Earlier today, it was reported that Avigdor Lieberman, the head of Israel’s right wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, has agreed to join the government of Benjamin Netanyahu in the post of Defense Minister. This is a concerning development for a number of reasons.
The agreement between Lieberman and Netanyahu comes in the wake of Netanyahu’s negotiations to bring the Zionist Union into the government, during which Netanyahu made a point of refusing to offer the Defense portfolio to ZU Chairman Isaac Herzog. While it might seem that Netanyahu turned to Lieberman only because he was unable to come to satisfactory terms with Herzog, Labor Party MK Stav Shaffir is likely correct in observing that “It is now clear that Bibi used (Herzog) in order to bring Lieberman into the government.” That is, Herzog was used as bait.
But the real context for the decision to move Lieberman into the Defense Ministry is the need to replace Likud Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Ya’alon and Netanyahu have been at loggerheads in recent weeks. The disagreements have centered on two specific events.
The first was the widely publicized video of an Israeli soldier shooting and killing a Palestinian who was already laying on the ground, subdued and semi-conscious. Ya’alon had made it clear that this was a serious violation of Israel Defense Forces rules of engagement. At first, Netanyahu agreed, but after being slammed by right-wing critics, and public support for the soldier swelled, he changed his position.
More recently, Netanyahu strongly criticized the Deputy Chief of Staff, Yair Golan, for a speech he made on Holocaust Memorial Day expressing concern about the growing “intolerance and violence” within Israeli society. Ya’alon explicitly pushed back on Netanyahu’s criticism of Golan, insisting that such statements, even if unpopular, are within the purview of IDF leaders.
Netanyahu has long had an uneasy relationship with the Israeli military and intelligence. He views the military as a tool of the government, and its duty is to enact and support the policies the government decides upon. The military, on the other hand, sees itself as having a key role in deciding Israel’s security needs, and has, throughout Israeli’s history, held an esteemed position in Israeli society not only as protectors but, whether one thinks it justified or not, as a symbol of Israeli ethics and morality.
As Aluf Benn, editor of Ha’aretz put it, “The IDF is still the most popular body in Israel, and over the past few weeks its leaders have made clear that they do not intend to be the military arm of the Beitar soccer club’s extremist fans, La Familia, or of the right wing singer the Shadow.”
But that is exactly what Avigdor Lieberman is going to want to turn them into. Indeed, Labor MK Erel Margalit stated it clearly: “Netanyahu decapitated the defense minister on live TV, and the gangs have triumphed over democracy. This is a day of celebration for extremists, La Familia and the hilltop youth, and at this rate Elor Azaria (the soldier who shot the subdued Palestinian terrorist referenced above) will be appointed deputy defense minister by Bibi.”
It is precisely this difference that led Netanyahu to replace Ya’alon with Lieberman. Where Ya’alon fought for what he saw as the independence and integrity of the military, Lieberman’s views line up perfectly with the Israeli political right’s.
During recent conflicts with Hamas, Lieberman was at the forefront of stirring up internal tensions. He called for boycotts of businesses owned by Palestinian citizens of Israel, and has accused Israeli human rights groups of supporting Hezbollah and other militant groups. As a 2014 editorial in Ha’aretz put it, “This incitement, which rolls from the top echelons of the Israeli government down into society, eventually evolves into the physical violence that has become commonplace at demonstrations, when right-wing activists attack those protesting government policy while shouting ‘Death to Arabs,’ and ‘Death to leftists.’”
Moshe Ya’alon is a committed member of the Likud and the Israeli right. One should not forget that only recently, he stirred controversy and engaged in incitement himself when he called the human rights/IDF veterans’ group Breaking the Silence “traitors” for publishing testimonies of IDF soldiers about their experiences in combat and in the occupation (a charge he later withdrew).
But Lieberman is a different breed. This is a man who advocates a loyalty oath for non-Jewish citizens of Israel, wishes to excise towns populated by Palestinian citizens of Israel, and whose statements have often been seen as encouraging attacks on Arabs and leftists in Israel. He is someone who has a warm relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and a difficult one with much of the United States government.
If anyone envisioned Isaac Herzog joining the government and making it easier for the European Union and the United States to work with Israel, Lieberman’s appointment brings the opposite result. Israel is now led by a trio of right-wingers in Netanyahu, Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, each more radical than the last. The opposition, such as it is, is now weakened even further by Herzog’s failed attempt to join the government, a move opposed by most of his own party.
Many observers have voiced concern about the decline of Israel’s democracy under Netanyahu. We have now seen another significant setback with Lieberman’s appointment as Defense Minister. Perhaps the one hope, if any is to be found, is that the opposition may now find new leadership which might start to regain the ground liberal Israelis have lost.