Lieberman's Ego Is Writing Checks Israel May Not Be Able to Cash

The Israeli defense minister's comments about the inevitability of another war with Hamas, one that would ultimately spell its demise, may perforce influence the behavior of those subordinate to him and other senior policy makers.

Israel Shrenzel
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Israeli soldiers walk by foot near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip as they return from the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave, Aug. 4, 2014.Credit: AFP
Israel Shrenzel

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman made two far-reaching statements last week about . One was that, although Israel is not seeking a “war of choice ... the next confrontation with Hamas is inevitable.” The second: “It will be the last confrontation with Hamas.”

It’s possible, of course, that these comments were intended primarily to offset the impression Lieberman made in voicing various assertions when still in the opposition – for example, his call to give a “48-hour ultimatum to Ismail Haniyeh” – or perhaps to deter Hamas. But that does not repair the damage. It’s crucial to make this clear at the start of his tenure in the Defense Ministry. Indeed, one hopes that he realizes that the effect of what he said as a member of the opposition is very different from the impact of statements made from the lofty heights of his new post.

I hope, too, that the remark about the inevitability of another war is solely a product of the minister’s imagination and is not based on army or Shin Bet security service assessments. It’s clear that those organizations have to prepare themselves for a scenario of a confrontation that is liable to erupt at any moment, and they are certainly doing that. But they also understand very well that an event that is contingent on the behavior and decisions of human beings cannot be “inevitable.” When someone from the highest echelons declares that, from his point of view, a certain event of great importance is in fact unavoidable – it almost perforce influences the behavior of the analysts, planners and operative units that are subordinate to those echelons. It is essential for them, and certainly for the political actors involved, to be aware of the substantive distinction between a probable or even very likely scenario, and an “inevitable” development.

The military needs to instruct the minister and his team in these basic truths.

Even on the assumption (which is quite far-reaching) that Hamas’ behavior alone will determine whether a confrontation will erupt, Israel still has available means of deterrence and other measures (of the carrot-and-stick type) that might influence the Islamist organization that is in charge in the Gaza Strip, and dissuade it from initiating a wide-ranging conflict. The best course is to analyze the factors that have brought about the current relative quiet and to examine whether ways exist to encourage Hamas to continue with this behavior, and see what Israel can do in this regard.

More problematic still is Lieberman’s second assertion – a public commitment to Hamas, to the world and, no less important, to Israel’s citizens – that the next confrontation will end with the eradication of Hamas. To begin with, this contradicts Israel’s management of previous confrontations with Hamas; indeed, Israel had good reasons not to declare that this was the objective of any of the three military operations that took place in the period of 2008-2014.

Has a strategic shift of this kind been discussed by and agreed upon by the security cabinet and the prime minister? I think not. Yet, now it follows that every future confrontation that does not end in the manner promised by the defense minister will be considered a major achievement for Hamas.

Furthermore, and even more important: Not a word has been said to the public about the price Israel would have to pay if the goal of any future campaign is indeed the destruction of Hamas. That price will be paid in the lives of soldiers and civilians; in the establishment, at least temporarily, of a military regime and a “civil administration” in the Strip, with the formidable costs this will entail and the possibility of a guerrilla war (in Lebanon it lasted 18 years, and even after the Israeli withdrawal, we were swept hastily and unprepared into the Second Lebanon War); and, according to the approach of the present government, in the rebuttal of the claim that a peace process is untenable as long as a significant segment of the Palestinian people is under Hamas rule.

Hamas’ survival is certainly an anomaly, given that most of the relevant actors (the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Egypt, the United States and so forth) are hostile to the organization and in principle would apparently be happy to see its leaders and its government “drown in the sea of Gaza.” Diabolically, however, the movement has been with us since 1987 and has ruled the Strip since 2007, and there are no signs of a widespread uprising of the population against it. Nor has any significant policy maker as yet decided on a course of boots on the ground in Gaza.

In any event, the defense minister and other senior figures would do well to adopt the approach of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (who was no less “right-wing” than the present government). Shamir kept bombast to a minimum and generally made do with saying that Israel would act in the place, time and manner of its choosing. He thought, for example, that even the firing of missiles from Iraq at population centers in Israel did not make a broader clash with that country “inevitable,” and from today’s perspective he was absolutely right.

There’s a saying that Minister Lieberman knows in its Russian original: “Don’t say ‘hop’ before you jump” – to which we can add: especially when you are the defense minister of Israel.

Israel Shrenzel has served as a researcher and analyst in Military Intelligence and in the Shin Bet security service.

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