Defensive Maneuvers

Benjamin Netanyahu has already served more years as prime minister of the Jewish State than any of his predecessors, including David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding premier. Bibi’s survival instincts have served him well throughout his long public career and this week, he appears to have weathered another major challenge.

Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party-led coalition has been operating with a razor-thin, one-vote majority in the 120-member Knesset. Trying to fortify the coalition’s position, he has tried to lure several opposition parties to his side of the aisle. There was even talk of discussions with the left-center Zionist Union, which to date have not borne fruit.

One outcome of his chess game, however, was to name the highly controversial Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister.  As leader of the Yisrael Beitenu Party, Lieberman brings his five Knesset seats to the majority, raising Netanyahu’s coalition from 61 to 66 members. And Monday, after a unanimous vote by the Cabinet, the Knesset approved the move by a vote of 55-43.

To get to the final outcome, Bibi had to broker a deal with Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, who was threatening to leave the coalition absent an agreement on creating a better intelligence linkage between the military and Cabinet leaders. Bennett was successful in requiring Netanyahu to create an attaché position that would assist in providing real-time information exchanges to protect soldiers and enhance security. 

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That deal paved the way for the approval of Lieberman, who served two previous terms as foreign minister in Israel, and whose rhetoric has often been white hot. Typical is a quote referenced by Isabel Kershner in last Thursday’s New York Times. Lieberman had said that if he were defense minister he would give Ismail Haniya, Hamas’ leader in Gaza, 48 hours to return captured Israeli civilians and the bodies of Israeli soldiers held by Hamas. “Either you return the bodies and the civilians or you are dead. From my point of view, simply reserve yourself a plot in the nearest cemetery.”

Not too statesmanlike, no matter if many share his underlying sentiment. Diplomacy requires a deft touch, and in working with the head of the Foreign Ministry — also Netanyahu, who has chosen in this coalition to keep that portfolio for himself — Lieberman is one of the two key voices representing Israel’s official positions on relations with the outside world.

Many believe that those positions have drifted even further to the right on significant matters, including Palestinian negotiations, settlements and more. The outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, at a press conference announcing his resignation, said of those calling the shots in the government: “To my great sorrow, they have taken over Israel, and the Likud movement, dangerous and extremist elements, that upend the house and threaten it. This is not the Likud movement that I joined.” Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens expressed a similar sentiment.

Others don’t see the change as quite that significant. For instance, the conservative journalist Caroline Glick, deputy managing editor of the Jerusalem Post, told Australia’s SBS that “Lieberman’s decision to join the government doesn’t have any significance outside the narrow confines of domestic political wranglings…The only reason that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has governed with a narrow 61-seat majority since last year is because of personal clashes with Avigdor Lieberman.”

We agree with Ya’alon that the change, no matter how far or little to the right Lieberman takes the government, is not helpful to the cause of peace. That’s because time and again, when opening his mouth in public, Lieberman projects the wrong temperament for someone who must navigate through tricky waters to effect positive change. As Jewish Journal senior political editor Shmuel Rosner writes, “Surely, Lieberman has the manner of a bully, and the language of a bully.”

Rosner is not convinced Lieberman is substantively disconnected to the need for compromise, however. “Lieberman is also the politician who agrees to support a two state solution with land swaps (notably and controversially — swaps that include Arab-Israeli population). He is also the politician who said that he’d be willing to evacuate his home in Nokdim – a settlement – for a final status agreement with the Palestinians.”

Lieberman is greatly experienced at the national level, and some of his public statements have indeed supported negotiation and compromise. But his rhetoric is a very mixed bag, and because of his brash and intemperate demeanor, Lieberman is an easy target for not only those on the Palestinian side, but for other nations looking to portray Israel as the obstinate obstacle to peace. That’s why we think Netanyahu could have done better by making efforts to retain the relatively capable Ya’alon, and we don’t see Bibi’s coalition-building efforts as worth the cost of a volatile and unpredictable defense minister.