Lieberman's Arrival at Defense Ministry Is Black Day for Israel

The appointment of a onetime bouncer at a Jerusalem bar is not what the country needs, but it may reflect where we stand.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Newly-appointed Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman walks at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, ahead of his swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem, Monday, May 30, 2016.
Newly-appointed Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman walks at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, ahead of his swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem, Monday, May 30, 2016. Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

The metal stands that were left in the courtyard of the Defense Ministry after the farewell ceremony for former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon will finally be occupied again, more than a week later, for the ceremony marking Avigdor Lieberman’s entry into office. “Defense Minister Lieberman” is a phrase that the mind refuses to accept. It’s a black day for Israel, a day on which flags should fly at half-mast on all Israel Defense Forces bases.

This is not only because of Lieberman’s record of behavior. Until now, the accepted order of things was that one became defense minister first, and only later a criminal suspect. But Lieberman has been butting heads with the law for more than 20 years, ever since the Gesher Ha’aliyah case that began in 1992.

This case witnessed two miracles that science has trouble explaining: Lieberman’s used car was sold to Gesher Ha’aliyah, a nonprofit organization he headed, for a higher sum than a newer car would normally fetch; and the ink that was supposed to prove that a new document had been forged to make it look old was completely used up – leaving no ink at all on the document – when it was checked by an expert (a Russian, as it happens). The small amount of money and time that had passed led the prosecution to concede to Lieberman, leaving him free to follow the big money and infinite time.

Lieberman will be a defense minister whose case was closed for lack of evidence rather than lack of guilt – like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Amedi case in 2000 (when the premier was accused of accepting $50,000-worth of free services from a contractor). The rule in the Israel Police is that a criminal case closed for lack of evidence remains on file for seven years. Lieberman ought to have such a record as a memento of a more recent case involving shell companies, unless someone in the police’s top ranks hastened to cleanse the new rulers.

This has happened before, albeit in the Shin Bet security service – according to the testimony of the service’s onetime deputy director, Reuven Hazak. In his book “My Way,” Hazak described how Avraham Ahituv, who headed the Shin Bet from 1974 to 1980, destroyed the agency’s files on Menachem Begin and his colleagues after Begin’s Likud won power for the first time. “On the night of that historic upheaval, in May 1977, Ahituv and another senior official went into the agency’s archive and destroyed files all night,” Hazak wrote. Ahituv, who had been appointed by former Prime Minister Golda Meir, was retained as Shin Bet chief.

Today, in the computer age, when authorization is required and copies are kept on several terminals, repeating this trick would be harder. The solution is not to open cases at all, or not to end them with a recommendation to indict.

Lieberman, who in previous governments controlled the Public Security Ministry (which controls the police) via party colleague Yitzhak Aharonovitch, wasn’t able to achieve that. Aharonovitch and former Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino were careful to avoid trouble.

But the chances of politicians being able to suppress investigations against themselves – or their wives – actually increased when the ministry moved from Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu to Netanyahu’s Likud.

The police commissioner imported from the Shin Bet, Roni Alsheich – who this week vainly ordered the police’s investigations and intelligence unit to conceal its recommendation to indict Sara Netanyahu – may soon separate Lahav 433 (the department’s principal investigative unit) from the department and subordinate it directly to himself. The pretext: The department builds force; Lahav applies it. The truth: The same organization can both build and apply, like the IDF and Military Intelligence, unless there are extraneous motives (or ministers).

Alsheich’s Sara maneuver cost him the public’s trust, which he claims is essential for police work. Though he is working for Netanyahu, not Lieberman, the aim is similar. For Netanyahu, ostensibly a graduate of the U.S. school of elite colleges and standards of excellence, all ministerial appointments are made without regard to suitability. The only consideration is the benefit – not to the state or the organization, but solely to Netanyahu. After all, he can’t claim that Lieberman is the best candidate for the defense portfolio, or even the best of the political candidates.

Lieberman’s aspiration to break an imaginary glass ceiling is ridiculous. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union have already commanded branches of the IDF (former naval commander Alex Tal) and intelligence agencies (Yaakov Kedmi, former head of Nativ). The Knesset speaker, whose status is officially second only to the president and who replaces the president if the latter is incapacitated, is Yuli Edelstein. Natan Sharansky, the first cabinet minister from the wave of Soviet immigrants, now heads the Jewish Agency. The objection isn’t to Russian, Ukrainian or Moldovan immigrants – only to Lieberman.

Lieberman’s appointment isn’t unacceptable because of Ya’alon or any of the other former senior IDF officers-turned-defense ministers. Former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, as defense minister during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and former Maj. Gen. Ariel Sharon, as defense minister during the 1982 Lebanon war, badly damaged the security halo previously enjoyed by General Staff veterans. The problem isn’t that Lieberman isn’t Ya’alon; it’s that he’s Lieberman.

A soldier looking upward along his chain of command must know – and feel – he’s in the best possible hands that the state can provide, from his direct commanders through the chief of staff to the highest ranks of government. He must know he isn’t cannon fodder for the politicians’ games of advancement and survival. But if Netanyahu and Lieberman can’t provide this feeling, they aren’t the only ones to blame. Every cabinet member who approved Lieberman’s appointment is party to this moral disaster, as are the Knesset members who voted for it.

It’s not true that this is democracy, that this is what the people decided. By that logic, for every Israeli who voted for Lieberman as defense minister, two Israelis voted for Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh as prime minister.

It’s a black day for Israeli society, a day of flags at half-mast. A day when the Defense Ministry was conquered by someone who was a student union pub bouncer in Jerusalem in the early 1980s. And perhaps that’s fitting. For what is Israel if not a loud, frightening tavern that needs a macho guy to impose order on it, bar the gates to outsiders and kick out those already inside?

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