Israel’s political scene is in the process of significant transition. I’ve been waiting a bit for the dust to settle, as there has been so much flux.
Now there has been some settling, certainly – and we can see the situation with a bit more clarity. But still the rumors swirl, there are a host of interpretations with regard to what has happened, and there are outcomes as yet unknown.
What we know is this:
Avidgdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (“Israel is our home”) party will be joining the coalition with Likud, bringing the number of members of the coalition up to 66 from the minimal 61 it had been.
Everyone is speaking as if it is a done-deal, but the final sign-off on the coalition agreement has yet to take place – it is being held up by details. I am going to write this with the assumption that it will finalize shortly.
Credit: Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90
Lieberman had a number of demands for joining the coalition. Primary was that the portfolio of the Minister of Defense be given to him. Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed, and informed Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon that he was out as soon as the coalition agreement was finalized. Ya’alon subsequently resigned. Reportedly, the prime minister then offered Ya’alon the position of Foreign Minister, but he turned it down. (More on Ya’alon below.)
Another demand of Lieberman was that Netanyahu support legislation promoting the death penalty for convicted terrorists, and this has been agreed to. This legislation, if passed, would not automatically invoke the penalty for terrorists convicted of a specific sort of crime. Rather, it would permit it to be invoked if it was supported by two out of three judges sitting on a case (there is no jury trial in Israel), whereas under the current law it is permitted only if there is a unanimous judicial vote in favor. And this has been only theory, as it has never happened. Such legislation has been advanced before and failed to pass, as there was no support from the prime minister.
This will be the first time Netanyahu will be supporting it. But even this is no guarantee of success for the bill that is going to be drafted. On the left there will be a great outcry about this. Former attorney general Yehuda Weinstein adamantly opposes it and has called on his successor, Avichai Mandelblit, to do the same.
In the Western world, capital punishment is invoked infrequently (but still exists in the US). I do not believe anyone is advocating that every convicted terrorist receive capital punishment. The thought is that the option should exist for particularly heinous cases.
A primary concern of advocates of capital punishment is that this precludes the possibility of those who have committed those heinous crimes being traded in a deal and thus receiving freedom to commit further heinous crimes. This has happened. It is not only a heartbreak, it constitutes a moral betrayal of the families of those who have been murdered.
As I understand it, this law would apply via the Civil Administration, in Judea and Samaria. This area is under the authority of the Ministry of Defense.
It should be noted that Lieberman is of Russian origins and his party began as a home for Russian olim (immigrants). There are a number of implications here. Lieberman is seeking enhanced benefits for Russian pensioners (retirees), although budget constraints will prevent him from achieving everything he is seeking. (This is one of the matters still under discussion.)
It has occurred to me that Lieberman’s accession to the post of Minister of Defense might resonate well with Putin, as we deal with him on military matters in Syria.
What has become clear is that this deal with Lieberman did not come out of the blue: there were negotiations and feelers on-going for some time, even as there were coalition negotiations proceeding with Yitzhak (Buji) Herzog for his Zionist Camp (Labor) to join the coalition.
Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90
Herzog stopped negotiations as soon as he realized Lieberman was also being courted. There was a point at which he was sure he had it sewed up, and was ready to step into the government to “make peace.”
Now Herzog is being lambasted by his party for being used, and may yet step down – or be pushed out – from his leadership position in Labor. Shelley Yachimovich is poised to resume that position, which she held previously.
If this happens, I say, “Bye, bye, Buji.”
Rabbi Yehuda Glick, who was next in line on the Likud list, will move into the Knesset because of Ya’alon’s resignation.
Rabbi Glick, who miraculously survived a terror attack in October 2014, says he believes God saved him because his work on this earth is not done. An ardent activist for Jewish rights on Har Habayit (the Temple Mount), Glick is often labeled an extremist. But the fact of the matter is that in many respects, he is quite moderate.
There are those saying that the new coalition will be the most right wing government Israel has ever had.
As to Ya’alon, he seems to be having a temper tantrum. He has now made statements to the press about the government having lost its “moral compass.”
Whereas I – and many others on the right – see it quite a different way. It was Ya’alon who lost his way. There are solid reports from the inside that indicate he knew what was coming down the road – that it was no surprise. Yet he prefers to behave as if he has been ambushed.
The military in a democracy – while obligated to train the best troops and develop the most effective weaponry possible, and to use those troops and weapons as required in defense of the nation – takes its order from the political echelon. It does not make political decisions. Yet Ya’alon, who was not in sync with a number of government decisions, chose to push his own policies and ended up encouraging insurgency on the part of the IDF elite, in the name of “free speech.” He had to go.
Netanyahu let it be known that he didn’t want terrorists’ bodies returned to families. Ya’alon returned bodies of those terrorists taken down in Judea and Samaria. Most recently there was a major funeral held, even though there was supposed to be a stipulation requiring a small funeral. On another occasion, the army said they released a body “by mistake.” Please, do not ask me to justify or explain this.
And it was the IDF brass and not the government that pushed for a cessation of IDF operations in Areas A and B.
Perhaps most distressing, however, were Ya’alon’s statements regarding Elor Azariya, the soldier who killed the immobilized terrorist in Hevron. “We’re not ISIS here, you know,” he intoned.
You might find this open letter to Ya’alon from a member of Likud enlightening with regard to what has been going on:
Amos Harel, writing in Haaretz, spoke of:
“…the crisis of confidence between Netanyahu and Ya’alon and the IDF brass in recent months…
“There will now be an attempt to reeducate the General Staff, now without Ya’alon, as Bennett is doing to the Education Ministry and the civics teachers, and as Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is trying to do with the state prosecution and the Supreme Court.”
Whatever Harel’s feelings in the matter, for many, this is wonderful news. Not only is it critical that the government and the IDF brass relate in a spirit of confidence, it is reassuring that there will an attempt to bring the top brass around to a different sort of thinking. For two long, leftists have held sway. We are moving right now, and the leftists are screaming bloody murder.
Ya’alon declares that he is not finished with politics. He will either start his own centrist-left party, or join one already in existence. Of course, he could have remained in the government in the position of Foreign Minister, but chose not to. I believe this is likely so that he can have more political latitude than he would within the constraints of the current coalition.
And I think Ronn Torossian is correct, when he writes that “Ya’alon’s public trashing of Netanyahu harms Israel worldwide.”
Ya’alon, who claims the higher moral ground, has dishonored himself.
His last vindictive act before leaving was to cancel the permits for Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan (Habayit Hayehudi) and his staff to enter the Kirya – Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu has since restored the permits.
There was long-standing enmity between Ben-Dahan and Ya’alon. According to the coalition agreement, Habayit Hayehudi is to have control of the Civil Administration, and it was Ben-Dahan, as Deputy Defense Minister, who should have been given that role. But Ya’alon balked, undoubtedly because Ben-Dahan’s right wing views were not to his liking.
This is one of the situations we can hope might now be adjusted by Lieberman.
As a cry-and-hue has gone up in certain quarters about the prospect of Lieberman, a civilian, assuming the role of Minister Defense, I note here comments by Aaron Lerner, director of IMRA (emphasis added):
“Some talking heads in Israel are essentially asserting that only senior brass are qualified to serve as minister of defense.
“But ex-brass come to the job with the mind set of the defense establishment.
“And while the defense establishment may be fantastic planning an operation, after the operation’s goals have been delineated they have been a profound disaster in setting goals and policies…
“Our last civilian defense minister was Amir Peretz. Many Israelis owe him their lives thanks to his rejection of the recommendation of the brass that we first demolish Lebanese infrastructure at the start of the Second Lebanon War, Peretz wisely insisted that we first wipe out the missiles before they could be repositioned. Even more Israelis owe their lives to Peretz for deciding on Iron Dome.
“Contrast the foresight of civilian Peretz to the shocking lack of vision of Ehud Barak [a military man] – who couldn’t fathom the strategic value having a second strike capability provided by submarine able to launch Jericho missiles…”
Lerner was not endorsing Lieberman, per se, but saying that a civilian Defense Minister may be the way to go.
Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) speaking at the Jerusalem Post Conference in NY on Sunday, had similar words, but coupled with an endorsement:
“I would also like to say, that as someone who has known Avigdor Lieberman personally for more than 20 years, I am confident that he will make an excellent Minister of Defense. I believe that it is good that every once in a while, we have a Defense Minister who does not come from the military establishment. Someone from the outside can bring fresh thinking and a fresh perspective to the IDF.”
There are numerous questions that are still floating in the political atmosphere.
One is the issue of whether Lieberman is truly right wing, and whether he can be trusted to be stable within the government.
He has on occasion been a loose cannon. No question. But in this situation he is demonstrating a readiness to play it for reasonableness and stability. One of his big issues in the past was an insistence that the haredim (ultra Orthodox) had to serve in the army without exemptions. But now he has backed off on this, recognizing that there are two ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition with which he must work.
As to being right wing – it strikes me that seeking the death sentence for terrorists would put him solidly on the right. So would his – very welcome and very reasonable – comments with regard to the soldier in Hevron who shot the terrorist:
It may be that the soldier was right or that he was wrong in his decision to shoot the terrorist, Lieberman said: “that will be checked by the appropriate sources in the IDF.
“But what is already clear now is that this onslaught against the soldier is hypocritical and unjustified, and it is better to have a soldier who makes a mistake and stays alive than a soldier who hesitates and the terrorist kills him.”
There has been a bit of panic, as well, that a very right wing Lieberman (this comes from different people than those who say he isn’t really right wing, of course) will cause problems with the US and others. In particular, there has been concern expressed that we won’t get the aid we otherwise would have gotten from the US.
But a “senior official from Washington” has told channel 10 that “Ya’alon’s replacement will not affect the continuation of negotiations between Israel and the scope of the military aid package Israel is to receive from the United States over the next ten years.”
Undoubtedly, Kerry is a very unhappy camper at the moment. He had been pulling for Herzog in the government, eager for what this would mean for his last push to get Israel to the table.
And the PA? A bit apoplectic, I think.
In any event, we should not, in my opinion, make decisions based on what the world thinks: They find fault with us no matter what we do. Our concern must be doing what strengthens us most effectively.
Questions remain as well as to what was in Netanyahu’s head when he made the decisions he did, and why he opted in the end for Lieberman and not Herzog.
Some believe that Netanyahu’s only concern was strengthening his coalition. It would appear on the surface that the Zionist Camp’s 24 members would have been a far better bet than Yisrael Beitenu’s relatively meager six members (actually five now, as one member resigned the party). However, in reality, entrance of Zionist Camp into the coalition might have brought about greater instability, as some in Likud, who were adamantly opposed, might have bolted, as might some members of the Zionist Camp.
According to one credible version of behind the scenes maneuvering, Netanyahu needed to be convinced that Lieberman (with whom he did not exactly have a warm relationship) was serious and would enter the coalition on stable terms. Once convinced of this – reportedly with the intervention of Minister Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) – he moved readily in that direction. Some say that Netanyahu was glad to be able to do this, as this is a more natural fit for him than the Zionist Camp would have been.
Elkin, who is quite right wing and very savvy, is from the Ukraine and speaks Russian. He accompanies Netanyahu during his meetings with Putin and is obviously trusted by the prime minister.
There is a widely held opinion that Netanyahu never really wanted Herzog in, and was using him to lure Lieberman to come forward. Certainly many in Labor think so. They see Herzog as a patsy.
Then there is the very plausible possibility that Netanyahu preferred Lieberman in part because his demand for the Defense portfolio gave the prime minister a smooth way to get rid of Ya’alon.
If I have a concern at present, is that Netanyahu, eager to show the world that he has not swung too far right, will bend over backward in the other direction.
“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to embark on a major diplomatic effort to disprove outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s accusations that, under his premiership, Israel and the Likud Party are heading toward the extreme right, senior Likud sources said Saturday night.”
Netanyahu has said that there is “a great diplomatic opportunity on the horizon because of certain developments in the Middle East.” If moving forward on these is appropriate, all well and good. He’s referring here to moderate Arab states, not the Palestinian Authority. But saying this will be done in order to prove Ya’alon’s charges wrong is nonsense.
Just as it’s nonsense – grandstanding – that, after Lieberman already agreed to join the coalition, Netanyahu declared he would keep the door open to Zionist Camp to also join. This is a patent impossibility. Herzog was roundly criticized for entering the unity negotiations and Yachimovich will have no part of it. Even more so now, with Lieberman in the government. Netanyahu is well aware of all of this. He simply wanted to show the world he is responsive to the left.
At present, the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs will remain empty. Technically, the prime minister fills this role and says he wishes to continue to do so in order to manage affairs in the months ahead, with the French initiative and more. Although Netanyahu confident Dore Gold, as Director-General of the Ministry, is unofficially playing a role here.
According to reports I’ve read in several places, this portfolio has been promised in writing to Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud), but Netanyahu intends to hold off on this. Katz is opposed to a Palestinian state, and Netanyahu is uneasy about what the response to his appointment would be after Lieberman’s appointment.
Dudu Fisher, singing a light-hearted “Rachem Na”
Have mercy, please, Almighty, on your people, Israel.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by Arlene Kushner, functioning as an independent journalist. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.
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