Why Netanyahu’s dumping of his defense minister is no ordinary political maneuver

Op-Ed: On election day, Israelis ask themselves who is most capable of keeping their soldier-children safe. Netanyahu and Ya’alon were quite the team. Not so, Netanyahu and Liberman

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, October 12, 2015. To his left stands Moshe Ya'alon, behind him Avigdor Liberman (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, October 12, 2015. To his left stands Moshe Ya'alon, behind him Avigdor Liberman (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Channel 2’s grizzled and gray-haired military correspondent Roni Daniel does not have the reputation of a bleeding-heart liberal. In Israel’s all-too frequent times of war, when he is not embedded with the troops out in the field, the former IDF officer, who was wounded in the Six Day War, is often to be found in the studio defending the army’s strategies and actions — including against more dovish, critical voices among his own TV colleagues. Nobody would claim that he seeks to minimize the enemy threat to Israel’s well-being. Few would question his patriotism.

And then came Friday night.

In the midst of the evening broadcast, during a discussion on that day’s resignation of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and his imminent replacement by Avigdor Liberman, Daniel asked if his fellow panelists would keep quiet for a minute because there was something he wanted to say. He then declared, entirely unbidden, that he was “no longer sure” that he wanted his children to continue to live in Israel, because, he said, the “culture of government” was now so distasteful. He also reeled off a list of right-wing Knesset members to whom he took particular exception.

Jaws dropped around the studio. One of Daniel’s colleagues, Amnon Abromowitz, attempted to make light of the declaration, saying flippantly, “Before Roni leaves the studio and his children leave the country…” But Daniel was emphatically not in flippant mood. He banged his fist on the table, and protested that Abromowitz was not taking him seriously.

Roni Daniel bangs his fist on the table during a Channel 2 studio debate, May 20, 2016 (Channel 2 screenshot)
Roni Daniel (left) bangs his fist on the table during a Channel 2 studio debate, May 20, 2016 (Channel 2 screenshot)

Later in the same broadcast, Daniel repeated his critique and, asked again why he was so unhappy with today’s Israel, he summed it up as follows: “It’s not a pleasant place to be… You can’t believe anything.”

Daniel’s explanations may have been a little incoherent, but the emotion behind that last utterance, “You can’t believe anything,” was unmistakably plaintive and, I think, rather resonant.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brutal ousting of the defense minister who has stood loyally at his side for the past three years, in favor of an unpredictable populist with a track record of castigating the government even when he’s in it, has produced predictable reactions across the spectrum. The further right, the warmer the support for the change in personnel; the further left, the direr the warnings of fascism and extremism in the governance of Israel.

But like Ya’alon himself, Daniel is no lefty. Like Ya’alon himself, who hours earlier delivered a resignation speech dripping with despair, Daniel plainly believes that he is speaking for normal, ordinary Israel, for the people who want to believe that they can trust their government to act responsibly on their behalf. And like Ya’alon himself, Daniel evidently no longer thinks this is the case. “It’s not a pleasant place to be… You can’t believe anything,” may indeed have been a little incoherent, but it was emphatically damning.

The loyalist and the demagogue

The defenestration of Moshe Ya’alon, and the elevation of defense minister-in-waiting Avigdor Liberman, is no ordinary cabinet reshuffle.

Ya’alon had all the attributes Netanyahu could ever have wanted in this most prominent and sensitive of positions. As a military man, Ya’alon’s record is peerless. He was a veteran of the Yom Kippur War, a commander of the army’s most elite commando unit (Sayeret Matkal, in which Netanyahu also served), and, finally, the chief of staff who led the battle to suppress the onslaught of Palestinian suicide bombings in the Second Intifada. The son of a Haganah veteran father and a Holocaust survivor mother, he grew up working class in Haifa, and later moved to a kibbutz, but he shifted gradually to the political right, and chose the Likud when he entered politics in 2008.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) meets with then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (center) and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon (right) in southern Israel on July 21, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) meets with then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (center) and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (right) in southern Israel, during the war with Hamas, on July 21, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Echoing Netanyahu, Ya’alon was horrified by the terms of the nuclear deal struck by the US-led world powers last year. Echoing Netanyahu, Ya’alon publicly contested the Obama administration’s assessment that Israel could afford to take the territorial risk of a West Bank withdrawal, memorably lambasting Secretary of State John Kerry as a messianist seeking a Nobel Peace Prize and condemning Washington’s security proposals as not being worth the paper they were printed on. Bitterly skeptical of Palestinian intentions, he also shares much of Netanyahu’s bleak worldview, and certainly subscribes to the prime minister’s guiding insistence that the Jewish state be able to defend itself, by itself, against any enemy challenge.

Ya’alon is also a man of steely moral principle, who immediately protested the breach of ethical norms that he saw in the alleged cold-blooded execution in Hebron on March 24, by IDF Sergeant Elor Azaria, of a Palestinian assailant who had been disarmed and was lying wounded. He also insisted, after Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan had warned this month of “horrifying processes” in today’s Israel that carried echoes of pre-World War II Germany, that the army’s commanders have the right and obligation to speak their minds.

Now Ya’alon, the military high-flier and the moralist, is to be replaced by former IDF Corporal Liberman, a man whose mediocre army career has never prevented him from prescribing one-sentence solutions to Israel’s various military challenges, and whose moral compass led him, far from condemning Azaria, to make a solidarity visit to the military court at which the soldier is being tried for manslaughter.

Leader of the Yesh Atid political party, Yair Lapid, and leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party, Avigdor Liberman, lead a joint conference in the Knesset regarding Israel's foreign policy. February 29, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Leader of the Yesh Atid political party, Yair Lapid, and leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party, Avigdor Liberman, lead a joint conference in the Knesset castigating Israel’s foreign policy. February 29, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Perhaps in most striking contrast to Ya’alon, however, is the degree to which Liberman manifestly cannot be relied upon by Netanyahu. They have worked together on and off for some 30 years, and Liberman, set on becoming prime minister himself, has switched from Netanyahu loyalist to rival, from coalition partner to opposition critic, and back again, as and when he has spotted an opportunity for personal advantage.

Trump-style, he’ll say whatever he thinks it useful to his career to say. On Gaza, for instance, Liberman declared at the height of the 2014 war, when he himself sat in the inner cabinet, that Hamas must be smashed and the government was not going far enough. But later he decided that Gaza must be given over to the UN. And later still that the way forward was via the Strip’s economic development. When he deems the time ripe, he can be depended upon to ditch Netanyahu with the same ease that he ditched his Yisrael Beytenu party’s much-hyped social agenda in negotiating this coalition deal.

In an interview with this writer less than a year ago, Liberman ridiculed Netanyahu as an empty vessel, incapable of protecting Israel, incapable of smashing Hamas, incapable of tackling the Iranian nuclear threat. “On Iran,” he said in Hebrew, “it’s all talk. It’s all talk.” And then he repeated “all talk” in five languages just to make sure we all got the derisory message: “Kalam fadi. Piste meisis. Hakol diburim. Parole parole. Just talk.”

Read: Netanyahu seen as ineffectual, paranoid by longtime former ally Liberman

It was an assault that you might have thought would doom the prospect of Netanyahu ever agreeing to tolerate him in the future. But only if you were naive and quite unfamiliar with Israeli politics.

The beginning of the end, of what?

Why did Netanyahu trade the loyal, moral, militarily expert Ya’alon for the disloyal, demagogic, and militarily inexpert Liberman? Ultimately because Netanyahu needed to expand his unstable coalition, and Liberman would not have joined if he wasn’t given the defense post. The alternative potential coalition partner, Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog, was driving too hard a bargain, leads a disunited party and is reviled by the governing right.

But self-evidently, too, Netanyahu was unfazed by Liberman’s defense of the Hebron soldier, and unperturbed to be shedding the irritatingly ethical Ya’alon.

After all, Netanyahu himself has reminded the military court where Azaria is on trial that “the IDF backs its soldiers” and urged the court “to balance between the action and the overall context of the event.” After all, Netanyahu castigated Deputy Chief of Staff Golan for comments he called outrageous, erroneous and unacceptable.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem on March 23, 2015. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem on March 23, 2015, a week after the elections. (Screen capture: YouTube)

For years, the most potent criticism of Netanyahu has been that his only real strategic goal is to retain the prime ministership, and that all means may be utilized to that end. Thus, on election day last year, in an effort to galvanize right-wing voters, he could warn that Arab voters were “streaming” to the polls. And apologize to the Arab community afterwards, once the premiership had been re-secured. Similarly, he could say in an election-eve interview that he would not be presiding over the establishment of a Palestinian state, and attempt to walk back that declaration a few days later.

Skilled, cynical or both, Netanyahu has nonetheless become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister after David Ben-Gurion because, in a system that does not impose term limits, and in a region and an era fraught with fast-changing threats, it will take a particularly compelling and credible politician to persuade Israelis to forsake him. They know that even seemingly sensible decisions taken by Israeli prime ministers can have catastrophic, even existential consequences. Israelis may not much like Netanyahu, but he is the devil they know.

But on election day, Israelis ultimately ask themselves who is most capable of keeping them, their children and their country safe. Last March 17, with the memories of the bitter 2014 war with Hamas still fresh, Israelis placed their confidence in the pairing of Netanyahu and Ya’alon. Many voters doubtless concluded that those two leaders — neither of them military adventurers — were best equipped to keep alive the young combat soldiers. Our children.

One wonders now whether the casual jettisoning by Netanyahu of his right-hand man Ya’alon will crack that public perception of peerless competence.

For Roni Daniel, in all his anguish on TV Friday night, Netanyahu’s short-term political gambit of bringing in Liberman apparently marks the beginning of the end for Israel. The less emotional question would appear to be whether it marks the beginning of the end for Netanyahu.

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