The job of Israeli defense minister — in a country all too often drawn into conflict, in a country that requires its young men and women to serve in its army — holds immense significance and sensitivity. The burden of defending this country is complex and ever-shifting. The dilemmas — practical and moral — over how best to protect Israel are acute. The defense minister, helming a hierarchy potentially sending young Israelis to their deaths, carries an extraordinary degree of responsibility, second only to that of the prime minister.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entrusted that position, that burden, that responsibility, to a politician who has relished staking out non-sensitive positions. A politician who shoots from the lip.
A politician who, just weeks ago, chose to show solidarity with a soldier charged with manslaughter in the death of a disarmed Palestinian assailant — even as the army’s leading generals were seeking to emphasize the imperative for soldiers to maintain Israel’s guiding moral standards.
A politician who has called for the ouster of Mahmoud Abbas, even as Netanyahu has been trying to assure the international community of his desire to enter negotiations with the Palestinian Authority president.
A politician who, even as the last war against Hamas was at its height in the summer of 2014, and even as he sat in the intimate cabinet forum stewarding the Israeli military response, publicly castigated Netanyahu and his own government for its ostensibly inept conduct. Who after the war ridiculed the prime minister under whom he had served as paranoid and ineffectual. Who derided Netanyahu in an interview with this writer last year as being incapable of facing down Hamas, incapable of tackling the threat posed by Iran, incapable of defending the country.
A first question that must be asked, therefore, is: Why? Why is Netanyahu choosing to bring, to this most crucial and sensitive of positions, a man who plainly has no respect for him, cannot be trusted to support him in public, will alienate a not-insignificant proportion of international supporters of Israel, will exacerbate tensions in parts of the Arab world, and who will render at least some Israeli parents considerably more wary when the day comes for their children to be enlisted?
Why do so when the current defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, sees the complexities of the Palestinian conflict much as Netanyahu does, has shown no hesitation in confronting the international community when he believes it is misjudging Israel’s challenges, is respected by the IDF’s top command, stood side-by-side with Netanyahu to grapple with numerous rounds of conflict and surges in terrorism, and shares Netanyahu’s demonstrable reluctance to get embroiled in lengthy military misadventures?
There are plenty of answers. But it is hard to see them as sufficient. For those who dislike Liberman and regard him as dangerous, of course, no answer would be sufficient. But even for Netanyahu, the calculation seems flawed.
First and foremost in Netanyahu’s thinking is the fact that he holds a 61-strong coalition in the 120-seat Knesset, and that’s a lousy way to have to govern. Whether or not he really would have preferred Isaac Herzog’s dysfunctional party to join him, the fact is that the Zionist Union leader has little support from his own MKs, was driving a hard bargain, and is reviled by Netanyahu’s right-wing constituency. Liberman, by contrast — in one of the reversals that are his hallmark — suddenly pronounced himself ready and available, to the delight of much of the rest of the current coalition.
Netanyahu thus widens his government, keeps his right flank happy, and humiliates Herzog.
And if he had come to regard Ya’alon as a potential political threat, as overly emphatic in his championing of the military ethos, as an irritating stickler, then sidelining the current defense minister constitutes an added bonus.
But that brings us to a second question: How is this bombshell appointment likely to pan out?
Domestically, in the short term, Netanyahu could conceivably feel rather pleased with himself. He may be spared the humiliation of legislative defeats, and may have rendered himself less vulnerable to political extortion from within that narrowest of coalitions. He has plunged the main opposition party into a frenzy of bitter recrimination and public ridicule. He may relish having the tough-talking Liberman at his side. He may try to persuade the international community that he had no room for maneuver and portray himself as the relatively moderate, responsible figure who can still be relied upon to prevent any overly radical lurches to the right, be it on settlements, the use of force, controversial legislation and more.
But it is also easy to envisage that the Obama administration, with whom Netanyahu has had such a difficult relationship, will take an extremely dim view of this unexpected new coalition constellation, and may henceforth prove more inclined to help the French along with their international peace conference idea, or more flexible on the matter of Palestinian-prompted efforts at the UN Security Council.
It is hard to believe that Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi, who only this week was hailing potential peace opportunities and may have believed he would soon be dealing with foreign minister Herzog, will be joyfully contemplating the arrival of defense minister Liberman. Much the same could be said of the Saudis, who just days ago, remarkably, sent Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud to share a public forum in Washington, DC, with Netanyahu’s ex-national security adviser Yaakov Amidror.
And even if one subscribes to the notion that all of Netanyahu’s key calculations ultimately reduce to a desire to maintain his own prime ministership, this revived partnership would appear to be a recipe for renewed disappointment and grief. For if Netanyahu was irritated by Ya’alon’s unstated prime ministerial aspirations, Liberman emphatically seeks the top spot. He attempted to plot that course by allying his Yisrael Beytenu with the Likud before the penultimate elections, and was stymied. Now, though his political weight was much reduced in last year’s elections, he is being invited to take the job — defense minister — that he sees as an essential staging post on the route to the premiership.
Whatever grandiose professions of friendship, trust and cooperation are made in the next few days, therefore, there is no reason to believe that this latest iteration of the on-off Netanyahu-Liberman alliance, which began almost 30 years ago, will end any differently than its predecessors: in bitter separation.
The final question, though, is how much damage will be done in the interim.