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March 10, 2017 7:48 am

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman: A Dove in Hawk’s Feathers?

avatar by Martin Sherman

Email a copy of "Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman: A Dove in Hawk’s Feathers?" to a friend
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Photo: Jonathan Klinger via Wikimedia Commons.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Photo: Jonathan Klinger via Wikimedia Commons.

“Anyone who wants to apply Israeli sovereignty to Judea and Samaria needs to understand that such a step will bring immediate repercussions from the new US government…We received a direct – not indirect – message: ‘Apply sovereignty and you will be cutting ties with the new government.'”

– Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, March 5, 2017.

“We do not want to turn our friends into enemies…[former US Secretary of State John] Kerry…is a true friend of Israel and he is leading the process correctly.”

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– Then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, February 7, 2015.

With the departure of the largely antagonistic Obama administration, the allegedly “most right-wing government in Israel’s history” can no longer fall back on its excuse de jour for its long-standing flaccidity and ambivalence on one of the most crucial issues on the nation’s strategic agenda: The contours and extent of its permanent borders.

The return to reticence?

Apart from a few short-lived declarations of pseudo-resolve in the immediate wake of the changing of the guard at the White House, the Israeli leadership seems to have slipped back into its compliant pre-election mode of reticent hesitancy regarding the future of Judea and Samaria (West Bank).

Instead of seizing the moment and presenting the incoming administration with a new robust and assertive policy blueprint, the Israeli government hemmed and hawed, essentially receding back to positions not very different from those it adopted under the Obama administration.

First, there came the less-than enthusiastic Israeli response to Donald Trump’s forceful expression of intent to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

Confronted by this display of overt Israeli vacillation and indecision – even manifest unwillingness – to resolutely pursue goals to which the country purportedly aspired, the US itself more than plausibly felt it prudent not to adopt an overly aggressive pro-Israel position.

Accordingly, faced with a clearly pliant Israel, it was hardly surprising that at the end of Netanyahu’s recent Washington visit, Trump’s statements were considerably less far-reaching than might have been expected from his pre-election rhetoric.

After all, why should the Americans factor concern for Arab opposition into their Mid-East policy any less than the Israelis do?

Obama as a convenient excuse?

With Obama gone, and an unabashedly pro-Israel president ensconced in the White House, Israel’s timidity can no longer be attributed to US pressure, but only to the faintheartedness of its own leadership.

Consistent with and characteristic of this lack of national assertiveness was Monday’s statement by Defense Minister Avigdor (Yvette) Lieberman, in which he said Israel should forgo any pursuit of sovereignty over Judea and Samaria lest such an attempt incur the ire of the new administration. Coming hard on the heels of persistent reports that Netanyahu is considering a renewed construction freeze in the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria (see here, here and here), there is a strong suggestion that Israel’s post-Obama policy on “Palestine” is in principle very similar to its Obama-era one.

Sadly, this leaves us scratching our heads in puzzlement, wondering whether the Israeli government has in any meaningful way grasped the potential change the US election could usher in for Israel’s freedom of action, and the resultant opportunities it could open up.

Israeli equivocation (or worse) was aptly summed up by David Weiner in Bloomberg, who wrote, with lamentable accuracy that “Netanyahu griped about Obama, but US ‘bad cop’ had its uses…Israel’s right-wing leaders have been waiting for an American president like Donald Trump. But now that he’s here, they can’t agree on how to take advantage.”

Et tu, Yvette?

Lieberman’s appointment to the post of defense minister to replace former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon was hailed by some on the “Right,” who had seen Ya’alon veering distinctly leftward and were disappointed by what they viewed as his less-than-robust positions.

The general sentiment was that the appointment of Lieberman would, apart from broadening the very narrow base of support for the Netanyahu-led coalition, introduce a significantly tougher approach, particularly toward the Palestinians.

On the “Left,” the appointment was greeted with dismay. In an editorial, the New York Times dubbed it, “A Baffling, Hardline Choice,” and characterized Lieberman’s positions on “Palestinians, settlements and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” as “ultra-nationalist.”

However, it soon became clear that neither the approval on the “Right” nor the aversion on the “Left” were really justified.

The Palestinians have hardly recoiled in dread at the appointment, as recent rocket fire from Gaza indisputably underscores, nor has Lieberman given full reign — indeed, any reign at all — to his allegedly “ultra-nationalistic” proclivity on “Palestinians, settlements and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Quite the contrary, Lieberman has embarked on several disturbingly conciliatory measures such as: approval of Palestinian-Arab construction in Area C; expression of support for the two-state formula; applauding the “Arab Peace Plan”; and offering to provide Hamas with a seaport and an airport in Gaza.

(I use the phrase “disturbingly conciliatory” with purposeful intent; any measure that works to bolster and sustain the Arab presence in Judea and Samaria will — as I have been at pains to elaborate elsewhere — serve only to prolong the conflict and the death, destruction and devastation on both sides.)

When coupled with Lieberman’s latest denouncement of the pursuit of Jewish sovereignty over the Jewish homeland, it is difficult to discern any real difference between him and any common, garden Leftist two-stater.

“Right-wing” voters have good reason to feel deceived!

“In over his head”?

Lieberman’s call to forswear attempts to extend sovereignty over Judea and Samaria provoked a strong reaction among several pundits. For example, Caroline Glick published a blistering critique of the defense minister, his suitability for his post and the manner in which he discharges his duties.

She wrote caustically: “Defense minister Avigdor Lieberman is in over his head…Few had high hopes for Lieberman when he was appointed to his post…Monday morning Lieberman showed that concerns about his suitability for his position were spot on.”

Somewhat uncharitably, she ridiculed his fitness as defense minister, characterizing him as “a man with an understanding of military and strategic affairs that began and ended with applause lines.”

In many ways, Lieberman is uniquely unsuited for the position. Prima facie, he is probably the least qualified individual to serve as defense minister in recent decades — arguably even less equipped than the disastrous Amir Peretz, who, unlike Lieberman, at least attained an officer’s rank in the IDF.

But Lieberman’s appointment to the seat in Israeli politics second only to prime minister in power and prestige, is particularly perverse. After all, it came after he suffered a disastrous 2015 electoral defeat, with his Yisrael Beytenu party being cut in half at the polls, followed by the resignation of Orly Levi-Abekasis, perhaps his most prominent Knesset Member, which left his faction even further depleted.

Neither professional qualifications nor electoral power can be plausibly invoked for justifying placing such enormous power in his seemingly ill-equipped hands.

Misguided effort

But putting the question of credentials and merit aside, Glick’s substantive criticism of Lieberman’s conduct is spot on.

Rather than devoting his efforts to presenting, explaining and promoting his own country’s strategic interests and goals to foreign governments, Lieberman is doing precisely the reverse; he is endeavoring to present the alleged views of a foreign government to his own administration and public, while warning them of the consequences of not acquiescing to foreign powers.

Thus, it is difficult to fault Glick’s severe censure of the defense minister: “Lieberman’s argument that Israel must maintain allegiance to the failed and destructive policy of empowering the PLO lest it wreck its ties to America is most destructive because it undermines Israeli democracy and Israel’s international position.”

She warns, aptly: “Lieberman’s statement invites – indeed begs for – a foreign government to threaten Israel in order to cow elected officials and the public into accepting a policy they rightly reject and abandoning discussion of an alternative path that advances Israel’s strategic interests.”

Of course, Lieberman’s current sensitivity to international opinion is somewhat incongruous given some of his bellicose outbursts in the past — including his threats to bomb the Aswan Dam, overrun Gaza and assassinate Ismail Haniyeh, leader of Hamas in Gaza.

Portraying “pliable” as “pragmatic

Yet, in the not-too-distant past, Lieberman provided clear indication that he could not be counted as a reliable hawk. As foreign minister, he displayed remarkable affinity for then-US Secretary of State John Kerry’s dangerous 2013-14 peace initiative. He dubbed Kerry “a true friend of Israel” and went so far as to laud Kerry’s efforts, saying “he is leading the process correctly.” Lieberman took pains to distance himself from Naftali Bennett, head of the hawkish HaBayit HaYehudi party, criticizing him sharply for his censure of Kerry’s initiative.

Lieberman’s new dovish stance has been firmly embraced by the left-leaning media.

An Al-Monitor headline blared: “Israeli foreign minister shifts to Center.” The article, by well-known Israeli commentator Mazal Mualem, formerly senior political correspondent for the radically dovish Haaretz, went on to remark that “the change in his behavior is so pronounced that it’s easy to imagine the political Left and Center embracing him in the near future.”

In a piece headlined “Lieberman: Kerry Is a True Friend, Bennett Must Stop His Attacks,” even Haaretz itself cooed approvingly: “Lieberman’s remarks…continued the relatively moderate line he has been espousing since returning to the post of foreign minister last November.”

When Haaretz endorses Lieberman’s positions as “relatively moderate,” you have to wonder…

As defense minister, Lieberman’s ill-conceived and counterproductive largesse towards the Palestinian Arabs has continued to reap praise from the left-leaning press, as Ben Caspit wrote in Al-Monitor: “For all intents and appearances, the defense minister is showing himself to be level-headed, moderate and rather pragmatic.”

So, there you have it. In the perverse discourse on the Israel-Arab conflict, to be considered “pragmatic” one must be sufficiently pliant to profess support for the fatally flawed and failed two-state formula, no matter how tragic or traumatic the consequences.

A dove in hawk’s feathers

The perception of Lieberman as an abrasive hard-liner, for which he was excoriated by the domestic and the foreign press, was due far more to his blunt statements regarding Israeli Arabs’ loyalty, or the lack thereof  — and particularly that of their parliamentary representatives — rather than to any territorial intransigence regarding the Palestinian question.

Indeed, he has been quite specific in declaring his readiness to cede territory. As foreign minister he clearly professed his willingness to toe the leftist line of land-for-peace stating: “When there is a dispute between the unity of the nation or the unity of the land, the nation’s unity is more important…I’m willing to give up territory in the name of national unity.”

Curiously, he never seems to consider calling on the left-leaning doves to forgo their disastrously disproved concessionary dogma in order to attain the desired goal of unity. For some reason, he seems to assume that it must be the hawks who will have to give way to the doves to achieve that — despite the lessons of the past.

Thus, Lieberman’s credentials as a hardline hawk have always been a little questionable. He has not only been amenable to relinquishing significant parts of Judea and Samaria to a putative Palestinian state, but has advocated transferring parts of pre-1967 Israel — albeit along with the Israeli Arab population resident in them — to Palestinian rule, in exchange for large settlement blocs across the Green Line.

Perhaps the time has come to call Lieberman out for what he really is: A dove in hawk’s feathers.

Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

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