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A Deadly Shooting, a General’s Revolt, and the Rise of Israel’s New Right
The appointment of Avigdor Liberman as Israel's new defense minister is jolting the country’s politics and sparking fears of a "shoot first, and ask questions later" military policy.
The shot that killed Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in late March may not have been heard around the world, but it still succeeded in rocking Israeli society. Sharif, a young Palestinian man who was involved in an attack in which an Israeli soldier had been stabbed and wounded in the West Bank city of Hebron, was lying helpless and severely wounded on the ground. As the Israeli soldiers milled around and ambulances shuttled back and forth, Sgt. Elor Azaria walked over to Sharif and shot the injured man in the head from close range.
The incident divided the Israeli public and its leaders, with some expressing outrage over the killing of an incapacitated man, and others supporting even the most extreme response to a stabbing attack. Last week, the scandal indirectly claimed a political casualty: Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. The defense minister sharply criticized Azaria, saying that anyone who supported what he did “is damaging the values of the Israel Defense Forces,” or IDF. Filling Yaalon’s place as the next defense minister is Avigdor Liberman, a tough, right-wing politician known for both his tense relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aggressive attitude toward Israel’s neighbors.
Yaalon decided to resign after finding out that Netanyahu was openly offering his job to other parties. The Likud party stalwart also resigned from the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, saying that he was “taking time out from political life” due to his “lack of faith” in Netanyahu and that he was “fearful for Israel’s future” under the current leadership.
The feuding at the top of the Israeli government reflects a larger societal rift, which has been exposed by the recent surge in violence that has claimed dozens of Israeli lives since last October. The wave of stabbing attacks, mostly by young “lone-wolf” perpetrators, has brought Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories to the top of the agenda — and uncovered divisions among Israelis regarding the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the conflict and the rules of engagement for soldiers and police when handling attackers.
Right-wing politicians, in and outside of government, have demanded a shoot-to-kill policy in every incident. That includes Liberman, who said after the shooting: “Better a soldier who was wrong and remains alive than one who hesitated and got himself killed.” He even made a point of appearing in the military court last month to show his support to Azaria’s family.
Over the course of the wave of attacks, both Yaalon and IDF chief Gadi Eizenkot have ordered soldiers to shoot only in life-threatening situations, react cautiously when dealing with attackers who are minors, and provide immediate medical treatment to perpetrators after they’re shot. Eizenkot was the first to experience the right wing’s wrath after he called on soldiers not to empty their ammunition magazines into “13-year-old girl[s] with scissors.”
It was Azaria’s killing of Sharif in March that brought this brewing controversy to a head. A video of the incident released by Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem caused a huge political storm. Yaalon and Eizenkot condemned the soldier’s conduct, and he was put on trial for manslaughter. Netanyahu, who began by supporting their position, quickly changed his mind after reading public opinion polls that showed most Israelis felt the army’s reaction to the soldier’s actions had been too harsh. Netanyahu even made a phone call to Azaria’s father, during which the prime minister told him that he understood the family’s distress “as a father of a soldier” — an unprecedented step that astonished Yaalon.
Then came the final blow: Eizenkot’s deputy, Gen. Yair Golan, on May 4 compared recent trends in Israeli society to events that took place in Europe “and particularly in Germany 70 or 80 years ago.”
Any comparison to the Nazis is an absolute taboo in Israel, especially when made by an officer in uniform, speaking on National Holocaust Remembrance Day. Netanyahu publicly criticized Golan, but Yaalon came out in defense of the general. The feud between the two leaders continued a week later, when Yaalon called on officers to speak their minds freely when talking to politicians.
A few days after those remarks, Yaalon was out. Netanyahu offered his job to both Liberman and the center-left Zionist Union party. Yaalon angrily resigned, blaming the prime minister for deliberately dividing Israeli society.
But this wasn’t entirely a debate over morality. Netanyahu had other motives. The prime minister has been worried for some time about his narrow coalition, supported by only a tiny majority of 61 out of 120 Knesset members. In the Israeli system, a government can face a no-confidence vote almost at any time, making Netanyahu completely dependent on coalition backbenchers — including a young member of Likud who was recently accused in a TV report of being involved in a gambling and prostitution scandal in Bulgaria.
Netanyahu was also concerned about being seen as weak in the face of the recent terrorist attacks. His main source of support among voters is the belief that he is “Mr. Security,” so any sign of helplessness in the face of such threats represents a political problem. Netanyahu was afraid that the statements made by Yaalon and the army’s top officers were seen by his “base,” Likud’s right-wing voters, as appeasement to terrorists — and that he, as prime minister, would suffer some collateral damage.
The answer to the problem, it turned out, was Liberman. With his five Knesset members joining the coalition — the sixth Knesset member refused to join — the prime minister will enjoy a relatively comfortable margin.
Liberman was appointed director-general of Netanyahu’s office in 1996 but fell out with the prime minister not long after, and the two politicians have had a mostly stormy relationship ever since. Only a few days before becoming defense minister, Liberman accused Netanyahu of surrendering to Palestinian terrorism. In return, Netanyahu’s office called the future defense minister “unfit even for the job of military correspondent” (harsh words to the ear of this military reporter).
Those previous spats, however, don’t matter in the face of the political benefits both Netanyahu and Liberman hope to reap from their new alliance. In addition to securing the loyalty of his hawkish base, Netanyahu probably sees another advantage in replacing Yaalon with Liberman. The prime minister has been worried for some time that Yaalon and the IDF’s top brass were operating as a last pocket of resistance against him, dictating a more restrained attitude toward the Palestinians. As Haaretz political analyst Yossi Verter put it, Netanyahu will unleash Liberman “armed with a baseball bat” against the last of Israel’s old elites, the army.
The change, however, was greeted with shock at the army’s headquarters in Tel Aviv last week. The generals were not aware that Netanyahu might drop Yaalon until almost the last minute. And while Yaalon is a former IDF chief of staff who was perceived as a genuine part of the military establishment, Liberman enjoys no such relationship with the generals. The new defense minister arrived in Israel from the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and only served a short time in the IDF’s logistical branch. In recent years, he also didn’t hide his contempt of the army for its failure to deliver a massive blow to either Hezbollah or Hamas during recent confrontations in Lebanon and Gaza.
Liberman has threatened to bomb Egypt’s Aswan Dam and said last month that Israel should assassinate Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh if the organization refuses to return the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza in 2014. However, his positions are seen by the military establishment as the less serious cause for concern. It is widely believed in Israel that defense ministers show more restraint once they enter office and are faced with the huge responsibilities of the job. Netanyahu himself called for the destruction of the Hamas regime in Gaza in early 2009 yet never followed up on his promise once he became prime minister a few months later.
Neither Yaalon nor Liberman is a serious believer in the two-state solution. But they do have radically different strategies for dealing with the Palestinians. Yaalon depended on precise, limited action, along with close security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority (PA), to contain attacks. Liberman, meanwhile, has expressed contempt for Mahmoud Abbas’s government in the West Bank and will probably find it more difficult to coordinate with the PA’s various security agencies.
The most important difference, however, is the two men’s disagreement over the rules of engagement for soldiers. Liberman, unlike Yaalon, sees this matter in black and white: Terrorists need to be shot; questions and reservations are for journalists and other nudniks, not for decision-makers.
It is such views that led former Prime Minister Ehud Barak to warn on May 20 against “fascist tendencies” in the government and society. Some Israelis are beginning to voice similar fears: Last Friday, Israel’s most popular military correspondent, Roni Daniel, said on TV that, for the first time, he is having reservations whether to encourage his children to keep living in Israel as they become adults.
I’ve met them: nice kids, in their early 20s, both studying in university after significant service in the army. If Daniel, a pillar of Israel’s political mainstream and a staunch Zionist, says this, Netanyahu might be in more political trouble than he currently estimates.
VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images