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 the unusual interview that Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman gave to a Palestinian daily; his comments about Gaza; his comments about Abbas; his peace formula; some significant things Lieberman did not say; he also discusses the right-wing establishment’s designs regarding the Jewish character of Israel, including Justice Minister Shaked's significant statement made a few weeks ago.
Q. Last week, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman gave an unusual interview to a Palestinian daily. Is there anything really new here?
A. Two dimensions of the interview are new and warrant attention. First is the simple fact that an East Jerusalem
Palestinian daily, al-Quds, interviewed Lieberman. The newspaper was heavily criticized by Palestinians across the
political spectrum between Ramallah and Gaza City for having even spoken to the defense minister
(“normalization!”). Lieberman, after all, is generally seen by Palestinians as racist and hawkish, not to mention
that he is a West Bank settler. But the hubbub certainly ensured that Lieberman’s assertions were closely
scrutinized by Palestinians in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and that presumably was Lieberman’s
Second, aggressive statements made by Lieberman when he was a leader of the right-wing opposition to the Netanyahu government could at the time be discounted as “normal” exaggerated politicking and harassment of the ruling coalition by an outspoken renegade. But Lieberman has been defense minister for several months now. When he repeats these statements in an official capacity and very publicly, both Israelis and Palestinians have to take notice. Of particular interest were his declarations regarding Israel’s options of either conquering or rebuilding the Gaza Strip, his denigration of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and the nature of territorial and demographic exchanges he proposes for a two-state solution.
Q. Let’s start with Gaza.
A. Lieberman put Hamas on notice that while Israel will not initiate aggression, if Hamas starts another war this
will be its last: Israel’s response will “destroy them entirely”. While technically Lieberman rejected the notion
of reoccupying the Strip, in practice the only way to eliminate Hamas would be to do so at least temporarily. This
must be understood as a major update of Israel’s Gaza strategy: no more periodic “mowing the lawn” and grabbing at
the first offer of a ceasefire. Rather, the IDF under Lieberman will respond with a major military effort involving
heavy losses on both sides, huge international and regional repercussions, and absolutely no guarantee regarding
what lies beyond in Gaza once the last Hamas fighter has been killed or captured.
Is Lieberman bluffing? Will Hamas test his resolve? And are PM Netanyahu and the Israel Defense Forces on board for this far-reaching revision of Israel’s Gaza strategy?
On the other hand, Lieberman offered Gazans a naval port and an airport if Hamas in effect lays down its arms and ceases digging tunnels and building rockets. He also pledged to cooperate with Turkey and approve its projects for Gaza in the areas of desalination, electricity and sewage: “One day Gaza could be a new Singapore or Hong Kong,” he proposed. The Singapore metaphor is even older than the defunct Oslo Accords. So is the expectation that Hamas will cease to be Hamas. Don’t hold your breath.
Q. And Abbas?
A. “Abbas is not interested in a solution for the Palestinian people. He is only interested in . . . the assets
owned by himself and his family. . . . Abu Mazen [Abbas] doesn’t have the capacity to sell the goods [hard
concessions to Israel] to his people.” Lieberman added that there were “reasonable” alternative leaders in the
Lieberman has long argued that Abbas is not a viable partner for a two-state solution. Here his statement must be understood in a dual context. On the one hand, Lieberman has resolved publicly to bypass the current PA leadership and directly address--many would say incite--the West Bank population. On the other, one cannot escape the conclusion that Lieberman is searching for an alternative West Bank leader and an alternative leader for Gaza if, inevitably, Hamas renews its aggression. The name of ex-security chief Muhammad Dahlan, currently exiled by Abbas’s Fatah leadership but reportedly anxious to return, keeps surfacing in this connection. Some 20 years ago, in the heyday of Oslo, Lieberman was allegedly linked with Dahlan and an Austrian Jewish millionaire in a casino enterprise in Jericho. Could the Dahlan-Lieberman link have survived the casino’s collapse in the smoke of the second intifada?
Q. Finally, Lieberman’s peace formula. . .
A. “The correct principle is the exchange of territories and populations rather than of land for peace.” On this
issue alone Lieberman emphasized that he was presenting his personal opinion and not that of the Netanyahu
government. Lieberman wants a two-state solution to attach as many settlements as possible to sovereign Israel,
while compensating the Palestinian state not with stretches of empty land in the Judean Desert but with Israeli
Arab towns and villages, including their population of Arab citizens of Israel, that lie near the green line 1967
border. “They regard themselves as Palestinian so let them be Palestinian. . . . The Palestinians want a state
without Jews, while [according to the usual land swap formula] we will be a country in which 20 percent of the
citizens describe themselves as Palestinian. That can’t be.”
Here too, Lieberman has been presenting this formula for years, even decades. He is taking an idea that was implemented in Alsace-Lorraine and along the Italian-Austrian border after European wars when it seemed logical and proposing it in an era when post-WWII norms of human rights would prohibit stripping Israeli Arabs of their Israeli citizenship--which is Lieberman’s real objective. Israel’s High Court of Justice would never condone such an act. Alternatively, would a newly-minted sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and possibly Gaza prove so attractive to Israeli Arabs whose towns become, a la Lieberman, part of a Palestinian state that they would voluntarily forsake Israeli citizenship? Don’t count on it.
Q. Was there anything significant Lieberman did not say?
A. He made no mention of the bodies of two IDF soldiers Hamas has held since the summer 2014 war. Hamas wants to
exchange them for live Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. This is a highly controversial issue in the Israeli
public security narrative. Lieberman’s implied refusal (by ignoring the topic in the al-Quds interview) to
negotiate over dead bodies infuriated the families of the two fallen soldiers. They reminded the defense minister
that in his outspoken days before assuming his current ministry he had threatened to give the Hamas leadership a
48-hour ultimatum to return the remains; “now he wants to turn Gaza into Singapore.”
Lieberman’s silence on the issue means either that he won’t negotiate or, more likely, that he hopes maintaining a low public profile will eventually lower the price Israel has to pay for the remains (and for two apparently mentally disturbed Israelis who entered Gaza of their own free will and whose families want them back). This is a ghoulish business. His current stance on the prisoner question (though not necessarily on the Palestinian issues he discussed) is probably quietly supported by the security establishment, which does not relish releasing hard-core Hamas terrorists in exchange for either bodies or troubled and wayward Israelis.
Q. Turning to the right-wing establishment’s designs regarding the Jewish character of Israel, Justice Minister Shaked reportedly made a significant statement a few weeks ago. . .
A. In early October, Shaked published what appears to be her credo as justice minister. She wrote in the periodical
HaShiloah that “Israel must be more Jewish in order to be more democratic”. Shaked is the only non-Orthodox
member of Knesset in the Jewish Home party, which heavily tilts toward pro-settler and pro-religious positions. As
justice minister she has considerable influence over the direction taken by the Netanyahu government regarding both
legislation and judicial appointments.
In her manifest, Shaked argues in favor of legislation that strengthens Israel’s Jewish standing. In parallel she rejects governmental regulation, High Court interference in legislation and in general excessive legislation--all well-known conservative positions. She calls for Israel to be a more Jewish country--a position that dovetails with that of Education Minister Naftali Bennet who leads her party, for whom more Jewish education in Israeli schools means more Orthodox religious education at the expense of secular and non-Orthodox aspects of Jewish identity. She rejects the “description of the relationship between Jewish and democratic as a constant struggle” and as “distinct traditions” and insists that more Jewish will mean more democratic. In what context? She believes (“a Thatcherist manifest”), that the less regulated economy she envisions will be the expression of a more democratic Israel!
This is bad news for true Israeli liberals who want a democratic country whose Jewish aspects are largely symbolic at the sovereign level and personal at the civic level. As MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union), herself a former minister of justice, noted in responding to Shaked, “this is a reminder regarding what is happening here--the demolishing of Israel as a Jewish and democratic country. . . . The settler leadership running the country . . . will do anything to weaken democracy and the courts that maintain its values. . . . The government is educating the next generation that democracy is merely a technical issue.”
To sum up, between Lieberman and Shaked, the Netanyahu government is charting a dangerous course for Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish country and for peace with Palestinians.