In Israel’s latest head-spinning moment, Prime Minister Netanyahu has suddenly turned to Avigdor Lieberman (or Liberman, as his name is sometimes rendered in English), head of the rightwing Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel our Home) party, instead of to Yitzhak Herzog, head of the Labor Party. More stunning still, he’s offered Lieberman the defense ministry, prompting the resignation of his fellow Likudnik, the now former defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon.
While a hardliner on compromise with the Palestinians, Ya’alon has butted heads recently with Netanyahu and elements to their right by supporting the criminal prosecution of the soldier who summarily executed a wounded Palestinian knife attacker, lying helpless on the ground. He’s also supported the right of IDF generals to speak out — e.g., the chief of staff warning against soldiers emptying their bullet clips into “teenage girls armed with scissors,” and the deputy chief suggesting that intolerant trends in Israeli society are beginning to parallel events in (pre-Holocaust) 1930s Germany.
Ya’alon was a professional soldier who ended his military career as IDF chief of staff himself, before going into politics. Netanyahu might have offered him the foreign ministry or another post, but he felt so betrayed and scandalized that he resigned both from the government and the Knesset, warning of an internal threat to Israel’s democracy.
In his stead, Netanyahu has chosen to expand his coalition with Lieberman and his party. And this has abruptly ended negotiations with Herzog, and any notion that he’d move his government left by including Labor to replace Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) — the stridently rightwing party headed by Naftali Bennett — and allowing Herzog to pursue new peace initiatives.
Seeking enlightenment on these events, I listened to back-to-back conference calls, one by the Israel Policy Forum with veteran commentator Nahum Barnea, and the other under the auspices of J Street with Ha’aretz US bureau chief Chemi Shalev (click here for what I found to be an engrossing, well-informed discussion). The most memorable insight I recall from Barnea likened Lieberman to Donald Trump: neither has a core ideology, both have taken views that are not typically rightwing at times, both are nationalists, both have a bullying style that scapegoats minorities (in the case of Lieberman, he questions the loyalty and threatens the civil rights of Arab Israelis), and both are admirers of Russia’s autocratic president Vladimir Putin. What’s especially problematic for someone heading a vitally-important and technically-demanding portfolio like the defense ministry, is that Lieberman (in common with Trump) is known to be easily bored with details, and has little if any military experience or background.
Where he’s departed from typical rightwing thinking is in actually supporting the concept of a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians, including his stated willingness to abandon his home in a West Bank settlement if necessary for such an agreement. He’s defied both right and left in advocating that the Wadi Ara region of Israel, mostly populated by citizens who are ethnically Palestinian-Arab, be traded to the new Palestinian state in exchange for a comparable expanse of the West Bank, heavily populated by settlers, for annexation by Israel.
When I examined his proposal back in January 2014, I saw elements that respected the rights of Arab Israelis in Wadi Ara to freely choose their citizenship, and to retain earned benefits even if opting for Palestinian citizenship. Unfortunately, he also conditioned his support for a two-state agreement on his proposal’s inclusion; but as I noted then, his idea was not inherently terrible. What seems most problematic is not the plan, but the planner. How do you ever trust this guy?
And the atmospherics for Israel in the world is awful. Instead of Herzog emerging as foreign minister to reignite efforts toward peace, Israel gets a loud mouth with a reputation as a demagogue. Not that any Netanyahu-led government can be much trusted to make a good faith effort to achieve peace — just ask Tzipi Livni, his last designated peace process envoy — but still!