Two Years on the Job, Israel's Defense Minister Lacks Knowledge, Training and Influence

Since his appointment, Lieberman is seen as a calm and restrained minister. But officials speak of disputes with the IDF and all-round dysfunction: 'He's almost transparent in the cabinet,' one senior political source says

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IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the Defense Ministry's headquarters in Tel Aviv, May 2018.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the Defense Ministry's headquarters in Tel Aviv, May 2018.Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

On the morning of Tuesday, March 13, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman was at the Home Front Command's situation room, along with military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, the command's chief. The three were closely following a drill to test how prepared the Home Front is for emergencies.

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This was already a tense morning, but especially so for the defense minister. There were rumors at the time that Netanyahu was planning to call early elections, and just a night earlier a poll showed that Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beiteinu, would drop to only four seats in the Knesset – even less than the practically non-existent party of Orly Levy-Abekasis, formerly a member of Lieberman's party.

The threat of elections has since passed, but after two years on the job, Lieberman is finding it hard to claim any achievement that could be translated into votes in the elections to come. Even during the past week, achievements by the defense establishment are being credited to the man who appointed him, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Only two years ago, however, it seemed that things were different. When Lieberman replaced Moshe Ya'alon as defense minister, he had the hawkish image of a politician tough on security matters. He suggested bombing Egypt's Aswan Dam, told former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to "go to hell" and made a vow that still haunts him: to "eliminate" Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh within 48 hours if the bodies of Israeli soldiers held in Gaza would not be returned.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, February 2018.Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

But as defense minister, Lieberman is showing restraint, accepting almost in full the Israel Defense Forces' moderate approach, and is in no rush to go on military adventures behind enemy lines. Defense and political sources give the downing of an Israeli F-16 by Syrian air defenses in February as an example for a situation in which Lieberman chose the more moderate of the options for response that were presented to him.

Some say that Lieberman, a veteran politician, is aware that one knows how war starts, but not how it ends. Others say that his lack of military and security experience is so great, he doesn’t have a choice but to agree with the military’s moderate line. However, he still wishes to leave a mark.

Lieberman, who wants a pet project of his own, seeks to establish a new “missile corps.” His vision, according to a February report in Yedioth Ahronoth, is of a force consisting of mid-range ballistic missiles with a range of up to 300 kilometers that would cost 500 million shekels ($140 million). The new force is slated to become operational in two years.

But Lieberman’s idea is not really his, and not really new. In 1996, Maj. Gen. Israel Tal introduced the idea to Netanyahu during his first term in office, and it has been brought up a number of times since. But there’s a reason why it wasn’t advanced: The defense establishement opposes it. It’s unclear if Israel would require such a force in case a violent conflict breaks out, and some prefer spending the budget allocated to it on other, more urgent needs.

“I don’t see a need for the establishment of a missile corps,” army chief Gadi Eisenkot told Haaretz in an interview a few months ago. “The IDF today is in possession of an impressive missile array through the air force, the navy and the ground corps. The IDF has one of the most advanced missile capacities in the world, one that no other military in the region has.”

Eisenkot addressed the issue after it came up a few times in the media as well as in cabinet meetings, and was resolute in his stance. “No one is talking about setting up a missile corps at this stage,” he said. A discussion on the matter in not off the table, though – quite the opposite in fact. “It’s important and not everyone is opposed to the plan,” says a senior security source who is well versed in the topic. But according to the official, the discussions that Lieberman leads on the subject are superficial. It’s obvious to everyone that he’s trying to leave his post with at least one achievement. He’s looking for something that will be named after him. There is no serious discussion about whether such a corps would change the IDF’s perception of wartime operations.”

Another source familiar with discussions on the matter told Haaretz that this would be an expansive system that would go unused, and the cost alone of maintaining it would burden the army. “It could be that Lieberman wholeheartedly believes in this project,” he added, “but you can’t ignore his motives and the speed at which he is trying to achieve something so significant.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman visits the Israel Defense Force's Gaza Division, May 2018.Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

Always late

This is not the first time that Lieberman faces claims about failing to discuss issues in depth. Political and security sources tend to note that conversations with the defense minister are brief and superficial, and some have called him “lazy.” According to them, he would leave mid-discussion, show up late, appear to be unfamiliar with details and “never as a defense minister does he lead the most sensitive discussions.”

One senior political source says Lieberman “is almost transparent in the cabinet. Even to an unusual extent.” Another source says that when the defense minister does participate in discussions, “Lieberman often refers to topics such as different military arenas or ammunition, while army personnel stand there embarrassed as they are forced to contradict him or explain what he really means.”

A source familiar with affairs at the Defense Ministry says that when Lieberman entered his post, his predecessor Ya’alon suggested they put their personal disagreements aside so he could show Lieberman the ropes. “There was one meeting between them that lasted an hour and a half to two hours,” the source recollects. “Nothing much was said in that talk. How much can you learn about the Defense Ministry in an hour and a half, especially when it comes from someone who doesn’t have a background in security.”

Lieberman’s associates claim that another hour-long meeting took place after that, but the source says that “even if there was another, longer meeting – and I doubt that there was – it would still be less than the time invested in training a waitress for the job.”

The upcoming war

All this did not hold Lieberman back from stating in the cabinet in an almost methodical manner – even on his first days on the job – that he can see war breaking out within the upcoming year. He did it “without any intelligence assessment attesting to that,” a senior political source says. “It’s clear to everyone that this is the first tip he got when he started the job in order to prepare him for an investigative committee should he ever have to face one. Lieberman knows that it’s always good to have protocols that show he sounded a warning.”

Then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon visits the the IDF's Gaza Division along with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, March, 2017.Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

In one cabinet meeting, Eisenkot was requested to comment on such assessments by the defense minister. “The army is always preparing for a situation when a war could break out, this is the IDF’s working assumption at any given moment,” the chief of staff said, but added: “We don’t see that any of our enemies are particularly interested in setting out on a war.”

Asides from the embarrassment members of the security establishment seem to feel when Lieberman speaks at cabinet discussions, the defense minister also causes embarrassment with his public statements. Such was the case last month after Palestinian journalist Yaser Murtaja was shot to death in Gaza. Lieberman accused Murtaja at the time of operating a drone, but according to the army, no such aircraft was activated on that day. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit chose to refrain from commenting on the subject.

Six months earlier a different incident took place; the defense minister claimed that the Israeli side of the Golan Heights was fired at following the instruction of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nassrallah and was not a result of errant fire spilling into Israeli territory from the fighting in Syria. The security establishment, however, struggled to corroborate this statement.

But it doesn’t stop there. There was also Lieberman’s attempt to prevent Palestinians from participating in a joint Israeli-Palestinian memorial day ceremony over the reasoning that they are actually terrorists; Lieberman’s decision to recommend to grant Hebron shooter Elor Azaria clemency – in opposition to the positions of the chief of staff and the military prosecution – and the ban on Israeli poet and singer Yehonatan Geffen to go on Army Radio over the artist’s political statements and other statements he made that embarrassed the security establishment.

One of the most famous examples of Lieberman’s controversial statements was given last February, when it was published that Eisenkot warned of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza that could draw Israel into a confrontation with the Palestinians. Here, too, Lieberman made sure to present his side and claimed to the media the next morning that “the situation in Gaza is difficult, but there’s no humanitarian crisis.” Figures in the security establishment claim that the defense minister also forbade the military to use the term “humanitarian crisis” when referring to Gaza in interviews and in statements to the press.

Not the adult in charge

The division between Lieberman and the security establishment runs still deeper than that. Security and political sources who partake in sensitive forums claim that when it comes to delicate issues, the person perceived as the adult in charge is the prime minister and not the defense minister. “Bibi leads the discussions even on topics that Lieberman is responsible for and Bibi is also the one to claim the responsibility,” a senior political source claims.

Such was the case when a fighter jet was downed in March. A seemingly unusual image was detected at the situation room in the IDF headquarters: Netanyahu, the commander of the air force and the army chief were all seen sitting at the front of the table, and the defense minister was situated all the way over at the back. He was a minor partner in the management and decision making surrounding the affair. “He was sitting quietly most of the time,” a person familiar with the details revealed.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the inauguration of a new museum, May 17, 2018.Credit: Defense Ministry's Spokesman

A former senior defense official says that it is not necessarily unusual for the prime minister to claim the responsibility in such cases. “But in [Ehud] Barak or [Moshe] Ya’alon’s case it was hard not to hear them making their assessment, their case was heard. In Lieberman’s case, you can’t ignore the fact that Bibi is also the de facto defense minister.”

Further proof of that was given in the beginning of May when Netanyahu revealed materials Israel had gathered on Iran’s nuclear program. Lieberman returned from a tour in the U.S. that day, and when he disembarked from the plane at Ben-Gurion International Airport he rushed to his home – not to the cabinet or discussions with heads of the security establishment. In the security establishment, however, it is said that talks assessing the situation at the time were held over the phone, and only later did they happen face to face.

One way or another, it seems that even if Lieberman is trying to convey that it’s business as usual, he is aware of the problematic situation he is. “He understands well that votes aren’t going to come from decisions he made while functioning as the defense minister,” a political source says. “Netanyahu won’t let him take the credit.”

Nonetheless, Lieberman is still trying to make the most of the senior job he wanted so badly. He also tends to consult with former senior officers, among them major generals. One such adviser told Haaretz that despite Lieberman’s lack of previous knowledge, he succeeds in bringing an added value to the security establishment. “He learns quickly and he has this line that he leads,” the ex-officer explains. “Don’t forget that Lieberman understands the Russians. This is an immense advantage that is being used; he knows how to talk to Putin, he gets the environment.”

But even on this topic, things are more complicated than they seem. Despite the fact that Lieberman confers with the Russian defense minister and other officials, he isn’t perceived by Netanyahu as the senior authority representing the country in Moscow. His official point of contact for such needs is Environmental Protection Minister Ze'ev Elkin. Elkin joined almost all of Netanyahu’s trips to Russia for meetings with Vladimir Putin and was present during phone calls between Jerusalem and Moscow.

The defense minister’s office responded: “We are distressed by this political, tendentious and desperate attempt to create a misrepresentation that has no bearing in reality. The results speak for themselves, day after day and hour by hour, primarily as a result of the cooperation between the defense minister, the chief of staff and the IDF’s top brass. Israel’s defense policy continues to be strong, determined and responsible, even if it does not fit in with the political viewpoint of one person or another.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit stated that “among senior members of the IDF there is a professional and open relationship that enables the army to carry out the multiple tasks that the security establishment is facing, in the best way possible. Actions, results and plans that are being carried out one after the other, that is the most important thing. We suggest not to let half-statements by people with interests replace practicality with gossip. The results in all fields of work speak for themselves.”

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