On November 22, 2012, one day after Israel signed a ceasefire agreement that concluded Operation Pillar of Defense — an eight-day campaign that involved no boots on the ground — Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman hailed the government’s judgment. “We know how to make decisions that serve our national interest,” he said. “Strength is not only to strike, but also to exercise restraint.”
While he emphasized that Israel’s mission to stop terror from Gaza, which consisted exclusively of airstrikes, was “over but not completed” and that an extensive ground operation remained on the horizon, he fervently justified voting in favor of the ceasefire. He argued that the operation’s immediate goals were achieved — restoring quiet in the south, rehabilitating Israeli deterrent capabilities and destroying Hamas’s long-range Fajr rockets — and said that not all the deliberations that led to the cabinet’s decision could be made public, especially not then, a few weeks before the Knesset elections.
On January 22, 2013, Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party ran on a joint list with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. On Monday, Liberman dismantled that alliance, citing differences in opinion between him and Netanyahu over Israel’s response to ongoing rocket fire from Gaza.
But in divorcing Likud, Liberman likely had his eyes on political machinations rather than military ones. By calling for a harsher response on Gaza, the foreign minister was able to score points with right-wing voters while also finding a convenient exit strategy from a partnership that had outlived its usefulness.
The breakup of the Likud-Beytenu alliance came as no great surprise. Netanyahu had been sparring verbally with Liberman (and other right-wingers in the coalition) for days over his reluctance to launch an extensive campaign to rein in Hamas in Gaza.
“Experience proves that at such times we must act responsibly and with equanimity, not hastily,” the prime minister said Sunday in what sounded like a rebuke of ministers demanding more severe measures — including Liberman, who had called for a widespread ground operation to topple the terrorist group ruling the Strip.
Liberman’s move will likely have little effect outside Jerusalem, let alone improving the chances of the ground invasion and the reoccupation of Gaza he has called for.
“Liberman took this step only to pressure Netanyahu,” said Ephraim Sneh, a retired general and former minister for the Labor Party. “This is all part of their political rivalry. It’s just a political maneuver; it has no additional significance.”
Indeed, many observers see the foreign minister’s split from Likud as a cynical effort to score points with right-wing voters at an inopportune time. “Liberman’s political move at the height of Israel’s diplomatic and security entanglement is unfortunate,” opined Chico Menashe, chief diplomatic commentator at Israel Radio. “He could have waited, even if this would have reduced the political gain.”
At this moment it remains unclear whether Netanyahu will let himself be pressured into launching a wider operation in Gaza. The incessant hail of rockets, most of which reach beyond Israel’s periphery and some of which have targeted Beersheba, might leave him no other chance to but act more forcefully than he had hoped.
But it is clear to most Israeli leaders and analysts — including Liberman — that reoccupying Gaza, an operation that even the foreign minister admits would take at least half a year and cost many lives, is not really an option.
Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief and now head of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, routinely asks the audience during his speeches who is in favor of Israeli troops controlling Gaza again. No one ever raises a hand.
Liberman doesn’t wish to take control over the Strip, either, but saw in the increased tensions a chance to end the bond with Likud, which was no longer convenient for his political aspirations. When he forged the alliance with Netanyahu in October 2012, Liberman had hoped to eventually inherit the prime minister’s office at the helm of country’s largest right-wing party.
Since subsequently realizing this would be impossible — there is just too much resistance from within the party — he has been looking for a way out of the partnership.
Being number two in a joint faction in some ways restrained Liberman from being his usual hawkish self. (To be sure, the foreign minister rarely hesitated to contradict the prime minister or freely speak his mind on controversial issues. But in certain cases, for example in January when he praised John Kerry for his peacemaking efforts, he clearly seemed to be appealing to a more centrist audience.)
Calling for a strong military operation to restore calm in the south now allows the newly freed Liberman to court right-wing voters distraught by the kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli teens on June 12.
The Israeli government might eventually decide to launch a large-scale operation in Gaza, even sending infantry and tanks to the Strip, regardless of Liberman’s move. After all, Yisrael Beytenu is not the only element in the government calling for such a response. Even some Likud hardliners have gone on record demanding a new war against Hamas. If it does, “Liberman will take the opportunity to portray himself as the one who pushed for such a move,” said Avraham Diskin, a veteran political scientist at Hebrew University.
On the other hand, it is also possible that Israel will continue to avoid having boots on the ground and restrict its reprisal measures to airstrikes. In that case, Liberman will argue that he dissolved his alliance with Likud because he really disagrees with this policy, Diskin added.
“Every scenario is possible. But they are not linked in any way to the relationship between Yisrael Beytenu and Likud.”