Netanyahu Is Using Lieberman to Break Israel’s Oldest Elite: The Military

Even if the prime minister doesn't end up making his old ally-rival defense minister, he will have sent a clear message to the Israeli military, to the Likud and to the United States

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Netanyahu and Lieberman in 2013.
Netanyahu and Lieberman in 2013.Credit: Emil Salman
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

No one on the Israeli political scene knows Benjamin Netanyahu better than Avigdor Lieberman. Netanyahu knows that – and that's exactly why he would have preferred Isaac Herzog as his new coalition partner.

Ultimately, however, Netanyahu opted to go with Lieberman after reaching the conclusion that Herzog can barely promise to deliver his own vote in the Knesset and no longer commands the loyalty or obedience of Zionist Union lawmakers. The chairman of the Labor Party has gone – in the space of 14 months – from the great hope, the man who could finally topple Netanyahu, to a leader without a party.

And that leaves Netanyahu with Lieberman – the only man who can offer him a broader, more secure coalition.

More on the Netanyahu-Lieberman pact: To preserve his rule, Bibi willing to stomach his greatest political rival / Yossi Verter | Israelis will pay for Netanyahu's reckless appointment / Haaretz Editorial | Lieberman's first battle as defense minister will be against IDF / Amos Harel | What really happened between Netanyahu and Herzog? / Ari Shavit | With Lieberman, Israelis should head for the bomb shelters / Gideon Levy | Israel now torn between rule of law and rule of ruthless power / Ravit Hecht | How Blair and Sissi tried to push Zionist Union into Netanyahu's coalition / Barak Ravid

Not that Netanyahu trusts Lieberman, of course. Worse still, he fears him. But as far as their interests coincide, he knows that, unlike Herzog, Lieberman can deliver what he promises.

The relationship Netanyahu and Lieberman began on a very different footing. When they first met, Lieberman was a young Likud activist who hitched himself to the rising political star, even serving for a while as unpaid aide.

They had one thing in common: both were outsiders. The Moldovan immigrant, after a decade in Israel still with a heavy Russian accent, and the former ambassador, threatening the Likud “princes” with his American-style campaigning. When Netanyahu was elected leader in the party’s first primaries in 1992, he rewarded Lieberman by putting him in charge of the party apparatus and after a razor-thin victory over Shimon Peres in the 1996 election, the newly elected prime minister promoted Lieberman to director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office. For the next 18 months, Lieberman was his master’s eyes and ears and his hatchet-man within the Likud.

Where did it go wrong? Why did Lieberman resign after a year and a half? When he founded his new Yisrael Beiteinu party, everyone assumed it was meant to be a satellite party of Likud, designed to draw "Russian" votes for Netanyahu.

But it quickly became clear that Lieberman was now his own master. He would deal with his old boss as an equal from now on, or deal with Netanyahu’s rivals, including Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, whose coalitions he joined.

For the last 13 months, Lieberman has sat on the opposition benches, opting not to join the fourth Netanyahu government. And he finally said what he really thinks about Netanyahu: “A prime minister who can’t make decisions.” That was why he left back in 1997, in the middle of Netanyahu’s first term.

They shared the same objectives. They arrived in office together with a nationalist agenda and the burning desire to dismantle the old Israeli elites, just as they had done within Likud. But Lieberman believes that Netanyahu lacked the decisiveness to go all the way, that he was too risk-averse and not sufficiently ruthless.

Lieberman never concealed his goal of joining forces with leaders of other parties, who had also fallen out with Netanyahu, and of ultimately replacing him. But the result of the last election allowed Netanyahu to form a government without him. Just about.

Netanyahu knew, of course, that a coalition with the smallest possible majority leaves him vulnerable to the whims of every backbencher. At the same time, Lieberman – stranded to the right of the government with a tiny number of far-right MKs – found himself marginalized and without any meaningful role. With Herzog failing to deliver, Netanyahu and Lieberman's interests once again coincide. But this goes deeper than just political expediency. Once again, they are facing up to the old Israeli elites. This time, the oldest and most entrenched of them all: the IDF.

The open conflict between Netanyahu and the IDF's General Staff, over questions of morals and values in Israel’s struggle against Palestinian violence, put him on a collision course with Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon who firmly backed his generals. Netanyahu’s plan was to use his new coalition deal with the Zionist Union to put the frank defense minister in his place and to show the senior officers who’s the boss.

In all his governments, Netanyahu clashed with the security establishment. He demanded they change their tune back in the late 1990s, when he wanted them to abandon the Oslo framework. After he came back to power in 2009, they enraged him by opposing his plans to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations. This time, he has no intention of backing down.

Ya'alon may or may not lose his job. The deal with Lieberman could still fall through. But the message is clear: Netanyahu will no longer brook any dissent from the military.

Netanyahu has tried, with varying degrees of success to take on the elites: the media, academia, the judiciary and law enforcement and, in Lieberman’s previous stint in government, the diplomatic corps.

If he goes ahead and appoints Lieberman as defense minister, it will be an attempt to storm the last elitist bastion. It may not happen. It’s not just Lieberman’s past statements on bombing Egypt’s Aswan Dam, beheading Arab “traitors” and toppling the Palestinian Authority. He is not temperamentally suited for a position which requires of him to participate in dozens of long weekly meetings supervising some of Israel’s most sensitive organizations and programs. He’s the kind of politician who even as a minister in the past would disappear for weeks abroad, without keeping in touch with his office.

A defense minister simply cannot switch off the mobile phone. Netanyahu is perfectly aware of the panic levels the prospect of Lieberman as defense minister is causing both in the IDF's central Tel Aviv command center and in foreign capitals. Not least the Pentagon. Maybe that’s all he wants to do: Punish Ya'alon and, for a few days at least, frighten the rogue generals and some skeptical allies. Even if he doesn’t go through with Lieberman’s appointment, he will have shaken the old elite.

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