Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is seen walking with his former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in early 2017. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun

A flare-up that could have led to a full-scale conflict between Israel and Hamas ended on Tuesday as the Egyptian government brokered a ceasefire between the belligerent parties. The move is remarkably unpopular in Israel.

Residents living in the worst-hit areas burned tires and protested, demanding that the government finish off Hamas once and for all. According to a snap poll, 74% of Israelis are dissatisfied with the manner in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handled the crisis. The Israeli public craves a decisive victory and the removal of the threat of rocket attacks on their homes.

The next day Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced his resignation and that his hawkish party would leave the government. The official reason given on Wednesday was that the ceasefire “is a capitulation to terror.” He added: “Our response was drastically lacking to the 500 rockets fired at us.”

These are strange comments from the man technically responsible for the performance the Israeli armed forces.

The real reasons for the move may have more to do with electoral calculations than genuine policy disagreements. Lieberman ran on an outlandishly hawkish platform. As a candidate, he promised that is he was defense minister, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would be dead within 48 hours and that Hamas would be removed from power in Gaza. This did not occur.

As a candidate, Lieberman promised that if he was the defense minister, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would be dead within 48 hours and Hamas would be removed from power in Gaza. This did not occur.

As Aluf Ben of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper pointed out: “All that will be remembered from Lieberman’s empty tenure is that he is gone, and Ismail Haniyeh, who he promised ‘would be gone in 48 hours’, is still there.”

Contrary to its combative rhetoric, the Netanyahu government pursues a moderate policy towards Hamas. It has gone further than any of its predecessors in negotiating (so far unsuccessfully) a long-term ceasefire on the Gaza border.

When contrasted with the policy pursued by the government, Lieberman’s empty pre-electoral threats seem both populist and out of sync.

According to Israeli law, an election must be held within the next year. But due to the corruption scandals hounding Netanyahu, they are likely to occur sooner.

Lieberman understandably feels that the only way to resuscitate his hawkish reputation is by taking a firm stand against an unpopular ceasefire. Considering his previous statements, if he were to remain in the government Lieberman may have struggled to garner enough votes to even remain in the Knesset.

Dashed ambition

This is a very disappointing outcome for Lieberman. When the head of Yisrael Beytenu was appointed as defense minister, it was considered a major step forward for his career. Many of the most notable individuals in Israeli political history have occupied the hallowed seat, including David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon. Common wisdom in military-obsessed Israel holds that aspirants for national leadership require foreign policy and security experience. With the defense ministry portfolio in hand, the sky seemed to be the limit for Lieberman.

It did not turn out that way. Despite promising to come in and shake up the system, the new defense minister quickly surrendered to the all-powerful system and maintained the status quo. Lieberman was awed by the authority and aura of the generals and swayed by the bureaucrats in the ministry. Even when he disagreed with the prevailing opinions, the hawkish minister was unable to influence policy. Behind closed doors, he complained that Netanyahu successfully blocked his influence by working directly with Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot.

As a result of this dynamic, Lieberman was unable to gain the advantage he had hoped for over his electoral rivals in the nationalist camp. Netanyahu was clearly the decider and overshadowed his defense chief. Meanwhile, Lieberman’s other rival for the right-wing vote, head of the Jewish Home party Naftali Bennet, was able to criticize security policy from the outside. As minister of education, Bennett avoided direct responsibility for unpopular decisions on war and peace.

A fool’s errand

The sapping of Lieberman’s political strength in the position is not unique. The political careers of the last few defense ministers came to a halt after they completed their tenure. Ehud Barak went in as leader of the Labour Party in 2007, and although he ran the ministry competently, he lost the leadership of the party and formed a breakaway list which faded into oblivion. His successor, former Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, took over the role as one of the most senior members of the Likud party. By the time he resigned, he was forced out of the Likud. He then formed his own party, which is unlikely to pass the voting threshold and enter the Knesset.

There are structural reasons for this dynamic. In the days of conventional warfare and decisive victory, the role of defense minister was associated with armored attacks and aerial dogfights viewed by the public as daring and heroic. Today, Israel engages in tedious asymmetrical warfare with non-state foes it is unable to defeat thanks to a frustrating set of strategic and structural restraints. Unable to occupy Gaza or south Lebanon, the best Israel can hope for under the current circumstances is to temporarily deter its enemies.

In the meantime, the extensive use of rockets by Hamas and Hezbollah has brought warfare into the homes of Israeli civilians with unprecedented social and political impact. This exposes the insufferable inability of the Israeli security forces to do its job and protect the citizenry. This frustrating dynamic robbed the role of defense minister of the glory once associated with it.

Bennet has not learned the lesson from Lieberman’s unappetizing dilemma. He is now demanding the defense portfolio. Otherwise, he has threatened that the Jewish Home party will leave the ruling coalition, which will then likely collapse. Netanyahu appears determined to keep the replacement under wraps until elections are held and only then appoint a new defense chief.

Any aspiring defense minister should take heed of the fate of their predecessors. In its current frustrating security environment, leading Israel into battle is a fool’s errand.

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