To Preserve His Rule, Netanyahu Willing to Stomach Even His Greatest Political Rival

Following his displeasure with Ya'alon's status as the media's darling, the prime minister backtracks on his refusal to appoint Lieberman as the head of the Defense Ministry. His ultimate goal: To diminish and restrain the military brass.

Netanyahu sought a strongman who would make order, call everyone to order and sow fear among the generals.
Michal Fattal

Even from the perspective of Israeli politics, which have always lacked dignity, morality and ethics, Wednesday's events, which began with talk of a regional peace conference headed by Isaac “Bougie” Herzog and ended with a suggestion to appoint neighborhood bully Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister, were among the most insane and unpredictable ever.

The ouster of Moshe Ya’alon could have only one logical explanation: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s growing fear of the imaginary axis of Ya’alon, Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot, Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan and the other senior generals who are all, each in their own way, emitting sane, democratic and moral tones that the Prime Minister’s Office and official residence perceive as threatening, defiant, and a challenge to the rule of the imperial family.

Ya’alon is not a real political threat to Netanyahu; his power in Likud is limited and in any case it’s already been established that the Likud leader in the next election will be the current party chairman. But Ya’alon’s becoming a darling of the media, and the common language between him and the military commanders that defied Netanyahu’s positions were enough to seal his fate.

Netanyahu sought a strongman who would make order, call everyone to order and sow fear among the generals. Until a month ago Netanyahu had stubbornly refused to appoint the greatest of his political enemies and detractors to a position that, more than any other government post, demands responsibility, good judgment, moderation and absolute mutual trust in the working relationship with the prime minister.

Dumping Ya’alon, one of the most impressive and admired defense ministers ever, in favor of Lieberman (“the man who isn’t qualified to be a military analyst,” as Netanyahu put it a few weeks ago), is the ultimate evidence of what Netanyahu really cares about – diminishing and restraining the military brass in an effort to stay in power. To achieve this, all means are justified – risking Israel’s security, spitting in the face of the Egyptian president whose friendship Netanyahu was so proud of, and undermining the relative, fragile quiet in the volatile West Bank by throwing a lit match named Lieberman into it.

Until a day or two ago Netanyahu was explaining to the heads of the coalition parties that he absolutely had to take Herzog into the government as a whitener, a softener, and an advocate in anticipation of those awful days between November 8 and January 20, that no-man’s land between the U.S. elections and the inauguration of the new president. The fear is that U.S. President Barack Obama, free of the need to pander to voters, would initiate a series of diplomatic initiatives that would be catastrophic for Israel.

“Lieberman hates me, he slanders me, he’s a dangerous man, he stops at nothing,” Netanyahu said, to explain the lengthy negotiations he’d been conducting with Herzog. It sounded reasonable, logical and unavoidable. And then, just like that, within hours, it was Bougie out and Evet in.

It was this prime minister, for whom nothing is sacred except staying in power, who Herzog strove tirelessly to join. So long as the door wasn’t slammed in his face, as long as no one was yelling at him, “Get out and stay out!” he didn’t give up. Like someone possessed, like a desperate door-to-door salesman, he banged on the glass outside Netanyahu’s office, trying to collect “accomplishments” that it’s doubtful ever existed.

The press conference Herzog held Wednesday was a model of evading responsibility and blaming his failure on his party opponents, led by Shelly Yacimovich. Herzog claimed it was he who had stopped the negotiations with Netanyahu when the latter refused to put his substantial concessions, particularly on diplomatic issues, in writing. At the same time, he claimed that Yacimovich, with her “vulgar, violent and wanton” attacks on him, would bear responsibility for the appointment of Lieberman as defense minister and for the “war and funerals” that his appointment would bring on Israel.

That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, it appears that the first funeral will be for the Labor Party leader’s collapsing political career. The damage he has caused to his party over the past week is difficult to estimate at this point. It’s rare that a senior political personality, whose moves until now were characterized by wisdom and reason, commits such spectacular hara-kiri. One cannot recall such a resounding disgrace. Did Herzog really think Netanyahu would change his spots and allow him, Bougie, to change the world?