In his first meeting with senior military officials as Defense Minister, Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday declared that Israeli national unity is more important than territory, as he vowed to prevent unnecessary future conflicts and end ongoing “wars of attrition.”
During the security overview with IDF Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot and other army generals, Liberman laid out his vision for the IDF, putting particular focus on what he called “the people’s army,” and the relationship between Israel’s military and its civilian society.
“I’ve said this before: When there is a clash of values between the unity of the people and territorial integrity, the people are more important,” he said.
While Liberman has repeated the mantra that national unity trumps territorial holdings several times in past years, his comments Tuesday represented the first time he said them as defense minister, the position that controls day-to-day Israeli policy in the West Bank.
In the past he has also said he would be willing to give up his own home in the settlement of Nokdim for a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
A brash hardliner who heads the nationalist Yisrael Beytenu party, Liberman was sworn in as defense minister on Monday after the cabinet unanimously approved the coalition-expanding agreement that brought his party into the Likud-led coalition. A Knesset vote shortly after approved his appointment.
In an apparent continuation of statements he made Monday night in support of the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, Liberman tried to ease worries that he was an irresponsible choice for the sensitive post.
“In a democratic society, matters of war and peace must express the will of the people and enjoy the support of the majority,” he said. “We don’t have the option to fight an unnecessary war. As Israeli society, we can only engage in necessary wars, and in those, we must win,” he said.
Yet Liberman also apparently signaled a shift from his predecessors, who had maintained a policy of deterrence to contain threats out of Hamas-run Gaza, fighting three limited wars over the last eight years.
“We don’t have the luxury of conducting drawn-out wars of attrition,” he said.
Liberman has in the past criticized Israeli efforts to thwart Gazan-based fighters, accusing the military brass of not going far enough, and even calling for the IDF to recapture the Strip in 2014.
The addition of Yisrael Beytenu gives Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition 66 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, bolstering its previously paper-thin majority of 61-59.
Politicians and pundits reacted with unease and disdain when the decision to appoint Liberman was first announced nearly two weeks ago, warning that giving the Defense Ministry to the firebrand politician was a dangerous move.
Liberman, who served as foreign minister before moving to the opposition after elections last year, lacks military experience, usually a prerequisite for Israeli defense ministers, but is outspoken on defense matters.
In a possible effort to assuage concerns over his past rhetoric, Liberman touted his pro-peace credentials in a Knesset address after Monday’s vote, hailing a recent speech by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi urging Israelis and Palestinians to return to talks as “a real opportunity.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Liberman requested a meeting with his ousted predecessor Moshe Ya’alon to formally hand over the reins at the Defense Ministry. The former defense minister agreed to “convene an orderly handover meeting,” according to a Defense Ministry statement. The date of the meeting was not immediately announced.