Repercussions of appointing Lieberman as Israel’s war minister

Alwaght- The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered the post of defense minister to one of the ultrahardline politicians of the Israeli regime Avigdor Lieberman.

The analysts suggest that appointment of Lieberman, a former nightclub bouncer from Moldova, as a defense minister of already-an-aggressive regime could bring Tel Aviv some consequences at home and internationally.

Intensified suppression of the third Palestinian Intifada, increase of settlement building, more European opposition to Tel Aviv’s policies, continuation of Arab-Israeli diplomatic normalization process, possible action against Iran, and dead end in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are seen as the likely repercussions of giving the defense ministry to Lieberman.

The change of Netanyahu government’s defense minister has stirred diversified reactions of Israeli as well as regional analysts. It appears that reasons for resignation of the former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and appointment of Lieberman as new defense minister, with a consideration of the West Asia’s conditions, go beyond the simple rifts between PM Netanyahu and Ya’alon over the way of dealing with the Palestinians’ intifada and the threats the regime is facing. Right after resignation, Ya’alon lashed out at Netanyahu, calling the influence of the hardliners on the Likud Party, the extremism and racism as worrisome. Responding to the criticism, Netanyahu, however, talked about a big goal: “I’m sorry about the decision of “Bogie” Ya’alon. I believe that he needed to stay as a full partner in the leadership of the state in the position of foreign minister,” Netanyahu said, referring to the post Ya’alon was offered instead of defense minister. Netanyahu, added that the cabinet reshuffle was not because of a “confidence crisis” between them, rather, it was urged by a need for expansion of the cabinet and strengthening the Israeli regime in the face of the upcoming “great danger.”

This analysis brings in spotlight the causes and influences of this change in terms of Tel Aviv’s Internal strength, the scenario to contain the Palestinian intifada and international equations.

1. Change of power equations inside the Israeli regime

Netanyahu’s cabinet was formed in May 2015 as a coalition body with participation of Likud, the Jewish Home, Kulanu, Shas and United Torah Judaism with a smallest number of needed seats in the Israeli Knesset. In the Israeli regime’s politics, following Knesset election, which is of unique make-up, the party with largest number of seats is commissioned to form cabinet. Should a party cannot win the majority, it must coalesce with other parties to form government. One of the significant events of the earlier cabinet of Netanyahu was exit of the right-wing Jewish Home party from the coalition formed by the PM. This came while Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu party, in the earlier cabinet has exercised influence in the Israeli politics through taking the post of foreign minister. But now that Lieberman’s party is added to the coalition government, Netanyahu’s cabinet added six seats to its body, reaching 67 out of the 120 seats of the Knesset. In addition to making the government even more right-wing and extremist, the coalition expansion adds to Netanyahu’s power to implement his decisions on the ground.

The text of the agreement between the Likud and the Yisrael Beiteinu parties to start partnership reads that the Jewish people reserved an indispensable right to have a country called “state of Israel” as historical and ethnical land. Should the number of the members of the Knesset present in the coalition government goes beyond 70, perhaps the agreement with Yisrael Beiteinu becomes subject to some changes.

A part of the agreement insists on implementation of a law enacted in July last year on expansion of the Druze and Circassian villages in the Israeli regime from 2016 to 2020 by the Israeli government.

The agreement clearly emphasizes on formation of “Jewish Israel” and continuation of settlement building in the Palestinian territories.

Furthermore, the text shows that Lieberman has set conditions to change the agreement terms with Likud should Netanyahu makes deal with another party. With this, Lieberman aims at blocking Labor Party’s Isaac Herzog, who several times discussed joining the coalition with Netanyahu, from entering the coalition government.

Ya’alon’s resignation does not affect the power of Netanyahu’s cabinet in the Knesset, because Ya’alon himself had got into the legislative body of the Israeli regime through Likud. With resignation from the cabinet as well as the Knesset, Ya’alon paved the way, according the Israeli law, for being replaced with the last winner from Likud election list who failed to get into Knesset due to threshold. Ya’alon’s alternative is an appropriate choice for Netanyahu and the right-wing government. Yehuda Glick, an extremist Zionist and a leader of the Israeli groups which made intrusions into Al-Aqsa Holy Mosque, is set to fill Ya’alon’s Knesset seat.

Last year, Glick survived an assassination attempt.

All in all, the agreement could be viewed as strengthening of Netanyahu’s power in the first year of his government formation. It seems that Netanyahu sees his government’s stability in adopting a more extremist and aggressive approach. One of Lieberman’s notable characteristics is his advocacy of execution of the Palestinians and going ahead with settlement projects, mostly taking place in Palestinian territories. In March, Lieberman had set the condition of building 2000 settlement houses for work with Netanyahu’s government. Additionally, Lieberman believed that the “two-state solution” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts was an idea of the illusionists. The thinking and attitude of Lieberman and his taking the most essential post of Netanyahu’s cabinet is a good trump card in the hands of the PM to shrug off criticism of the opponents.

2. Containing the third intifada and finalizing the decision on how to deal with the Palestinian Authority. 

With spark of third Palestinian intifada, Ya’alon has chosen the increased cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, and taking a security approach as the proper strategy to tackle the third wave of major uprising against the Israeli occupation. Ya’alon repeatedly talked about high levels of collaboration and coordination between the Israeli regime and the Palestinian Authority, believing that with this method and also with launching waves of arrests Tel Aviv could put down the intifada. Such an approach by Ya’alon was slated by some of the Israeli politicians including Gilad Erdan, the minister of Public Security and Strategic Affairs, who believed that the best way to deal with the intifada was showing iron fist to the Palestinians. Moreover, addressing the views of some of politicians and militants who believed that Tel Aviv needed to attack Gaza and remove threats of “Hamas’ tunnels” for the Israeli regime, Ya’alon sent an official request to the Knesset, demanding the legislative body to keep the situation calm and stop provocations that could push Hamas to misunderstand, and spur the resistant Palestinian factions in Gaza to take preemptive actions.

Another controversial move of the former defense minister was supporting legal and normal process of prosecution of an Israeli soldier who killed a wounded young Palestinian. Reacting to the remarks of the IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan who condemned the killing and compared it to the Holocaust, Netanyahu said that Golan’s words were insulting, totally wrong and unacceptable.

But the remarks and ideas of the new Israeli defense minister Lieberman lay bare his obvious difference with his predecessor in dealing with the Palestinians and the intifada. During the past two years, Avigdor Lieberman repeatedly called for Hamas leaders’ assassination, assaulting Gaza, cutting off relations with Mahmoud Abbas and toughening responses to the Palestinians. Some analysts and media have called Lieberman appointment as defense minister as start of a new round of efforts to choke off the intifada and a return of terror high on the agenda of Tel Aviv’s policy and action.

A couple of months before start of third intifada, Lieberman had called for removal of Mahmoud Abbas from power as he believed that the president of the Palestinian Authority “acts like an enemy and he is not a good peace partner.” Earlier, in January 2015, the chairman of Foreign Policy and Security at Knesset, in an interview with Radio Israel, had revealed a secret meeting of Lieberman and Mohammed Dahlan, a major rival to Abbas. Although briefly later the office of former foreign minister denied any clandestine meeting with Abbas, the Israeli media over and over suggested that Dahlan was close to Avigdor Lieberman.

Also, the London-based Middle East Eye website last week reported that the UAE, Egypt and Jordan agreed to replace Mahmoud Abbas with Mahmoud Dahlan with a coordination with Tel Aviv. The website concluded that the agreement was an outcome of a meeting in Paris between Lieberman and Dahlan. So, it appears that the level of cooperation, the methods and attitudes of Israeli security forces as well as the Palestinian Authority are cases that from now on deserve close watch and their changes need in-depth analysis.

The behavior and remarks of Avigdor Lieberman during his tenure as a foreign minister show that his appointment as a defense minister while he has no security and military backgrounds is seen as a strategic shift by Netanyahu and ushering in changes in the Israeli command centers.

3. The international equations and change of Israeli defense minister

– Iran: a major enemy to the Israeli regime

Ya’alon and Lieberman have an idea in common: Tel Aviv needs designing strategy while taking Tehran as the Israeli regime’s major opponent. Ya’alon’s view appears obviously in his rejection of remarks of Gadi Eizenkot, the Israeli Chief General of Staff. In August 2015 the Israeli IDF Strategy document went public. Known as Eizenkot’s doctrine- and also Dahiya doctrine-, the document takes its name from its publisher General Eizenkot. In the doctrine, the Israeli general introduces the Islamist organizations like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Hamas and ISIS as the major enemies of Tel Aviv, adding that next level threat came from the classic armies of “hostile countries” like Iran. At the end of the document, Eizenkot sees the major challenge of the Israeli regime as posed by Islamist groups that are “linked to no state.”

In Eizenkot’s viewpoint, Iran is shifting from direct nuclear threat to increase of proxy wars through supporting Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinians of the West Bank. The major enemies of Tel Aviv, are the non-governmental groups, and the Israeli regime needs to amend its regional policy, according to Eizenkot’s doctrine. These remarks of Eizenkot were met with Ya’alon’s reactions. In an annual meeting of the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, the topic of which was “21st Century Challenges”, Ya’alon noted that Tehran was major enemy for Tel Aviv, adding that Hezbollah was Iran’s proxy and it was capable of declaring war on Tel Aviv. Reacting to part of Eizenkot’s speech in which he said that the Islamist groups were Tel Aviv’s top enemies, Ya’alon asserted that “I prefer ISIS to Iran on our borders.”

Moshe Ya’alon is a major advocate of close Arab-Israeli relations to confront Iran. Ya’alon and Turki al-Faisal, a famous and wealthy Saudi politician, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference held in February 2016 shook hands in front of the cameras. Ya’alon was the first Israeli politician to openly shake hands with the Saudis.

At the Munich Security Conference Ya’alon, interestingly, said that “we do have channels to speak with our Sunni Arab neighboring countries. Not Just Egypt and Jordan- (Persian) Gulf states, North African states.” He added that for them Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood were enemies. Ya’alon continued that Tehran was problematic for the Sunni regimes and the Tel Aviv.

“We may not shake hands publically but we can talk in closed rooms,” he noted.

Ya’alon’s successor is in accord with him on Tel Aviv’s anti-Iranian regional policy. When was a foreign minister, Lieberman for the first time in June 2015 officially noted that the Israeli regime and Arab countries held discussions. In an interview with the Israeli Yedioth Ahronoth daily, Lieberman had said that “for the first time there is an understanding that the real threat is not Israel, the Jews or Zionism. It is Iran, global jihadism, Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda.”

“I’m certain that by 2019 we will have a situation in which we have full diplomatic relations with most of moderate Arab states, and you can count on my word,” he continued.

These Lieberman’s remarks show that his strategy in the universal scenario of Tel Aviv is to normalize diplomatic ties with Arab countries and bolster the anti-Tehran Israeli-Arab camp. Therefore, appointment of Lieberman as defense minister comes due to his close relations with the Arabs and his will to have security and military cooperation with them against Iran and the resistant groups, and launching possible attacks on Gaza and Lebanon with an Arab backing.

Peace negotiations and international relations

In June 2015, the former French foreign minister Laurent Fabius officially gave a proposal which was largely known by the media as Paris Initiative to solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Jean-Marc Ayrault, the incumbent French foreign minister in a press conference in early April reiterated the Paris proposal, noting that the base of the French initiative was the Arab peace plan of 2002. Following the reiteration of Paris initiative, the office of Netanyahu released a statement, officially rejecting the French peace proposal. Beside rejection, Netanyahu said that Tel Aviv was ready to restart peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority immediately and without preconditions, continuing that the best way to end conflict with the Palestinians was direct mutual negotiations. Netanyahu also said that other political initiatives rather than direct talks only distanced the Palestinians from the negotiating table. Appointment of Avigdor Lieberman, who opposes the international peace initiatives and dialogue with Mahmoud Abbas, according to the analysts, is Netanyahu’s practical move against the pro-dialogue countries, and the two-state solution.

Lieberman earlier talked about the need to annex some of the Israeli settlements like Gosch Atsion- built in the Palestinian territory- to the Israeli lands. Giving the post of defense minister to Lieberman, who himself lives out of settlements of 1967 Israeli borders, means that Netanyahu’s conflict will go on with boycott measures introduced by the EU against the goods produced in these settlements. Responding to the EU’s condemnation of Israeli settlement construction in “Area C”-located in West Bank-, Lieberman in his Facebook page posted that Catherine Ashton- then-High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy- did not understand the global issues. He continued that in a time that there were more important issues like Ukraine, Syria and Iraq conflicts, Ashton should had not given out such a statement on the Israeli settlement.

It seems that more radical Netanyahu cabinet, and further tendency to settlement construction, annexation of Area C in West Bank to the occupied territories and stronger opposition to the two-state solution would further chill Tel Aviv’s relations with the EU and some of the US politicians.

Finally, offering the post of defense minister to Netanyahu is not an outcome of Ya’alon-Netanyahu rift, and it could bring forth large-scale repercussions. Internally, adding six seats of Lieberman’s party to the government of Netanyahu- securing 67 out of 120 seats- would mean more right-wing, more extremist government, as it empowers the Israeli PM to implement his decisions more strongly. This coalition making comes while such opposition figures as Isaac Hertzog, some analysts, and columnist of leftist Israeli newspapers like Haaretz for months have bet on breakup of Netanyahu’s government.

Return of Lieberman with the new post of defense minister indicates that Netanyahu managed to remove the challenges ahead. However, on the other side, some believe that the appointment is a prelude to new challenges Netanyahu is going to grapple with due to his possible upcoming decisions.

By Alwaght