Analysis

Pushing for War on Hamas, Israeli Defense Chief Fails to Rally Security Cabinet

Despite constant talk about an early election, Avigdor Lieberman can’t seem to establish himself as a security expert

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, right, with Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir near Gaza, April 2018.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The lonely guy at the top is Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has been hopping from one interview to another to explain how little influence he has in the security cabinet. At a meeting of his party MKs in the Knesset this week, Lieberman said it was time for a "war of no choice” in the Gaza Strip. He suggested pummeling Hamas to ensure four or five years of calm in Gaza.

This is a shift in Lieberman’s position; until recently he shared the containment approach of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israel Defense Forces. Lieberman says he changed his mind two weeks ago during the weekend when Hamas led especially violent demonstrations at the Gaza border, just after Israel had agreed to allow more fuel into the Strip for Gaza’s power station. Lieberman says this persuaded him of the futility of indirect talks with Hamas.

Following those events, Lieberman ordered a halt to fuel supplies into Gaza – not just the fuel financed by Qatar, but the fuel regularly sent from Israel. As far as is known, this move wasn’t fully coordinated with Israeli defense officials.

Some of the people Lieberman consulted didn’t realize he was talking about completely cutting off the fuel supply, and maybe Netanyahu wasn’t in the picture at the time. Members of the security cabinet were surprised by the decision, which they criticized; IDF officers warned that cutting off the fuel supply would trigger a countdown to war because soon Gaza would have no power.

At the security cabinet meeting of October 17, which was postponed for a few hours until IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot returned from a visit to the United States, ministers told Lieberman he should have consulted them. “We authorize every attack by the IDF in the Strip, and here we had no idea that steps were being taken that could lead to war,” one minister said.

With a general election due sometime over the next year, the ministers are concerned about the public’s growing anger at the fires on the Israeli side of the border caused by the Gazans’ airborne firebombs, as well as the grenades and explosives thrown during demonstrations. When Lieberman repeated his demand to strike a harsh blow at Gaza, Minister Yisrael Katz warned him that this would lead to an extensive ground operation with many casualties in the heart of Gaza.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Interior Minister Arye Dery urged caution and restraint. Education Minister Naftali Bennett returned from a private visit to Kibbutz Kerem Shalom and the nearby border crossing with his own conclusions. Bennett, in a switch, said there was no point imposing economic sanctions on the people of Gaza. Instead, he recommended that the army take harsher measures to prevent attempts to cross the border fence.

In the end, under pressure from Netanyahu, Lieberman lifted his restrictions on fuel supplies to Gaza – first from Israel and then from Qatar – as the violence on the border ebbed. In the middle of the week, Israel quietly doubled the fishing area permitted to Gazans, restoring it to six miles. All this was done at Netanyahu’s request, even though the Palestinians were still sending over incendiary balloons.

Children drinking from plastic bottles filled with water drawn from a cistern in Khan Yunis, south Gaza, October 24, 2018.
Thomas Coex / AFP

The relationship between Netanyahu and Lieberman is showing increasing signs of tension after two and half years of relative harmony. Some ministers have criticized the IDF’s moves along the fence. They’ve questioned the decision to reduce operations in the narrow strip west of the fence inside Palestinian territory. Some ministers believe that the IDF can even assassinate Hamas notables without being dragged into a war.

To Lieberman’s dismay, the debate hasn’t moved beyond slogans such as “a war of no choice,” and he has failed to muster support for his position. Perhaps even worse for him, he hasn’t established a reputation as an authority on defense – and he may pay for this in the next general election.

Oh those committees of inquiry

In a recent security cabinet meeting, the ministers briefly discussed the criticism by IDF Ombudsman Yitzhak Brik in his report on the army’s preparedness for war. The ministers were glad to find that Eisenkot was being more conciliatory toward the ombudsman.

Eisenkot said he had ordered the top brass to investigate the army’s preparedness for war; this probe would be done under the direction of the IDF comptroller, Brig. Gen. (res.) Ilan Harari. It appears that Brik, who first demanded an outside committee of inquiry headed by a judge, will cooperate with the investigation.

Eisenkot has appointed two new members to the team, Prof. Asher Tishler and Maj. Gen. (res.) Doron Almog. The latter, however, is known as a person who doesn’t accept dictates from above.

Almog had been appointed by Chief of Staff Dan Halutz to probe the performance of the Galilee Division in the Second Lebanon War. It ended with pushing for the resignation of Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, amid the Almog committee’s harsh criticism of the division’s performance in the war and especially regarding the abduction of reserve soldiers, a cause of the war.

People suspect that Almog knowingly created a chain reaction whose results he foresaw. Hirsch’s resignation led to increasing public pressure and indirectly to Halutz’s resignation less than two months later. The difference between the two chiefs of staff’s performance is immense – in Eisenkot’s favor. But still, anyone who adds Almog to a committee of inquiry is knowingly exposing himself to the risk of unexpected conclusions.