Analysis

What the Political Meltdown Means for Israel's Security – and Trump's Peace Plan

Lieberman gives Netanyahu another small push toward the edge ■ As distractions mount, the prime minister loses focus on Israel's security needs

Jared Kushner shakes hands with Benjamin Netanyahu at the prime minister's Jerusalem residence, May 30, 2019.
Matty Stern / U.S. Embassy

Even after two years of working with Avigdor Lieberman in his capacity as defense minister, members of the Israel Defense Forces top brass couldn’t figure out his true intentions. For officers of the General Staff, Lieberman remained – as Winston Churchill once said about Soviet Russia – a riddle wrapped in an enigma. The events of this past week forced the General Staff to take a greater interest than usual in the twists and turns of the political arena, and frequent calls to journalists became their main source of information. The generals were apparently impressed with Lieberman’s maneuverability, certainly in comparison to the somewhat clumsy acclimatization to the Knesset of their former commanders in the Kahol Lavan party. But it would be hard to say that the reports from the political battlefield filled them with powerful nostalgia for the person who prevented the establishment of Benjamin Netanyahu’s fifth government – or any great desire to serve under him again.

The insane days leading up to the Knesset’s vote at midnight on Wednesday to dissolve itself are likely to cause long-term damage to Israeli society. Even given the reasonable assumption that Netanyahu will overcome all the obstacles and win again in the September 17 election, he’s liable to find himself facing a situation very similar to that of the last few weeks. If Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party gets enough v netanyahu otes to enter the Knesset next time, too – a likely outcome, as Lieberman’s maneuvers guarantee him at least the sympathy of those who hate the ultra-Orthodox – Netanyahu might again need both him and the Haredi parties to form a stable government. It’s hard to overstate the intensity of the mutual hostility between the two men’s camps after the Knesset’s dissolution. The toxic atmosphere will undoubtedly grow more acute during another election campaign in which the parties will batter one another brutally.

Even if differences of opinion over the bill calling for military conscription of Haredi men are somehow resolved, the virtually nonexistent trust between Netanyahu, Lieberman and the Haredim, each of those pairs separately, will make it difficult for them to remain members of a joint coalition for any length of time. And the utter cynicism that Netanyahu and his minions displayed in their attempts to recruit wayward opposition MKs to the coalition – such as by promising to bring remaining members of Ethiopian Jewry to Israel (made to an MK from that community) and to annul the Nation-State Law (to a Druze MK) – will only heighten the atmosphere of suspicion and skepticism, both between all the parties and between the citizenry and the government.

If anyone was still in doubt, it has now become glaringly obvious that Netanyahu’s central, indeed only, objective is to avoid having to face the consequences of the three sets of indictments that have been prepared, but not yet presented, against him. The coalition the prime minister failed to form this time, and the one he’ll presumably try to form in another three-and-a-half months, will have this same goal, for which all means justify the end.

This is also the reason for Lieberman’s behavior in the past few weeks. Even without doubting his commitment to enact a more egalitarian conscription law, it’s hard to avoid the impression that there’s actually another motivation at work: to give Netanyahu another small push toward the edge and out of the way, thus forcing him to cope with the charges against him without the relative protection afforded by the Prime Minister’s Residence.

Avigdor Lieberman.
Amir Cohen / Reuters

Wasted months

In recent years, Netanyahu has generally succeeded admirably in keeping his political zigzags separate from his security moves. Of course, he exploits certain achievements in the diplomatic-security realm – the operation to locate Hezbollah’s tunnels on the Lebanon border, the return of the body of the missing IDF soldier Zachary Baumel, the transfer of the American Embassy to Jerusalem – for political profit. But only rarely have electoral considerations prompted him to take risks in the military domain. Senior army officers and also security cabinet ministers who are not among Netanyahu’s fans, have praised his ability to stay focused in closed forums, even as he fights a rearguard battle against the police and the state prosecution. But now the situation has become aggravated, due to the limits of both attention and time. In the past few weeks, even strategic discussions relating to the IDF have been shunted off the agenda due to the pressures facing the premier in trying to form a government and stop the countdown to the hearings in the criminal cases.

These circumstances place the new chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who took up his post in January, in a most uncomfortable position. Every chief of staff tries in his first year to formulate and push through new force-building plans and, if the timing works in his favor, to launch a new multiyear program as well. Kochavi, too, hoped to do that, but now looks about to drop the latter idea because of the political developments. Even if the September election helps resolve Israel’s political stalemate, it will be November or December before the next government takes over. From Kochavi’s perspective, a whole year will have been lost, for reasons that have nothing to do with him.

This week, the chief of staff described his plans in a forum of hundreds of senior reserve officers. It was another characteristically impressive presentation by Kochavi. He has a road map and he’s adept at delineating it. But one can only wonder which among all the ambitious ideas will actually come to fruition, given a looming budget crisis, the state’s immense expenses in mounting a superfluous election, and Netanyahu’s total lack of motivation to consider what the IDF needs.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi
David Bachar

Certain disparities exist between Kochavi’s plan and Vision 2030, the future face of the IDF as Netanyahu described it in December. Nonetheless, he and Kochavi won’t have any real opportunity to air or share their views before the formation of the next government.

The political impasse might also scuttle the U.S. peace initiative. Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of U.S. President Donald Trump, arrived in the Middle East on Wednesday to promote the economic summit in Bahrain. Set for the end of June, it is meant to be the first stage of Trump’s “deal of the century.”

Kushner has concentrated on efforts to garner Jordan’s support for the plan and to persuade Palestinian businessmen to attend the Manama event, in the face of vigorous opposition from the Palestinian Authority. Huge sums – $65 billion and perhaps more – are being floated as part of the Trump scheme, money that would originate with the Gulf states and be divided up among the Palestinians, Jordan and Egypt to soften them ahead of the presentation of the plan’s political elements. But now Trump has encountered another unexpected obstacle in the form of Netanyahu’s domestic woes.

It appears that the Palestinians’ sweeping refusal to go along with the deal, given their justified suspicion of the American broker’s evenhandedness, would probably have led to the plan’s demise anyway – moreover, it’s now doubtful whether Netanyahu will be available to push it ahead. Trump will have to reconsider the political-diplomatic timetable. Still, there is one thing that seems quite clear: In the forthcoming election campaign, the U.S. president will do all he can to help his buddy Netanyahu stay in power.

Peaceful coexistence

Avigdor Lieberman’s demand to enact the conscription law in full – in the format that passed its first (of three) votes in the last Knesset – is not unreasonable. In the past few decades, all of the country’s governments, many from the right wing and a few from the left, have shied away from dealing seriously with the wide-ranging social and moral implications of the situation whereby the burden of military service is not shared equally by all parts of society. The authorized evasion of military or civilian national service by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox young men is a source of genuine frustration among their secular peers. The wording of the legislation Netanyahu and the Haredi parties wanted to enact – lacking the threat of economic or criminal sanctions against yeshivas that do not supply a specific quota of students to the army – would have left it a dead letter.

Ultra-Orthodox men protest the IDF conscription bill, in Bnei Brak, 2018.
Moti Milrod

The former defense minister is also drawing on the conclusions of a committee that the defense establishment created at his initiative, which evaluated with ostensible professionalism the number of draftees the IDF needs. In practice, the army admits, the committee first shot the arrow and then drew the target around the spot where it landed. In recent years, the IDF has put forward draft goals that have more or less matched the scope of the number of actual Haredi draftees. The army didn’t even meet that low figure, and in fact only approached it by creative head-counting, by also including in the count newly religious individuals and former students of Haredi-national yeshivas.

If the politicians had ever asked the army for its honest position on the issue, they would have discovered that the commanding officers are getting along just fine with the personnel they now have and don’t feel an urgent need to change things. The 2,700 or so Haredim who are currently being drafted annually serve the IDF’s needs, and do not make it necessary for the army to undertake serious changes that would radically change the overall conditions of service. A substantial increase in the number of Haredim would have budgetary consequences (because of the considerable financial support soldiers with families receive). An influx of them would also impose even greater restrictions on women’s service, given the demands of the Haredi rabbis, and compel the army to compromise on the qualifications of the Haredi draftees.

The IDF is already cutting corners in regard to some of the ultra-Orthodox soldiers, such as by making do with mediocre standards of performance in their Netzah Yehuda battalion and with some of the Haredim in the army’s computer programming courses. Under present conditions, however, the army is coexisting peacefully with the Haredi community and has not been embroiled in many confrontations with it. Widely publicized cases of AWOL Haredi soldiers being arrested occur only when the deserters are out to defy the establishment flagrantly. And both sides are finding advantages in breaking down some of the barriers separating Haredim from other groups in Israeli society. These include the very fact that young ultra-Orthodox men are doing service in uniform and also – however uncomfortable it is to acknowledge – for the first time holding military funerals and memorial ceremonies for fallen soldiers from the Haredi community, as was the case on Memorial Day this year.

No one says so publicly, but the ideal solution for the IDF’s Manpower Directorate would be three-fold: one-third of the 12,000 Haredi men eligible for the draft each year would be conscripted (without fomenting far-reaching changes in the IDF’s character); one-third would do civilian national service; and one-third would continue to pursue religious studies – with the army having first pick in terms of which ones would do military service. The present situation is still a long way from that. That’s because only 22 percent of the draft-eligible Haredim serve in the IDF, and because civilian national service is not supervised seriously and is a very long way from the model envisaged by the legislators.