[Israel’s] security advantage means cooperation with moderate nations…our partners could gain very nice inputs. And there’s also the economic sphere. I am convinced that one day, we’ll have embassies in Riyadh, in Kuwait, in the Gulf States and other places. The combination of our initiative, technology and knowledge with their tremendous financial reserves can together change the world.
Who said that? Shimon Peres, Israel’s premier “peace” exponent over the past quarter-century? Isaac Herzog, current leader of Israel’s left-wing opposition?
No, the man who said that a year and a half ago was Avigdor Lieberman—Israel’s newly sworn-in, much-reviled defense minister.
The New York Times has recoiled in horror at this development. It bemoans Lieberman’s “ultranationalist positions” and says his “appointment would make a mockery of any possible Israeli overtures to the Palestinians.”
The State Department, too, is unhappy. In what The Times of Israel calls a “rare comment on the internal politics of a US ally”—rare, that is, except in the case of Israel, which the State Department raps publicly with numbing frequency—spokesman Mark Toner said Washington had “seen reports from Israel describing it as the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history…. This raises legitimate questions about the direction it may be headed in.”
As for the abovementioned Herzog, he exemplified the Israeli left-wing lamentations with: “I’m sorry Netanyahu chose to blink and move the leadership helm in an extremist direction. The citizens of Israel should be concerned about a right-wing coalition that will lead Israel to dangerous places.”
It’s reminiscent of when, back in 2001, Ariel Sharon took the helm as prime minister. Sharon, of course, was then a demonic figure for the Israeli left, and viewed with much trepidation abroad.
Yet it was Sharon who, four years later, ended up taking the dovish step—which these days appears to be proving itself—of pulling Israel out of Gaza. How could that have been?
It could be because—as anyone who bothered looking at the facts, and regarded Sharon as a complex human being rather than a demon, could see—his record was actually far from monolithically hawkish. He had come out in favor of his predecessor, Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s, withdrawal from Lebanon (2000). Before that, as foreign minister in Netanyahu’s first government (1996-1999), Sharon had gotten along well with Jordan’s King Hussein and succeeded in smoothing out an Israeli-Jordanian crisis.
As with Sharon then, so with Lieberman now. On the one hand are the caricatures of those who seem to need, and thrive on having, right-of-center Israeli figures to diabolize. On the other hand is the reality—as in Sharon’s case—of Lieberman’s long career as a three-dimensional leader and human being with flaws and strengths, along with a mix of hawkish and dovish statements and actions that defy the neat categorizations beloved of New York Times editorialists and other relentless critics of Israel.
What, then, does Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister, and the addition of his Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) faction to the governing coalition, actually signify?
It signifies, for one thing, the strengthening of Israeli democracy as the governing coalition increases from a razor-thin 61 Members of Knesset (out of 120) to 66. That 66-member coalition better reflects the results of Israel’s 2015 elections, in which, in the Jewish sector, the right-wing/religious bloc won overwhelmingly with 67 mandates to the left-wing bloc’s 40. A 66-MK coalition also stands a much better chance of tackling Israel’s problems—particularly in the economic sphere—successfully than the weak 61-MK coalition with its susceptibility to individual parliamentarians’ whims and ultimatums.
Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu’s accession also offers hope of greater moderation on religion-state issues. Lieberman himself and most of his party members are secular Russian immigrants. The coalition already includes two ultrareligious parties that seek to impose strict religious legislation. Lieberman’s liberalism on religion-state issues, which tends to get lost among the media vilifications, could provide a corrective balance or at least have a mitigating effect.
Lieberman as defense minister could also restore harmony to relations between Israel’s political and military elites. It was Lieberman’s predecessor as defense minister, Moshe Yaalon’s, encouragement of army officers to don the mantle of social critics that seems to have led to Yaalon’s (effective) dismissal. Lieberman could help the military top brass sober up and recall that their mission is to look out for Israelis’ security, not the state of their souls.
On the Palestinian issue, it will not matter if Lieberman, Yaalon, or anyone else is defense minister so long as the Palestinians keep negating Israel’s legitimacy as a state—a stance that shows no sign of wavering. On the other defense-related issues facing Israel—Hamas, Hizballah, ISIS, the Nusra Front, Iran—true friends of Israel will wish Lieberman success instead of condemning him before he even begins.