Defense Chief Lieberman Spouts Dangerous Demagogy

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Avigdor Lieberman, head of far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, (L) sits next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they sign a coalition deal to broaden the government's parliamentary majority, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem May 25, 2016.
Avigdor Lieberman, head of far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, (L) sits next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they sign a coalition deal at the Knesset, in Jerusalem May 25, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

A few hours before the Sabbath, the Defense Ministry issued a “statement following President Barack Obama’s remarks on the issue of the nuclear agreement with Iran.” The release, whose very publication was unusual, took issue with Obama’s contention that Israeli defense officials believe the nuclear deal with Iran has improved Mideast security and that the Israeli intelligence community agrees Tehran is meeting the agreement’s conditions.

The Defense Ministry’s statement compared the nuclear agreement to the pre-World War II Munich Agreement and claimed that like that 1938 deal with Hitler, the agreement with Iran will turn out to be a mistake. “The Israeli defense establishment believes that agreements ... have no value if the facts on the ground are opposite to the ones the agreement is based on,” the ministry said.

It’s unclear what was meant by “defense establishment,” a term so general as to be ambiguous. It’s also unclear whether it also includes Israel Defense Forces chief Gadi Eisenkot and planning head Amikam Norkin, who visited the Pentagon last week for talks about U.S. aid to Israel for the coming decade.

Is Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman – who wasn't mentioned in the statement and who six weeks ago reveled in Washington and Texas during the roll-out of the F-35 slated for the Israel Air Force – now “the defense establishment”?

Like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Lieberman likes to bang the drum of the Munich Agreement, which “didn’t prevent World War II and the Holocaust.” But just as there is no substance to the warped connection Netanyahu makes between Israel’s security and the Holocaust, there is no connection between the nuclear agreement and “the unwavering battle that must be waged against terror states like Iran.”

These are demagogic analogies made for the sake of populism that Eisenkot and his officers have never used. Iran’s policies and its support for terror are one thing, the nuclear agreement something else entirely.

So far the facts don’t prove that Iran has cheated, but rather that it is keeping to the agreement because it’s worth doing so. That is an assessment shared by the chief of staff and the intelligence community, and thus the Defense Ministry’s statement following Obama’s remarks exceeds the line taken by Israeli defense officials.

Reflected in the Defense Ministry’s statement is that Lieberman wants to return to people’s minds as an aggressive politician spoiling for a fight. He apparently fears being perceived as too moderate compared to Education Minister Naftali Bennett, right-wing rapper the Shadow and others who are attracting the public’s attention. The problem is that in Lieberman’s current job, this conduct could put Israel’s security at risk.