Netanyahu’s Difficult Political Choices

Inside the political calculations of the new Israeli government.

The Israeli media dubbed last week’s developments as a “political storm.”  It involved the breakdown of negotiations between opposition leader Yitzhak “Bogie” Herzog, chairman of the Zionist Camp and its main component, the Labor Party, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They have been negotiating the entry of Herzog’s party into the government with its 24 seats.  In an emotional speech, Herzog accused his party’s colleague and former party chair Shelly Yachimovich of “being responsible for Avigdor Lieberman becoming Defense Minister and the concomitant wars and funerals.” 

PM Netanyahu, seeking to enlarge his narrow and fragile coalition government, entered into intense negotiations with Lieberman, chairman of the Israel Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party.  Unlike the left-of Center Zionist Camp, Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu is a right-wing party with whom Netanyahu has practically no ideological differences, albeit, Lieberman has been a political rival. Netanyahu acceded to Lieberman’s demand to receive the Defense portfolio, even though he has had little military experience and served as a corporal in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).  He is to replace former Chief-of-Staff Lt-General Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon. The Associated Press (May 20, 2016) pointed out that “If Ya’alon is replaced as expected by Lieberman, command of the Defense Ministry will transition from a general who led one of Israel’s most elite commando units and later was Chief-of-Staff, to a politician who held the rank of corporal, almost the lowest military rank.  Lieberman’s limited military experience raises further questions about the appointment.”

Back in June, 2006, this reporter interviewed Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.  Setting aside the prepared questions, I suggested to Netanyahu that if he wanted to put together a winning team, he should recruit Moshe Ya’alon to the Likud ranks, and appoint him as Defense Minister.  Earlier, I had encountered Ya’alon in New York and asked him if he would agree to join a Likud government if invited by Netanyahu? Ya’alon replied that in principle he would serve in the Likud government if invited.  Clearly, Ya’alon, a “soldier’s soldier” who was loved and adored as a commander, would be the ideal Defense minister.  Additionally, Ya’alon, a principled and decent human being, with little ego and wholehearted devotion to the IDF and the State of Israel, was and is a true believer in the longstanding IDF principle of the “purity of arms.” 

All of that was three years before Netanyahu and the Likud party won the 2009 elections.  In the aftermath of the elections and the formation of a Likud-led government that included a breakaway faction of Labor led by Ehud Barak (former Chief-of-Staff, Defense Minister, and Prime Minister), Netanyahu handed Barak the Defense portfolio while Ya’alon was appointed as Minister of Strategic Affairs and Vice Prime Minister. In the elections of 2013 in which the merged Likud/Beitenu won 31 seats, Ya’alon was finally given the Defense portfolio while Lieberman received the Foreign Ministry.

Ya’alon resigned last Friday (May 20, 2016) from his position as Defense Minister and as a (Likud) Member of the Knesset (Israeli parliament), a rare action by an Israeli political figure.  In Israel, a fierce debate has ensued regarding Netanyahu’s decision to go with Lieberman rather than Herzog on one hand, and over the replacement of Ya’alon with Lieberman.  In fairness to Netanyahu, it must be stated that he offered Ya’alon the position of Foreign Minister, which is a top portfolio, but for a non-politician, and straight shooter like Ya’alon, principle overrode power and position.  He knew that the best job he could do is to advance Israel’s security through the Defense Ministry.  Yet, Lieberman on his part, displayed his raw political ambition by demanding the Defense portfolio.  In the end, Netanyahu chose the easier route, which is to work with the familiar Lieberman rather than a more problematic Herzog, and in the process, sacrificed Ya’alon.  

In the meantime, the six seats (Mandates) that Lieberman (and his Israel’s Beitenu) was supposed to bring into the deal will only be five, since Israel Beitenu MK Orly Levy-Abekasis resigned from Israel Beitenu but will continue to serve as a Knesset Member (MK) in the opposition ranks. She said that, “The opportunity facing us as a party, to advance social issues didn’t happen” She added, “I can’t remain indifferent, therefore, I decided not to take part in the current political process…I am announcing the end of my time in Israel Beitenu.”

Before his resignation from the cabinet and the Knesset, Ya’alon was interview by “Likudnik,” a Likud affiliated website.  He spoke right from the heart, “When the Hebron shooting affair just happened, Netanyahu had agreed with me that we needed to let the military prosecution investigate and handle this.  And then, when he noticed the public mood, he changed his mind.  As a minister, I had to back the IDF chief, but I felt that Netanyahu abandoned me.”

Ya’alon and Netanyahu clashed over whether or not military officers could speak their minds and speak publicly on political matters.  Netanyahu was enraged earlier this month (During Holocaust Memorial Day) when a senior officer, Maj-General Yair Golan asserted that “It’s scary to see horrifying developments that took place in Europe begin to unfold here.” Netanyahu interpreted his comments as being distasteful and critical of the government, especially when being said during commemoration ceremonies for the Six Million martyred Jews.  Golan ultimately apologized for his remarks. Ya’alon nevertheless backed Maj.-General Golan’s right to freely express his views. 

Tensions between Ya’alon and Netanyahu intensified in March of this year, when the military high command sought disciplinary action against the soldier who shot the Palestinian terrorist who was already incapacitated.  The soldier, Sgt. Elor Azariah is now on trial for manslaughter.  In this incident, Ya’alon backed the military while Lieberman went to court to offer support for the soldier.  Netanyahu was apparently swayed by public opinion that sided with the soldier. Ya’alon maintained that he always puts Israel’s security and national interests above his own.  “Unfortunately,” he added, “I found myself lately in tough disputes over moral and professional issues with the prime minister and several ministers and members of the Knesset.”

At the heart of the dispute between Ya’alon and Netanyahu was the nature of civilian-military relations.  When generals are allowed to criticize the civilian authorities with impunity, it is a warning sign for Israel’s democracy.  In democratic Israel, however much the military is admired and trusted, the military must be apolitical, and has to be controlled by the civilian government.  In this respect Netanyahu was correct.

Yet, Lieberman bullied his way to the position of Defense Minister, to the dismay of the military, and he has also challenged Netanyahu repeatedly with demeaning insults. Lieberman has, moreover incited against Israeli-Arab citizens, and thus is viewed with alarm by “friendly” Arab states, including Egypt’s President Al-Sisi, who also urged Netanyahu to select Herzog rather than Lieberman.  Conversely, Ya’alon offered Netanyahu rare loyalty in Israel’s political life. He has repeatedly said that he will not run for the Likud chairmanship as long as Netanyahu is Prime Minister.  

Netanyahu has had difficult political choices to make.  It was critical for him to enlarge his coalition government beyond the fragile 61 seat narrow majority.  Israel Beitenu was an easy ideological choice, but it won’t help solidify Israeli society behind the government.  Given the challenges Israel faces, a national unity government between the two major political blocs - Likud and the Zionist Camp - would have done that, probably without having to sacrifice Moshe Ya’alon.