Critics blast ‘worrying’ Liberman defense appointment

Pundits and others see red over possibility outspoken politician will control military, while heaping praise on current chief Ya’alon

Avigdor Liberman, left, and Yariv Levin during coalition talks on the morning of May 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Avigdor Liberman, left, and Yariv Levin during coalition talks on the morning of May 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Politicians, pundits and others have reacted with uneasiness, disdain and bald-faced horror to the prospect of firebrand nationalist Avigdor Liberman being given the defense minister post, warning the move will be dangerous, while heaping praise on the ostensibly outgoing defense chief, Moshe Ya’alon.

Liberman has reportedly been offered and accepted the position — which would put him in control of Israel’s army as well as the military administration of the West Bank — as part of a deal to bring his Yisrael Beytenu party into the governing coalition.

The appointment is “irresponsible,” Likud MK Benny Begin told Army Radio Thursday morning, after earlier saying that appointing Liberman to the post would be a “delusional” move.

Praising Ya’alon as “excellent,” Begin warned that Liberman’s policies would not be “cautious and balanced, but irresponsible and ill-considered.”

“This move should worry the Israeli public,” he added.

Liberman, who served as foreign minister before moving to the opposition after elections last year, lacks military experience, historically a prerequisite for Israeli defense ministers, but is outspoken on defense matters.

He famously split with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then a partner in a joint Knesset faction, on how to manage the 2014 Gaza war and has been outspoken in demanding the death penalty in terrorism cases, to the extent that he made it a sine qua non issue for his joining the coalition after the elections last March.

Liberman’s entry to the Defense Ministry post would come after Ya’alon butted heads with Netanyahu and the right flank of the coalition over a soldier who shot dead a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron. As opposed to Ya’alon, who leveled withering criticism at the soldier and said he should be punished to the full extent of the law, Liberman criticized IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot for even pursuing charges against the soldier, calling the trial “hypocritical and unjustified.”

More recently, Ya’alon crossed swords with Netanyahu and other officials in backing a general who appeared to compare some segments of Israeli society to pre-World War II Germany.

While Ya’alon, a hawkish former IDF chief who once infamously criticized US Secretary of State John Kerry as “messianic,” has been no darling of the left, many praised him Wednesday night and Thursday morning after considering the alternative of Liberman.

“From an excellent and experienced defense minister — Bogie — to lead the defense establishment with discretion, quietly, humbly and with power, to a defense minister who woe to us if he carries out what he’s said in the past,” Hatnua MK Eyal Ben Reuven, a former general, wrote in a scathing post on Facebook, using Ya’alon’s nickname.

A flash poll published by news site Walla Thursday morning found that 50 percent of the public thought Ya’alon was fit to remain as defense chief, while only 29% thought Liberman should fill that role. Another 21% of the 606 Israelis polled had no opinion.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, Avigdor Liberman, center, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon in the Knesset on November 12, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, Avigdor Liberman, center, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in the Knesset on November 12, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“It’s hard to imagine Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a more reckless and irresponsible decision than appointing Avigdor Lieberman defense minister,” read the lead editorial in the daily Haaretz. “When he was foreign minister Lieberman did very little, but his ability to cause damage to the state was limited. Now he will be in charge of the army and of the occupation machine in the territories, with an almost unlimited potential to foment crises and to jeopardize the national interest.”

Council leaders in communities bordering the Gaza Strip also issued a call for Netanyahu to keep in place security policies implemented during Ya’alon’s years as defense minister, and not adopt those of Liberman, who has called for the assassination of Hamas leaders and urged the reconquering of the Gaza Strip.

“The reality of the security situation requires leadership that will safeguard the equilibrium,” Channel 10 quoted them as saying, as rocket sirens blared in the region in an apparent false alarm Wednesday night. “We hope that this policy by Minister Ya’alon will continue.”

Masud Ganaim of the Joint List of Arab parties called the appointment “a warning siren for Israeli citizens” that augurs war.

“Perhaps the alarm will begin with a rocket alert in the south or north, and maybe it will start with the bombing of Cairo and the Aswan Dam, or Erdogan’s Istanbul,” he said, referring to Liberman’s attacks on the leadership on Egypt and Turkey.

‘Breaking the glass ceiling’

Liberman’s surprise rise to the post would cap a whirlwind 24 hours of politicking that began with most thinking opposition leader Isaac Herzog was bringing his Zionist Union faction into the government, despite internal opposition.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog holds a press conference at the Zionist Union headquarters in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2016. (Flash90)
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog holds a press conference at the Zionist Union headquarters in Tel Aviv, May 18, 2016. (Flash90)

Instead, Netanyahu and Liberman announced their own coalition talks Wednesday, leading Herzog to freeze his negotiation channel that day.

Speaking from the entrance to his home in the settlement of Nokdim Thursday morning, Liberman, an immigrant from Moldova often referred to as Ivet, all but confirmed that his new appointment was a done deal.

“Going into the Defense Ministry is an important step in breaking the glass ceiling that we, expatriates of the former Soviet Union, have been stuck under for years,” he told the Russian-language news outlet Vesti.

Others on the right wing of the political spectrum praised Netanyahu for bringing in Liberman and pushing out Ya’alon.

“It is time for Moshe Ya’alon to finally vacate the Defense Ministry, where he has only caused damage,” a source within the Jewish Home party said Wednesday as reports of Liberman’s appointment first emerged.

A disaster? It’s better to wait and see,” wrote pundit Ben Dror-Yemini in the Yedioth Ahronoth tabloid. “True, here and there the Yisrael Beytenu head has been heard saying things that would make one shudder. But the truth is there are two of them. One is Ivet, the scary politician, who teeters between the right and far-right, and then there is Liberman, a serious and responsible politician.”

Judah Ari Gross and Sara Miller contributed to this report.

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