May 23, 2016 - The Herzog-Yaalon-Lieberman-Sisi-Bibi drama; the real Netanyahu at work

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses what happened last week, with Israel beginning last week with a Likud-Labor unity government, blessed by the president of Egypt, and ended with an even more right-wing government and the departure of a defense minister who stood up for IDF commanders with liberal values; the fallout; and where this leaves civil-military relations in Israel.

Q. Israel seemed to begin last week with a Likud-Labor unity government, blessed by the president of Egypt. It ended last week with an even more right-wing government and the departure of a defense minister who stood up for IDF commanders with liberal values. What happened, and why?

A. This is all about PM Netanyahu, his values and his tactics. It tells us once again that his only strategies are staying in power and holding onto as much West Bank territory as possible.

The drama began with Netanyahu’s difficulty in managing a right-wing coalition of only 61 (out of 120) members of Knesset: he found it increasingly difficult to maintain coalition discipline on issues like exploitation of Mediterranean gas, and witnessed the repeated loss of his narrow majority in Knesset votes due to “blackmail” by wayward Likud and other coalition members. So he needed to broaden his coalition.

He was also concerned over the stand taken by the IDF’s top brass, backed by Defense Minister Yaalon, himself a former chief of staff, in defense of the purity of arms and Israeli values and morality concerning the Palestinian issue. In one incident, current Chief of Staff Eizenkot condemned the apparent execution of a wounded and neutralized Palestinian knifer in Hebron by an IDF soldier, Elor Azaria (currently on trial), while Netanyahu, responding to popular sentiment, reassured the soldier’s father. In another, Deputy Chief of Staff Golan was taken to task by Netanyahu for insinuating, on Holocaust Memorial Day, that the behavior of certain Israelis increasingly reminded him of the Nazis in the 1930s.

The generals’ spirited criticism of his supporters’ values apparently weighed heavily on the prime minister. While Netanyahu cannot easily replace the IDF leadership, Yaalon’s support for the generals signaled the potential for a major and intolerable rift between the security establishment and Netanyahu’s right-wing messianist followers. Note that Yaalon’s primary claim to being a right-winger was his consistent assertion that Israel does not have a Palestinian partner for peace, hence has to maintain the occupation, and that he has generally opposed Likud and other rightist initiatives to curtail human rights and muzzle the High Court of Justice.

In parallel, Netanyahu was wary of looming peace initiatives on the Palestinian front that found his government without a peace plan of its own and without Arab partners for negotiation. The French are convening a peace conference on June 3. There are rumors that US President Obama will present his own outline of a two-state agreement before leaving office. These initiatives seemingly dictated a move to accelerate long drawn-out coalition feelers with the Zionist Union under the leadership of Labor’s Isaac Herzog, particularly after the attorney general gave a green light by signaling a few weeks ago that Herzog would not be indicted over suspicions of campaign finance violations. Netanyahu, a master at political maneuver, knew that the inexperienced Herzog could easily be manipulated in the course of coalition talks.

Accordingly, Netanyahu was not really serious about conceding to Herzog’s demands for a genuine peace process and a settlement-construction freeze. Roughly half of Herzog’s Knesset contingent recognized this fact, accused Herzog of political naivete and threatened not to follow him into the coalition.

Netanyahu and Herzog brought the international and regional community into their discussion of a new peace process initiative. They allowed that it would be based on a strong regional component, building on Israel’s improved strategic relationship with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which in turn is based on shared concerns regarding the hostile intentions of both the Islamic State and Iran. Accordingly, US Secretary of State Kerry and former Quartet representative Tony Blair were recruited to persuade Egyptian President Sisi to issue a statement, last Wednesday, encouraging “political parties” in Israel to move toward peace.

(Needless to say, when the Israeli right talks about a “regional arrangement” this is in fact wishful thinking that Arab state pressure will be applied to the Palestinian leadership to acquiesce in some of Israel’s more controversial demands regarding territorial annexation and united Jerusalem. Avigdor Lieberman, incidentally, is a champion of this approach. The Arab states are far less enthusiastic.)

Finally, Yaalon and Lieberman were known quantities. The former enjoys little strong support within the Likud’s far-right rank-and-file and is thus expendable. The latter’s price for joining the coalition was the Ministry of Defense, lip-service to the death penalty for terrorists, and pensions for aging Russian immigrants who are his primary constituents. Note that Finance Ministry objections regarding this last issue were still delaying Lieberman’s appointment at the time of writing but that the gap appeared to be negotiable.

Ultimately, Bibi feinted left and moved right. He dumped Herzog, claiming the Labor leader did not enjoy his party’s support, and embraced Lieberman. Had he planned all along to do this? More likely, he got cold feet regarding the price he might pay within his own party and internationally for conceding to Herzog’s demands, while spotting an opportunity nevertheless to expand his coalition and get rid of the problematic Yaalon.

 

Q. And the fallout?

A. Sisi was humiliated. He welcomed a peace coalition in Jerusalem and ended up with loud-mouth Lieberman--settler, racist, proto-fascist who threatened in the past to bomb the Aswan Dam. How this affects Sisi’s relationship with Netanyahu remains to be seen.

Kerry and Blair got yet another lesson regarding Netanyahu’s credibility. They also experienced Herzog’s weakness as a leader and a negotiator. They’ll still have to live with Netanyahu, but they both should have known better than to trust him.

Yaalon, removed from the defense portfolio and offered the Foreign Ministry, surprised Netanyahu by resigning from the government and the Knesset. His parting words: “Dangerous and extremist elements have taken over the Likud.” In the ultimate expression of perverse poetic justice, Yaalon will now be replaced on the Likud Knesset list by US-born Yehuda Glick, extremist Temple Mount activist and provocateur.

Herzog, branded a loser by his own party, probably will not long remain at its helm. Still in the opposition too is Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party--conceivably another target for a Netanyahu coalition expansion initiative.

Assuming that within days he is confirmed as defense minister the blustery Lieberman, who lacks any security background, is a liability to Israel’s strategic interests. He regularly threatens to assassinate Hamas leaders--a move that would almost certainly trigger a wave of suicide bombings inside Israel. His ability to work effectively with the defense establishment is in doubt, to the extent that on Sunday Netanyahu found it necessary to reassure the public that he himself is ultimately in charge of Israel’s security.

Lieberman also brings with him a thick file of police investigations into his and his party’s financial improprieties. One of his six MKs, Yisrael Beitenu number two Orli Levy-Abekasis, bolted the party in protest at his readiness to abandon her socio-economic agenda and not consult with her in advance as he joined the coalition.

As foreign minister in recent years, Lieberman was not welcome in some European countries and in all Arab countries. He is considered pro-Russian and less than pro-American. Yet as defense minister, one of his tasks will be to conclude a new security agreement with the Pentagon.

 

Q. Where does this leave civil-military relations in Israel?

A. The IDF leadership has emerged in recent months as the champion of liberal values and standards in the occupied territories and to some extent even in Israeli politics. Yaalon was purged and Lieberman brought in to send the army a message as to who is in charge of “values” in the country. The IDF, ever loyal to the constitutional order, has saluted and accepted Lieberman. Now the question is, when will the inevitable clash take place and when it does, will the generals obey Lieberman or resign.

The new situation is reminiscent of the appointment by PM Begin of Ariel Sharon as minister of defense in 1981. Sharon, himself a former general, was never liked by his fellow generals but bypassed them in collaborating with Chief of Staff Rafael Eytan to invade Lebanon in 1982 over the objections of many in the security community. The ultimate result was a security disaster. Will Lieberman now insist the army do something equally ill-conceived, perhaps in Gaza?

The recent behavior of the army brass is also a signal to Netanyahu that, despite all his efforts, he has not yet succeeded fully in placing “his people” in charge of the Israeli security community. The Mossad and Israel Police are now run by appointees with the appropriate right-wing, religious and “Fighting Family” (pre-’48 Irgun-Lehi) backgrounds. The Shin Bet and the IDF are not, despite the rise in both bodies in recent years of high-level personnel with the “right” background.

To be sure, there is nothing new here: in Israel’s early years, politically correct (i.e., Mapai, today’s Labor) views were a clear criterion for appointment to the highest security echelon, and the best people were not always promoted. But weren’t we supposed to get beyond those issues as the country nears its seventieth birthday? Eisenkot and Golan, after all, were appointed by Likud governments.

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