Which Avigdor Lieberman Will Enter Israel's Defense Ministry?

The designated defense minister will find it harder to go to the mat with the generals and berate them as a bunch of weaklings the way he did with Foreign Ministry staff.

AFP

The ceremony marking the changeover at the Foreign Ministry from Tzipi Livni to Avigdor Lieberman as its minister, on April 1, 2009, was unforgettable for quite a few Israeli diplomats. In his speech at the event, Lieberman made clear that from his point of view the Annapolis process, which had become Livni’s legacy, was a dead letter. To emphasize the seriousness of his intentions, Lieberman quoted the Roman writer Vegetius: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

It is safe to assume that at the changeover ceremony with Moshe Ya’alon next week at the foot of the towers of the Defense Ministry and the General Staff at the Kirya in Tel Aviv, Lieberman will not repeat that quote. Such texts quoted by a foreign minister generate international headlines, but when the man who utters them is defense minister of the strongest military power in the Middle East, the result could be a ratcheting up of readiness in neighboring countries or a drop in some of the world’s stock exchanges.

The big question surrounding Lieberman’s entry into the Defense Ministry is which Lieberman it will be. Will it be Lieberman of 2009, his first term as foreign minister, or Lieberman of 2013, after his return for a second term? Will it be the same minister who ranged between media provocations and aggressive rabble-rousing, who got a cold shoulder from many Western countries and had tense relations with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or will it be the minister who conducted himself in a more cautious and calculated manner, acting to reduce tensions with the U.S. administration and trying to reach a breakthrough with the Gulf States?

This question is important in light of the fact that as defense minister Lieberman will wield even greater influence over some of Israel’s most significant international relationships and almost sole responsibility for sensitive diplomatic issues now at the center of international attention, first and foremost the Palestinian issue.

In recent years, including when he was foreign minister, Lieberman presented extremely hawkish positions toward the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and toward Hamas in Gaza. Now he will have much greater power to implement his ideas. If his statements over the past few years are translated into action, in his first weeks in office he will have to stop security and civilian cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, renew targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip and approve massive construction in the West Bank settlement blocs.

But Lieberman’s experience in the Foreign Ministry has taught him that following Israel’s international situation, he will apparently not be able to do those things.

Security relations with the United States are another key issue that will be Lieberman’s responsibility. In his first term as foreign minister, Lieberman was a kind of persona non grata in Washington. Part of this attitude he deserved, but another part stemmed from a serious mistake on the part of Hillary Clinton, who did not understand the advantage of building a good relationship with Lieberman, who at the time headed a party with 15 Knesset seats. In his second term as foreign minister, Lieberman’s ties with the U.S. administration were better. Secretary of State John Kerry treated him with respect that Lieberman responded in kind.

One of the first issues on Lieberman’s desk will be the foundering talks with the United States on security assistance. In recent months Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken the entire matter into his own hands and Ya’alon has hardly been able to influence progress on it, even if he had wanted to. Lieberman has not concealed his displeasure over the way Netanyahu is conducting himself vis a vis the Obama administration in recent years. Senior IDF officers and Defense Ministry officials who are worried about the status of the talks can use Lieberman’s political clout in the government to push Netanyahu to finally close the deal for the security assistance with the White House.

One diplomatic issue that could be compromised by Lieberman’s entry to the Defense Ministry is reconciliation with Turkey.  As far back as 2009, Lieberman led a hawkish line toward Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey and was one of the strongest opponents to reconciliation with Turkey.  For a time in 2011 he agreed to lift his opposition to reconciliation but over the past few years he has opposed any concession to the Turks. Ya’alon also objected to reconciliation with Turkey, but his relatively weak political position did not allow him to veto the process, which is very close to completion. Lieberman’s opposition to the reconciliation plan will be the same as a veto.

One of Lieberman’s hallmarks in his first term as foreign minister was his tense relations with Israeli diplomats. He talked down to them and berated them more than once, publicly as well, for not responding aggressively enough internationally. He tried to move officials who did not toe his line and rejected most of the recommendations that were made to him by ministry officials. The spirit he tried to instill in the Foreign Ministry frequently caused serious diplomatic incidents, such as the affair of the Turkish ambassador and the low chair. In his second term he was more conciliatory and worked in greater harmony with ministry officials.

Lieberman is one of the most intelligent people in Israeli politics. He understands full well that his conduct toward the chief of staff and IDF generals will be under a public and media magnifying glass. Quite a few people who know him believe that he has learned from his mistakes at the start of his road in the Foreign Ministry and will not repeat them in the Defense Ministry. On the other hand, quite a few others fear that he has learned nothing and will continue to be what as he has always been.

If the Lieberman who comes into the Defense Ministry is the Lieberman of the first term in the Foreign Ministry, his first meetings with the General Staff will probably be very tense and full of power struggles and leadership exercises. Lieberman will find it harder to go to the mat with the generals and berate them as a bunch of weaklings the way he did the Foreign Ministry people. But senior IDF officers might find themselves in a situation in which the gap between their recommendations and the decisions the minster makes are much greater it was in Ya’alon’s time.