Opinion

Israel's Defense Minister in Service of Mohammed Dahlan

Israeli Defense Minister Lieberman's contempt for Mahmoud Abbas serves interests of the former Gazan 'strongman' who, backed by major Arab money, is trying to inherit the Palestinian Authority

Former Palestinian Fatah higher-up Mohammed Dahlan speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, January 3, 2011.
AP

There aren’t many positions Avigdor Lieberman holds for any length of time. It’s enough to witness his attitude to the prime minister before and after his appointment as defense minister. On one topic, though, Lieberman never wavers: his hatred of Mahmoud Abbas.

In September 2012, while serving as foreign minister, Lieberman called Abbas “a liar, a coward, a weakling,” predicting that he would be toppled within a year or two. On many opportunities he’s said Abbas is not a partner, that he’s “worse than Arafat,” that his “political terror” is worse than “conventional terror,” leading to Lieberman declaring a “political war” on the Palestinian leader.

When Abbas made the most forthcoming declaration ever made by a Palestinian leader – his willingness to concede his family home in Safed, expressed in an interview with Channel 2 – Lieberman called it interference in Israeli elections. Lieberman even assailed Abbas’ “rotten regime,” calling it a “government of corruption” which prevents any improvement in the Palestinian economy. It’s vital that Abbas goes, he argued, since he heads an all-embracing corrupt regime. Corruption is something Lieberman understands all too well.

What are the chances that relevant considerations lie behind Lieberman’s remarkable consistency? As minister of defense he should be less concerned by the possibility that Abbas will not concede the Palestinian’s right of return and be more focused on the Palestinian Authority’s leader’s performance on security issues. However, this is what former and current prominent figures in the defense establishment have to say: Chief-of-Staff Gadi Eisenkot says on every occasion that Abbas is committed to thwarting terrorism and is doing an excellent job, with at least 60 percent of planned attacks foiled by his forces. The current head of the Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman, says similar things. In June 2016 he appeared before the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, telling it that the Palestinian security apparatus is operating with intensity against Hamas activists in the West Bank.

Thus, on the security front there seems to be a consensus. There is nothing better for Israel’s security that having Abbas as the PA’s chairman. It’s reasonable to assume that whoever steps into his shoes will have to be more extreme with regard to Israel, both as a means of bolstering his standing and because Abbas’s position on security collaboration with Israel is unpopular among Palestinians. So why is the defense minister doing everything possible to weaken Abbas, even calling on one occasion to withhold the transfer of taxes Israel collects for the PA until he leaves his post?

One thing is clear: Lieberman’s attitude serves the interests of Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian who’s trying, with the assistance of big Arab money, to make a comeback. However, Dahlan’s record does not indicate that he’ll be better for Israel than Abbas. It’s also doubtful that Dahlan will adopt more flexible diplomatic positions. With regard to corruption, let’s put this gently: One might say that Lieberman will be able to get along better with him.

More importantly, it’s not clear that Dahlan has much chance of succeeding Abbas. His popular support is not great and his connection to people on the ground relies heavily on buying them out, whereas his potential rivals have been building more solid power bases. Could it be that Lieberman’s support for Dahlan stems from the connection both of them have to Austrian billionaire Martin Schlaff? Channel 1 reported in the past that Schlaff mediated a meeting between the two in September 2015. This strange triangle has been around for years. Up to now the prime minister – who is not inclined to gambling on defense issues – has not put a stop to the public statements of his defense minister. Benjamin Netanyahu probably remembers well that in the game called “determining the leader of a neighboring country,” it’s very difficult to get a favorable result.