AnalysisIn record time, he okayed tenders for 6,363 settlement homes

Avigdor Liberman: The settler defense minister who couldn’t please the settlers

Despite advancing more tenders for homes beyond the Green Line than any predecessor in the same time span, the Yisrael Beytenu head found himself cast as an unappreciated outsider

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman visits the construction site of the new West Bank settlement of Amichai on October 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman visits the construction site of the new West Bank settlement of Amichai on October 18, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

During his 28 months on the 14th floor of the IDF’s Tel Aviv headquarters, Avigdor Liberman signed off on tenders for 6,363 settlement homes — the most by any defense minister during such a time span.

Prior to such construction approvals, Liberman’s office regularly sent out press releases boasting of the minister’s contributions to Israeli presence beyond the Green Line. “Strengthening Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria with deeds, not words,” the statements would frequently conclude.

The unabashedly right-wing Liberman is also a settler himself, residing in the town of Nokdim southeast of Bethlehem.

And among the primary motives for his Wednesday resignation, the Yisrael Beytenu party chief cited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to fast-track the demolition of the central West Bank Bedouin hamlet of Khan al-Ahmar — action for which settler leaders have lobbied aggressively.

On paper, Liberman appears to be one of the best defense ministers the settlement movement could have asked for.

And yet, not a single local council leader beyond the Green Line took the opportunity Wednesday to publicly thank him for his service or even positively reflect on his short, albeit impactful tenure.

Avigdor Liberman announces his resignation from defense portfolio during a Jerusalem press conference, November 14, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Two such leaders — Jordan Valley Regional Council chairman David Elhayani and outgoing Beit Aryeh Regional Council chairman Avi Na’im — had no qualms stating on the record in conversations with the Times of Israel that they “could not think of a single positive thing he did for us.”

Four other settler leaders contacted were not nearly as harsh in their critiques of the Yisrael Beytenu head, but even those who spoke positively of him have refrained from doing so publicly.

So where did Liberman go wrong in his courting of settlers? And why do none of them appear sad to see him go?

It’s not you, it’s him (the PM)

While the defense minister may be the one to officially sign off on construction in the military-controlled West Bank, the prime minister is often the one who actually decides which projects will be introduced, due to political sensitivity.

“Netanyahu was the one responsible for all the development in Judea and Samaria,” asserted Elhayani. “Whenever I needed a plan advanced, I knew that Liberman was not the address.”

Gush Etzion Regional Council head David Perl (right) and the Jordan Valley Regional Council head David Elhayani arrive at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, Wednesday (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jordan Valley Regional Council head David Elhayani arrives at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem in December 2012 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Na’im agreed with his colleague, asserting that Liberman would “embellish” his press releases to appear responsible for the building approvals, when it had more to do with “Netanyahu getting the approval of a now more friendly White House.”

Liberman’s office did not respond to the Times of Israel’s request for comment.

While it has historically been possible for the defense minister to act independently on matters of settlement, the issue has depended on how much trust is given by the premier.

Yoaz Hendel (photo credit: courtesy of the Institute for Zionist Strategies)

“In the case of Liberman and Netanyahu, the degree of trust was minimal,” explained former Netanyahu adviser and current head of the Institute for Zionist Strategies Yoaz Hendel.

In Liberman’s predecessor Moshe Ya’alon, Netanyahu felt much more comfortable that he wouldn’t be “ambushed with a settlement announcement in the middle of a visit by the Americans,” Hendel argued. “The same could not be said about Liberman.”

Not one of us

Despite Liberman’s residence in the Etzion settlement bloc, the secular Russian immigrant came off as something of an outsider to West Bank council chairmen, who overwhelmingly represent the national religious camp.

Early on in his tenure, Liberman sparred with the Eli premilitary academy — the national religious camp’s prized institution located in the central West Bank — over comments made by its rabbis condemning female service in the IDF. He called for the firing of Eli’s rabbis and even threatened to have the academy closed down.

While on the same side of the political spectrum, the Yisrael Beytenu chairman’s natural voting base has never really been among settlers and their leadership, who have tended to vote for the Likud and Jewish Home parties.

“He boasted of his residence in Nokdim, but that appeared to be merely out of convenience. He wasn’t with us at an ideological level,” said one local council chairman who requested anonymity.

“He never once came to my town, as opposed to previous defense ministers,” said a regional council chairman who similarly requested not to be identified. “While Liberman did sometimes work to advance settlement he did so without ever consulting us.”

Hendel pointed out that Liberman’s lack of military experience prior to entering the Kirya further ostracized him among settler leaders.

“Ya’alon and Ehud Barak had both interacted extensively with Gush Emunim (the settlement movement) during their time in the military before becoming defense ministers,” he said of Liberman’s predecessors.

They knew how to work with the council chairmen even though their politics may have aligned less, he explained.

One settlement mayor who was willing to go on record offering praise for Liberman was Yigal Lahav.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (R) tours the Karnei Shomron settlement on October 2, 2018 with local council chairman Yigal Lahav. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The Karnei Shomron Local Council chairman lauded the outgoing defense minister as a “man of action” who unfroze building projects for his northern West Bank community that for years had been placed at the bottom of the government’s priorities.

“During his tenure, there was development here that has not been seen in 40 years,” he said.

However, Lahav himself is also a bit of an outsider among settler leaders, being among the small handful who are not religious. The Karnei Shomron local council chairman had been slated to become the next leader of the Yesha Council last year before what he was sidelined in what he argued was a putsch.

Don’t know what you got till it’s gone

To Hagit Ofran of the Peace Now settlement watchdog, the West Bank council chairmen have not properly appreciated all the work Liberman has done on their behalf.

“He gave the settlers some serious presents in Hebron,” she said.

Over the past year, Liberman has aggressively championed a project that will see houses built in the flashpoint West Bank city for the first time in 16 years. The plan will include 31 homes, two kindergartens, a daycare center and a public park.

Avigdor Liberman is surrounded by security as he visits the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron on January 14, 2013. (Flash90)

Earlier this month Liberman announced that he had ordered his office to advance an additional project — the construction of an apartment building for Hebron settlers.

Ofran pointed out that Liberman had also green-lighted a “quiet deal” with the city’s Jewish residents last March in which they agreed to peacefully evacuate the Beit Hamachpela compound in exchange for the government turning a blind eye to their subsequent entry into the Rachel and Leah Houses, whose ownership is still being determined in court.

“He didn’t have to ask for Netanyahu’s permission for every single decision he made and was accordingly able to do a lot on the settlers’ behalf,” Ofran said.

“We appreciated those gestures,” one local council chairman said.

But asked if he could be identified curtly praising the outgoing defense minister, he declined.

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