Israeli PM under fire after proposing hawkish far-right leader Lieberman to head defense

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. © Sergei Karpukhin
Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon resigned on Friday to clear the way for former FM Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing politician and new ally of PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Opposition decried the appointment, saying it would result in a policy “on the brink of madness.”

"I informed the PM that after his conduct and recent developments, and given the lack of faith in him, I am resigning from the government and parliament and taking a break from political life," Ya'alon said.

Ya'alon, a career military and former Chief of Staff of the IDF, joined Netanyahu’s Likud party in 2008.

Lieberman served as Israeli foreign minister from 2009 to 2012 and from 2013 to 2015. He currently chairs a right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party and is known for his controversial proposals. For example,  Lieberman wants to “cut off heads” of Arab-Israelis not “loyal” to Israel, bomb Egypt’s Aswan dam, and offer Israeli towns with large Arab populations to the future Palestinian state in exchange for Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which would then become part of the Jewish state.

Speculation on his new role in Netanyahu’s cabinet arose after consultations between Lieberman and the Israeli prime minister on Wednesday. Netanyahu, who is the leader of the center-right Likud party, is eying to cement his current coalition’s shaky position, as it holds a majority of one in the Israeli parliament. 

READ MORE: Israel has no interest in multilateral peace talks, urges direct dialogue with Palestinians

The possible appointment, which is expected to be decided by the weekend, has prompted a storm of criticism from the Israeli opposition and Palestinian politicians, who anticipate an even more hostile military policy under Lieberman, who himself lives in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Isaac Herzog, the leader of the center-left Zionist Union, which had been expected to enter into coalition with Likud before Netanyahu’s sudden U-turn in favor of Lieberman, said that if the Israeli hawk joins the government, it will result in a policy “on a brink of madness.” He believes that choosing such a radical figure as head of the defense ministry would mean that Israel is preparing to “embark on a journey of war and funerals,” as cited by Guardian.

READ MORE: Palestinian clown held by Israel without trial for months despite global pleas to set him free

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry issued a statement slamming the upcoming government reshuffle as “fresh proof there is no real peace partner in Israel,” while calling Lieberman “an extremist,” according to Haaretz.

With his appointment, Israel would send a “message to the world that Israel prefers extremism, the occupation and settlements to a peace accord,” the statement reads.

An unnamed Palestinian official told the paper that appointing such an outspoken anti-Palestinian politician known for pro-settlement views to head Israel’s defense ministry would actually serve as “proof to the international community that the emerging government, including the one leading it, isn’t interested at all in an agreement [with Palestine].”

The Israeli military establishment also appears to be less than enthusiastic about the prospect of having a defense chief with fewer qualifications than outgoing defense minister, who has vast combat experience.

While not naming Lieberman or Netanyahu, Ya’alon lashed out at his critics in a Tel Aviv speech on Thursday, accusing certain political forces of carrying out a “full volume attack [on] our basic values.”

“Our moral compass for basic questions has been lost,” Ya’alon told Israel’s youth movement at the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters, as cited by The Times of Israel. 

Former defense minister Moshe Arens said in a radio interview that it’s unlikely that Lieberman will ever be able to fill Ya’alon’s shoes.

“I hope Lieberman lives to 120, but I think that even if he does, he will not gain the prowess, knowledge and experience that Ya’alon has,” he said, as cited by Reuters. “These kinds of chances should not be taken.”

The controversial decision to appoint Lieberman to the post of defense chief was preceded by a row between Netanyahu and Ya’alon, who backed the prosecution of Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier who shot an unarmed Palestinian attacker back in March. In contrast, Netanyahu personally expressed support for the family of the soldier, who is now on trial for manslaughter. 

The rift deepened after Ya’alon backed Major General Yair Golan, who drew parallels between tendencies in Nazi Germany and present day Israel in a speech devoted to Holocaust Remembrance Day.

While Netanyahu’s office said that the IDF general “was mistaken in his comments and it would be good if he fixed them,” Ya’alon stood by Golan, saying that he was a “valued commander, driven by values and many accomplishments,” and that “the attacks on him [were] due to intentional, distorted interpretations of something he said.”