s upgraded F-15 won’t give his money – or more accurately, America’s money – to Lockheed. But with its new F-35, known in Israel as the Adir, Lockheed has conquered most of the Israeli market. Boeing’s response: a deal to sell passenger planes to Iran.

On Wednesday, Lockheed rolled out the first Israeli F-35. It was like an engagement party, with the wedding set to take place in December at the Nevatim air base in the Negev. Nevatim is one of three bases (the others being Ramon and Uvda) that the Americans built in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai and its airports. This is also an important lesson for the new student in class – Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Nokdim.

The excuse for gathering the 400 guests was the Adir’s rollout. Like a Cadillac in a showroom for luxury cars, it was to be looked at but not yet taken.

As of a month ago, the highest-ranking Israeli guest was supposed to be Moshe Ya’alon. But an accident befell him en route to Texas, and his ministerial chair is now happily occupied by Lieberman.

Lieberman came to Fort Worth from Washington, thrilled by his meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Carter is everything Lieberman isn’t: a defense professional with a quarter-century’s worth of experience at The Pentagon. Should Hillary Clinton win November’s presidential election, she will probably keep him on. So it pays to establish good relations with him.

Diplomatic restraint

In the background hovered the crisis over the memorandum of understanding on a new U.S. military aid package for the next decade – a crisis created by the chutzpah of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who insists on increasing the total and converting part of it from dollars to shekels. From Netanyahu’s demands, one might assume that 3 or 4 billion dollars a year were promised to Israel in America’s Declaration of Independence, if not at Mount Sinai.

In reality, this practice began – first as a loan, then as a grant – as emergency aid during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In exchange for Israel’s salvation, and the subsequent rebuilding and strengthening of the Israel Defense Forces, prime ministers Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin exercised diplomatic restraint. Thus, two separation of forces agreements were signed in Sinai, marking the path of withdrawal for peace.

Later, U.S. President Jimmy Carter bought Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s obedience (aided by pressure from Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizman and Yigael Yadin – the defense experts in his government) by promising a multiyear aid package. Shekels to buy uniforms made in Beit She’an, at the expense of one-fourth of the dollars allocated for buying planes in Texas, were considered essential to reduce unemployment in Israel and stabilize its government.

When Begin broke the rules and used F-16s to attack Iraq’s nuclear reactor, President Ronald Reagan briefly suspended delivery of the planes – a milder version of the military embargo imposed by French President Charles de Gaulle in 1967 after Israel disobeyed his orders.

On Wednesday, Lockheed’s executive vice president, Orlando Carvalho, praised the 1981 raid on Iraq, with the F-16 a product of his company. What he didn’t say – though it was hinted at by Brig. Gen. Tal Kalman, chief of staff of the Israel Air Force – is that the Adir can do much more with much less. Thirty-five years ago, Israel needed eight F-16s to attack Iraq’s reactor, escorted by six F-15s to shoot down Iraqi planes. But both jobs could be done now by just two F-35s. And two instead of 14 means only one-seventh the risk to the pilots.

The military aid deal that expires in 2018, signed by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, reflected goodwill generated by the Israeli right’s submissiveness – former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s acquiescence to Bush’s support in principle for establishing a Palestinian state, the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the Annapolis peace talks. Without movement toward peace, there’s no military aid.

Another issue is nuclear restraint. The sale of McDonnell Douglas Phantom jets to Israel under presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon was conditioned on downplaying Israel’s nuclear program. That fact hasn’t changed in nearly 50 years.

When aiming its magnifying glass at Israel, Washington examines not just capabilities, but intentions. Those intentions are determined by the prime minister, defense minister and key military officials – the chief of staff, commander of the air force and head of Military Intelligence.

In this context, like others, Lieberman’s starting point is problematic. Had they taken his boasts seriously, sirens would be sounding from Washington to Fort Worth. Thus, his goal during his meeting with Carter was to demonstrate good behavior. He’s no longer acting in subversive plays in fringe theaters; an almost starring role on Broadway requires different, more restrained behavior.

Taken captive

Ever since the Six-Day War, most of Lieberman’s predecessors have come from the top ranks of the Israel Defense Forces, Defense Ministry and defense industries, and most continued to represent the defense establishment in the cabinet. Lieberman claims to come from the ranks of civilian politicians who impose their policies on the military. But in just a few weeks, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, he’s been taken captive.

He strives to be more military than Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. He praises his predecessor, Ya’alon, and broadcasts continuity. For instance, he always supports the soldiers. When the soldier is Elor Azaria, currently on trial for fatally shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant, he shows up in court. And when it’s Azaria’s commander, Tom Na’aman, now under attack on social media for testifying against Azaria, he mutters agreement with Eisenkot’s words of support.

It takes a very strong character not to melt at the emotional flattery the Americans lavish on their customers. It’s nothing personal – Lieberman easily replaced Ya’alon. Until he browbeat Netanyahu into giving him the Defense Ministry, Lieberman sought to prove that nobody was stronger than him, especially not the wimpy Netanyahu. And what better backdrop than an F-35? But everything he worked to build was destroyed in a few days of being a good boy in Washington, lavishing praise on President Barack Obama and his administration.

Nevertheless, that was pocket change compared to the big money of decisions on peace. America won’t finance occupation and rejectionism forever.

Lieberman likes to attribute his self-imposed restraint to an operation to remove his short fuse. Perhaps this novel operation succeeded, but the anesthesiologists miscalculated their dosage. When he finally wakes up, we’ll see if he also had a character transplant.

This week, he said he won’t try to contest the professional opinions of those in uniform. He meant army officers – not the police officers he frequently used to meet in interrogation rooms, and from whom he has now ostensibly parted.

The road from the Jerusalem courthouse where he was acquitted to Fort Worth is a long one. But it’s not necessarily a one-way street.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: