FM’s call for ‘disproportionate’ military action sensibly lost in translation

With his party sliding, Liberman is fighting for his political life, and urging tactics against Hezbollah the PM is not about to adopt

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on November 3, 2014. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on November 3, 2014. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Jerusalem’s retaliation should be “very harsh and disproportionate,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said in his first official comment on the deadly cross-border attack that killed two Israeli soldiers inside the border with Lebanon Wednesday.

Whoever is in charge of translating statements for the Foreign Ministry’s English website apparently took issue with Liberman’s formulation. He or she left out the word “disproportionate,” quoting Liberman merely as saying Israel ought to respond “in strength.” As of this writing, the ministry’s Hebrew website had not uploaded Liberman’s statement at all.

It is not difficult to understand why officials worrying about Israel’s international relations might be hesitant to inform the world that the foreign minister is advocating disproportionate military action — which is considered a violation of international humanitarian law.

Israel lost much international sympathy and what pundits call “diplomatic credit” during last summer’s Gaza war — when Liberman also called for harsher action against Hamas than his own government was prepared to take. And the last thing Israeli diplomats — worrying about the UN probe of the Gaza war and the International Criminal Court’s initial probe of Palestinian allegations of war crimes — need right now is another war and the accusations of excessive use of force and other war crimes that inevitably accompany it.

China and the US would react similarly to rockets fired at their sovereign territory, and “Israel expects the support of its friends in the international arena,” Liberman said. “The whole world should adopt a new approach to dealing with terrorism, a harsh and severe approach.” (This last phrase was translated by the ministry as “tougher and more serious.”)

It may be unfair, but the Jewish state is being judged by different standards. Israel has been accused of disregarding the principle of proportionality many times.

The allegation appeared in the Goldstone Report on the 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and will likely also feature in the United Nations Human Right Council investigation into Operation Protective Edge. On Tuesday, just hours before Liberman’s statement, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem released its report on the last Gaza war, which draws the “inevitable conclusion” that Israel violated the principle of proportionality.

An attack is considered disproportionate and must not be carried out if the harm to civilians it will incur is excessive in relation to the military advantage it might bring. According to the Rome Statute, which governs the International Criminal Court, any intentional attack on civilians “which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated” is considered a war crime.

The foreign minister knows that advocating disproportionate warfare could spark further criticism of Israel, but chose to issue the statement anyway. This may or may not have something to do with the fact that Liberman, whose party is mired in a massive corruption scandal, is fighting for his political life: A Channel 10 poll Wednesday night predicted only four seats for Yisrael Beytenu (which has 13 seats in the outgoing Knesset) in the upcoming elections — that’s dangerously close to slipping below the electoral threshold and disappearing. By calling for uncompromising retaliation he may be attempting to regain voters who have abandoned the party for the hardline, nationalist Jewish Home party.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like Liberman, firmly rejects accusations of Israeli war crimes, and has dismissed ICC and Human Rights Council investigations into the last Gaza war as absurd perversions of truth and justice. Yet his reaction to Wednesday’s attack — during which Staff Sergeant Dor Nini, 20, and Major Yochai Kalangel, 25, were killed and seven of their comrades injured by anti-tank missiles fired by Hezbollah at their vehicles — indicated that he is not interested in getting dragged into another war that could further erode Israel’s already depleted diplomatic credit.

In his first public reaction, Netanyahu hinted an Israeli retaliation could resemble Operation Protective Edge, the 50-day summer war against Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza. “To those who are challenging us in the north, I suggest you look at what happened in the Gaza Strip,” he said during a cornerstone laying ceremony for new apartments in Sderot, a southern city that was hit with hundreds of the 4,000-plus rockets and other projectiles fired during the conflict.

But a few hours later, during consultations with his security chiefs in Tel Aviv, the prime minister lowered the tone somewhat. “Whoever is behind today’s attack will pay the full price,” he declared more vaguely. Iran and its proxy Hezbollah have been trying to establish a front against Israel from the Golan Heights for some time now, he said. “We are taking forceful and responsible action against this attempt.” Responsible is the operative word here; it might have been deliberately deployed, indeed, to counter Liberman’s support for disproportionality.

Israeli artillery seen preparing to strike southern Lebanon, following an Israeli army patrol coming under anti-tank fire from Hezbollah operatives in the northern Mount Dov region along the Israeli border with Lebanon on January 28, 2015, injuring seven soldiers. (Photo credit: Basal Awidat/Flash90)
Israeli artillery preparing to strike southern Lebanon, following an Israeli army patrol coming under anti-tank fire from Hezbollah operatives in the northern Mount Dov region along the Israeli border with Lebanon on January 28, 2015, injuring seven soldiers. (Photo credit: Basal Awidat/Flash90)

How did the latest round of violence start? On January 18, Israel allegedly bombed a weapons convoy near Quneitra, killing 12 men including five senior Hezbollah officials and an Iranian general. The Shiite group retaliated Wednesday by launching a deadly cross-border attack, to which Israel in turn responded by striking targets in southern Lebanon (accidentally killing Francisco Javier Soria Toledo, a Spanish UN peacekeeper).

Reports late on Wednesday said that Hezbollah and Israel had agreed, via UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, to consider the latest violent flare-up over. After consulting his security chiefs, Netanyahu reportedly decided not to further escalate the situation, and it was assumed that Hezbollah would make a similar choice though the situation remained highly tense and unpredictable.

In the volatile region that is the Middle East, anything can happen — the borders in the North and South could reignite at any moment. But Liberman’s declared wish for disproportionate military action will likely remain unfulfilled.

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