Avigdor Lieberman is combining tough talk with measured deeds. Could that be a recipe for becoming prime minister?
- By Neri ZilberNeri Zilber is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture. He was, most recently, a visiting scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
TEL AVIV — Last Sunday morning found Avigdor Lieberman at the Hizme checkpoint connecting north Jerusalem to the West Bank. Befitting his new position, Israel’s defense minister had brought along a retinue of senior army officers to brief him on plans — formulated under his hastily dismissed predecessor, Moshe Yaalon — to improve access and movement for Palestinians at various West Bank crossings.
No matter that Hizme is used almost solely by Israeli automobile traffic moving between Jerusalem and the settlements and not Palestinian laborers coming into Israel on foot. No matter, too, Lieberman’s fantastical claim that both Palestinians and settlers “suffered equally” from the lackluster infrastructure at Hizme and the nearby Qalandiya checkpoint. It was Lieberman’s personal attention and endorsement that marked a departure from his take-no-prisoners rhetoric prior to assuming control of the most powerful military in the Middle East. He has also spoken now publicly about wanting to build 10 new soccer fields for Palestinian kids in the West Bank to give them an alternative to rock-throwing and violence.
That same morning, across town, guards at a light rail station stopped a Palestinian man from boarding a packed train at rush hour with a backpack full of homemade pipe bombs. “A major disaster was averted,” the local police chief observed solemnly.
It’s not hard to imagine how such a terrorist attack could have caused Lieberman to abandon the stately resolve he sought to exhibit at Hizme. Before he became defense minister, he openly called for terrorists to be executed, their families deported, and other wholesale punitive measures. “Delusional” and “an insult” to the army were just some of the terms used to describe his appointment — and this only from right-wing politicians. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak used stronger language, warning gravely of a “budding fascism” within Israeli society.
Yet two months into the position, the controversy surrounding Lieberman has ebbed. The new defense minister has made most of the right noises — revealing himself to be more pragmatic than previously imagined and that his self-cultivated image would warrant. Future events, though, will severely test the often glaring difference between Lieberman’s words and deeds and between political expediency and issues of war and peace.
Almost from the outset of his tenure, Lieberman’s previously uncompromising stance regarding the latest wave of Palestinian violence was put to the test. In early June, just days after he assumed the post, two Palestinian gunmen from the West Bank opened fire in a Tel Aviv shopping complex, killing four Israelis. Lieberman vowed that “severe measures” would be taken in response — presumably in contrast to Yaalon’s policies, which he had excoriated as “weak” and “defeatist.”
Yaalon’s supposedly “weak” policies, however, had actually proved successful in tamping down and containing the outbreak of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank that began last October. Despite increased counterterrorism operations, efforts were made to keep the responses pinpoint and calibrated; maintaining normal Palestinian civil and economic life was a major point of emphasis. The Palestinian Authority (PA) for its part was viewed as a partner, and coordination with its security forces was preserved and strengthened. At every turn, senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers under Yaalon explained publicly that they had designed their strategy to keep the young, lone-wolf attackers from drawing in the Palestinian masses and thus avoid a real popular uprising and widespread chaos.
Lieberman looked on dismissively during this time from the opposition benches of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, claiming that more forceful action was required. Easy advice to dish as a member of the opposition, but hard to put into practice as a defense minister, given that such attacks are often ad hoc and leave no prior intelligence footprint. More to the point, the existing policies have generally worked.
“In recent months, the number of attacks has gone down. The numbers talk,” a senior IDF officer recently told me. “It doesn’t mean we can’t have more attacks.… But we can’t arrest all the suicidal teenagers [in the West Bank].”
Lieberman’s tone has continued to be forceful after the Tel Aviv shooting and subsequent deadly attacks, but the actual change in Israeli policy since he entered the Defense Ministry has been more of degree than of kind.
True, Israel has quickened the pace of terrorist home demolitions and slowed the return of the bodies of dead terrorists. Work permits inside Israel have been revoked not only from terrorists’ family members and clans, as has been done in the past, but in one case an entire village. A few PA officials from the ruling Fatah party have had their “VIP” entry permits into Israel canceled due to public comments deemed as incitement to violence. However, only a small amount of tax transfer money has so far been withheld from the PA — the military professionals’ thinking being that payment of salaries, in particular for the PA security forces, is in Israel’s interest as well. Although the IDF has increased its troop presence in the southern West Bank, wholesale closures around cities and towns in the restive Hebron region have been short-lived.
In sum, the IDF high command has seemingly had success convincing their new boss that more far-reaching punitive measures — what some view as “collective punishment” and others as “deterrence” — would be counterproductive. Few of the steps implemented under Lieberman are actually new: Even the Israeli cabinet’s announcement of further West Bank settlement construction (a “Zionist response to terror”) was, ultimately, a recycled and long-dormant plan.
As the trip to the Hizme checkpoint showed, Lieberman’s pragmatism extends to what he previously would have likely blasted as a “capitulation” to terrorism. Yet it is telling that when asked if there has, in fact, been a shift in policy under Lieberman, military officials clam up. They intimate that they don’t discuss political issues — an indication that they’re likely still fighting a rear-guard action to maintain their preferred West Bank policy. A major terrorist attack, like the one narrowly avoided on the light rail in Jerusalem, could change everything.
Where the IDF and Lieberman see eye to eye, however, is with respect to the Gaza Strip. In recent weeks, several Israeli military correspondents have reported that Lieberman demanded a strategy for toppling the Hamas regime in the territory. As Al-Monitor’s Ben Caspit wrote, the first order issued by the new defense minister was for an “operative plan” to destroy Hamas and that the defense minister “expressed disbelief” that no such scheme existed.
Here too, though, Lieberman isn’t as far outside the conventional wisdom of Israel’s security establishment as he first appears. As recently as this April, before the Lieberman appointment was even a glint in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eye, the IDF was publicly touting a more aggressive Gaza policy. “We have a plan to defeat Hamas’s military wing based on different parameters that have been determined,” a senior officer said then. “The plan will allow for different options — from a deterring strike to the full capture of the Gaza Strip. The plan could develop to the most extreme directions.”
For Lieberman, political exigency demands that he maintain the perception of change and an image of force. “If someone tries to impose a conflict on us, it has to end decisively,” he said recently.
That’s tough talk — and toppling Hamas may sound good in theory. But the question remains what Israel would do with the territory, and who would govern it, on the day after the Islamist movement’s fall. “At no point does [Lieberman] explain what he means by a decisive outcome,” one veteran Israeli journalist observed to me. In spite of the tough talk, a person familiar with Lieberman’s thinking did admit that the problem of Gaza was “controversial” and that it was “still unclear how [Lieberman] would act as defense minister” when the next round of fighting came. It is worth recalling that as foreign minister under Netanyahu during the 2012 Gaza war, Lieberman was prominently involved in ending the fighting with a cease-fire agreement after eight days.
Lieberman may come across as a fire-breathing ideologue, but his behavior while in government reveals a more practical politician. His thinking, said the person familiar with Lieberman’s beliefs, has to be viewed “not as doctrinaire or ideological and not even in terms of right, left, or center.” Rather, the new defense minister approaches issues with a “very pragmatic, security-orientated, and broad” understanding of the issues; the one description that this source and others inevitably fall back on is that Lieberman exemplifies “outside-the-box” thinking.
On no issue is this approach more prominently on display than the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It is here that Lieberman’s many contradictions, paradoxes, and unorthodoxies — both positive and negative — come to the fore.
Lieberman is often described as a hard-liner and ultra-nationalist and is indeed a longtime West Bank settler. Nevertheless, he has constantly supported a two-state solution, maintaining that the “unity of the nation takes precedence over the wholeness of the land.”
Of course, Lieberman demands that any diplomatic settlement with the Palestinians come on his terms. His Yisrael Beiteinu party’s platform calls for a “package deal” reached with neighboring Arab states, Israel’s Palestinian citizens, and the Palestinians themselves, more or less in that order. This regional approach has lately risen to near consensus in Israeli political discourse, conveniently circumventing the thorny issue of actually having to negotiate with the PA — an entity Lieberman has called a “political carcass.”
Lieberman envisions a peace deal that would see a “populated territories exchange,” whereby Arab-majority areas in central Israel would be transferred to a future Palestinian state. The defense minister is almost pathologically obsessed with the issue of loyalty among Israel’s Arab citizens, who represent 20 percent of the country. Race-baiting has been an appalling Lieberman staple for years: He has described them as a “fifth column,” telling them openly that “you’re not wanted here.”
In practical terms, it’s unclear why any Palestinian would agree to Lieberman’s peace plan, how such a plan would be implemented, or how true peace and security would come from it. The best that can be said is that the plan leaves Lieberman with just enough flexibility to maintain his “Rorschach test” political image: On the wide gamut of the political spectrum, people can see in him whatever they like.
For all the controversy that his initial appointment as defense minister generated, Lieberman has on the whole maintained a low public profile since taking up the post. Select leaks have stressed his good working relationship with the IDF General Staff, which he anonymously praised as the best in 20 years. “It’s almost natural that he’s the defense minister now,” the person familiar with Lieberman’s thinking observed. “All the noise has fallen away.”
Unlike his predecessor, Lieberman has not claimed the mantle of a “supreme IDF chief of staff,” the veteran journalist told me. He hasn’t yet tried to do the job of the military professionals for them. “He’s a politician, and he leaves the details to the army.”
Even on the noisiest issue prior to his appointment — the trial of an IDF soldier for the shooting death of a wounded Palestinian attacker in Hebron in March — Lieberman’s voice has been conspicuous by its absence. Although Lieberman visited the military courtroom to show solidarity with the soldier and blasted the IDF’s rules of engagement as too stringent prior to becoming defense minister, he has now adopted a more prudent approach. He even said recently that whichever soldier “wasn’t sure [about the rules] should ask his commanders.”
Similarly, his pre-appointment vow to assassinate Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh “within 48 hours” of becoming defense minister if the group didn’t return the bodies of two deceased Israeli soldiers has not come to fruition. A website called “Is Ismail Haniyeh Dead Yet?” keeps a mocking running clock of the time since Lieberman took up the post, in order to remind people of the unfulfilled promise. At this point, it’s past the two-month mark.
It would be wrong, however, to view such volte-faces as a sign of immaturity or a limited strategic vision. Even by the cutthroat standards of Israel’s domestic scene, Lieberman is a master politician. He successfully turned a scandal-plagued party with only six Knesset seats into a vehicle for his entry into the position he coveted most — and this only after spurning Netanyahu’s overtures immediately after last year’s general election, holding out for a better deal.
The consensus now is that he will use the Defense Ministry as a platform for the only post more powerful. “His pragmatism and professionalism will change eventually,” the veteran journalist said. “He’s waiting for the proper political moment to either challenge Netanyahu or succeed him.”
Until that moment comes, Lieberman will likely continue doing what he has done so far: confounding expectations, zigging while others zag, zagging while others zig. The only difference is that he’s now responsible for the security of Israel, steering it through challenges that will require more than just words.
Photo credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP/Getty Images