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Analysis

Liberman lacks military cred, makes up for it in opinions

If Yisrael Beytenu’s leader takes the Defense Ministry, the job would pass from a lieutenant general to a corporal

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

MK Avigdor Liberman visits the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, following a terror attack, on March 9, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Avigdor Liberman visits the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, following a terror attack, on March 9, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Defense Ministry is poised to pass from the hands of a former lieutenant general to a former corporal — from the highest possible rank in the Israel Defense Forces to the second lowest, just above buck private.

Current Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon commanded the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, including during a 1988 raid in Tunisia to assassinate Fatah co-founder Khalil al-Wazir. He eventually became chief of the General Staff in the midst of the tumultuous Second Intifada before pursuing a political career.

Opposite him, the apparent defense minister-to-be, Avigdor Liberman, had an unimpressive and short military career in the Artillery Corps. His only noted physical confrontations appear to be two fistfights at Hebrew University with members of an Arab student group, based off a 2009 interview with Liberman by the Israeli NRG news site.

Of course, Liberman would not be the first defense minister to lack a storied army career. Moshe Arens, Shimon Peres, Pinhas Lavon — none of them were military men. However, the last war led by a defense minister lacking an extensive army career — the 2006 Second Lebanon War under Amir Peretz — is seen as something of a disaster, and Peretz took a lot of the flak for it.

But despite his lack of formal military experience, Liberman has frequently and loudly voiced his opinion on defense issues, though some of these positions have changed over time.

From left to right, Former IDF chief of staff Dan Shomron, former defense minister Moshe Arens, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai and current-Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, during a training exercise in the Judean desert in December 1991.(Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
From left to right: Former IDF chief of staff Dan Shomron, former defense minister Moshe Arens, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai and current-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, during a training exercise in the Judean desert in December 1991 (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The former foreign minister has been outspoken on the need for the death penalty in terrorism cases, to the extent that he made it a key demand for joining the coalition.

To get Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party’s six seats, the prime minister had to be willing to “offer [the Defense Ministry], the death penalty and pension reform,” Liberman said at a press conference on Wednesday morning.

In Feburary 2015, ahead of the most recent elections, Liberman said such legislation would “signal that we’re changing direction.”

The Moldova-born immigrant takes a hard-line approach nearly across the board on defense issues.

In December, he proposed Israel give Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh 48 hours to return the bodies of two IDF soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, currently being held in Gaza, and if not — assassinate him.

Liberman has encouraged “disproportionate” responses to acts of aggression by Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah, despite the fear of many in the IDF that such a strategy could escalate the situation in the north to a full-fledged war — as well as potentially constitute a war crime.

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz with former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, at a 2013 Knesset committee meeting (FLASH90)
Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz with former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman at a 2013 Knesset committee meeting (Flash90)

On the topic of Gaza, over the years Liberman has jumped between a number of solutions, including a complete takeover of the Strip, handing over the coastal enclave to the UN, and easing economic restrictions on Gaza residents to discourage them from joining Hamas.

“We must go all the way. There is no alternative,” Liberman said in July 2014, at the peak of the Gaza war. “An end result to the operation would see the IDF control Gaza.”

‘We need to consider returning control over Gaza to the UN’

Less than three weeks later, however, the then-foreign minister mulled having the United Nations, instead of the Israeli army, take control of the coastal enclave.

“Here, too, we need to consider returning control over Gaza to the UN,” Liberman said.

Last month, Liberman adopted a far lighter approach, advocating economic encouragement for the coastal enclave in order to dissuade the population from joining Hamas.

“A better life for Gaza residents makes them less likely to join a terrorist organization like Hamas, and Hamas knows it,” Liberman said.

“What would I do if I had responsibility for this issue?” he asked rhetorically. “Open a TV station, radio station and website in the Strip to tell the [Gaza] population the truth about Hamas.”

‘It’s better to have a soldier who made a mistake and lived than one who hesitated and had a terrorist kill him’

Most recently, the potential defense minister appeared to come out against IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot in the Hebron shooting case, in which a soldier was caught on camera shooting to death a Palestinian assailant nearly 15 minutes after he’d been subdued and disarmed.

“The onslaught against this soldier is hypocritical and unjustified,” Liberman said soon after the incident, in response to condemnation of the soldier by Eisenkot and Ya’alon.

“It’s better to have a soldier who made a mistake and lived than one who hesitated and had a terrorist kill him,” he added.

Trial by fire

Liberman would arrive at the ministry with some preexisting bad blood, having reportedly clashed with the Mossad intelligence agency during his first tenure as foreign minister from 2009 to 2012.

In 2011, Haaretz reported that Liberman had ordered his Foreign Ministry and its embassies to boycott the Mossad. As the secret intelligence agency refused to share information with his ministry, Liberman had his workers stop sharing information with them.

In the short time since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would be offering the Defense Ministry position to Liberman, the decision has already come under attack.

Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party have called Ya’alon’s ousting “ugly” and questioned the need to “humiliate” a loyal and hard-working party member, Ynet news reported.

Though they did not attack the appointment outright, the heads of Israel’s southern regional councils released a statement on Wednesday night calling for Ya’alon’s security policies to remain in force, regardless of who ultimately becomes defense minister.

At 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, the Haaretz newspaper published a scathing editorial against the decision, calling it “reckless” and warning of the damage Liberman could cause the country.

MK Benny Begin (Likud) (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Benny Begin (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Veteran military analyst Ron Ben Yishai similarly trashed the Defense Ministry offer to Liberman, saying it would endanger the country’s security in favor of a cheap political victory.

Likud Knesset member and former minister Benny Begin called it “delusional” and said it displayed “a lack of responsibility toward the defense establishment and the citizens of Israel.”

Though Liberman has a bare-bones military background as of now, the trial by fire that surely awaits him if he enters the Defense Ministry should provide some much-needed, real-world combat experience.

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