Defense Minister Jekyll and Defense Minister Hyde
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Defense Minister Jekyll and Defense Minister Hyde

The phrase ‘Defense Minister Liberman’ evokes a wide variety of reactions in the press, as does his apparent dovish turn

Avigdor Liberman, in tie, at Etzion Junction in the West Bank on December 27, 2015. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Avigdor Liberman, in tie, at Etzion Junction in the West Bank on December 27, 2015. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Intonation is important. It’s why things like sarcasm don’t really work on the internet. It’s also why a simple phrase like “Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman,” splashed across the front pages and inside the articles of three very different papers, can be loaded down with two very different meanings.

Thus where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu-backing Israel Hayom is using the phrase to crow gleefully over the appointment, signaling an expansion of Great Leader’s hold on power and a likely rightward turn for an already right-wing government, Yedioth Ahronoth, using the same words, is able to telegraph “can you believe this crock of chulent?”

Or so one might have thought, given Yedioth’s unabashed bashing of Liberman and Netanyahu’s coalition moves. But the paper’s coverage is more toned down, perhaps inspired by the prime minister’s and defense minister’s overtures toward peace and a two-state solution after the swearing-in ceremony, which it reports is more than just lip service.

“Senior sources assessed that the statement was meant first of all to calm fears in the international community about Liberman’s appointment, as well as to push forward a regional diplomatic process,” the paper reports.

“According to the assessments, Netanyahu coordinated his statement beforehand with [Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah] el-Sissi and it’s supposed to pave the way for a regional conference with moderate Arab states. According to a senior Israel official, Netanyahu’s statements weren’t just empty words, but part of a larger process being put together by Quartet envoy Tony Blair.”

Haaretz also leads off with Liberman and Netanyahu’s dovish turns, though the words do little to placate columnist Amir Oren, who sharpens his pen on that same seemingly innocuous phrase:

“’Defense Minister Liberman’ is a phrase that the mind refuses to accept. It’s a black day for Israel, a day on which flags should fly at half-mast on all Israel Defense Forces bases,” he writes. “A soldier looking upward along his chain of command must know – and feel – he’s in the best possible hands that the state can provide, from his direct commanders through the chief of staff to the highest ranks of government. He must know he isn’t cannon fodder for the politicians’ games of advancement and survival. But if Netanyahu and Liberman can’t provide this feeling, they aren’t the only ones to blame. Every cabinet member who approved Liberman’s appointment is party to this moral disaster, as are the Knesset members who voted for it.”

But glance at Israel Hayom and see how the same phrase, stamped on the front page, can signal joy and gladness.

“Now it’s official – there’s a new defense minister in the State of Israel,” the tabloid reports breathlessly. “The head of Yisrael Beytenu seemed happy as he ascended the podium in the Knesset to be sworn in …when he came down ministers and lawmakers from the coalition came up to him to congratulate him. Despite that, only a handful of opposition members knew how to rise above political fighting and congratulate the new defense minister.”

The same way there’s more than one way to read the phrase “Defense Minister Liberman,” there’s apparently more than one way to read the phrase “committed to a two-state solution.” Whereas some might see that as a laudable nod to peace efforts, Israel Hayom columnist Mati Tuchfeld seems to interpret it as little more than an empty signal and a momentary lapse.

“The big winners, Netanyahu and Liberman, put on serious faces during their joint statement yesterday. Some of that was from a desire to broadcast to the world a moderate pragmatism,” he writes. “It was also, it seems, from fatigue. Today, as Liberman enters his new office at the top of the IDF, it’s safe to assume his strength will return to him. Both because he’s excited and because he has no choice. From now, the security of the state is on his shoulders. The statements and slogans are done. From now on Liberman will be judged only on his actions.”

In what would be sloughed off as a too-perfect coincidence if it weren’t real, while Liberman was being sworn in as defense minister, a challenge was re-arising in the form of a stabbing attack in the heart of Tel Aviv.

Even if the attack wasn’t made in Hollywood, that doesn’t mean celebrities can’t be involved. Yedioth Ahronoth ( and Israel Hayom to a lesser degree) lets its gossip rag flag fly by focusing its coverage on the fact that reality show contestant Liron Orfli, better known as “Tiltil,” was at the scene and helped capture the Palestinian attacker.

“Suddenly I heard screams, someone yelling ‘terrorist, terrorist.’ I got out of my car, grabbed a plank and started to chase after the terrorist. I didn’t care if he had an explosives belt,” the “Survivor” dreamboat is quoted telling the paper about heroically catching the screwdriver-wielding baddie. “There were 10 of us who trapped him in a stairwell. He put up his hands, and the cops came. I grew up in the neighborhood and I wanted to catch that son of a dog. I’m no hero, but just a simple citizen who did what needed to be done.”

Swoon.

Of course in Tel Aviv, just as a man who can go on TV and survive several immunity challenges is a “regular guy,” sometimes a terrorist isn’t quite a terrorist. Thus reports Haaretz on a bizarre case involving a Palestinian man arrested on suspicion of involvement in the gang rape of a disabled Israeli woman in the city. At a hearing Monday, police, who had earlier said they were leaning away from ascribing nationalistic motives to the case, first added the charges, then took them off, then added them back in. According to the paper, the reason for the hairpin turns was nothing more than top-down meddling in the criminal case, and maybe some emojis to boot.

“After the hearing began in Tel Aviv on Monday, the police representative in court received a text message to his phone – and then told the judge that the investigative team had just informed him that it believed the crime was not committed because the woman was Jewish,” the paper reports. “But then, after the media had already reported the order to delete the relevant section from the motion, the representative received yet another text message from senior police sources, telling him to reinstate the original, political motive.”

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