As I write – on May 20 just before we go to press – Israel’s governing coalition under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in a state of flux. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is on his way out with former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman his presumptive replacement.
This turn of events in Israeli politics – indications of which began to surface on May 18 – came as a surprise because there had been reports over the past several weeks that Netanyahu and Israel’s opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, chair of the centre-left Zionist Union (a joint electoral list bringing together Herzog’s Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah Party), were close to an agreement that would have brought the Zionist Union into the coalition with Herzog becoming foreign minister (a post that Netanyahu has held onto himself since 2015).
Bringing Herzog into the coalition was seen as a move that would signal Netanyahu’s seriousness about his desire for direct negotiations with the Palestinians that would hopefully lead to a two-state solution. It would also have stabilized Netanyahu’s coalition whose razor-thin majority has stood at just 61 of the Knesset’s120 seats.
However, it appears that at the same time it was openly acknowledged he was negotiating with Herzog, he was also secretly talking with Liberman whose right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party – with its six Knesset seats – has sat on the opposition benches since the 2015 election.
Liberman brought several demands to the table. Among them was instituting capital punishment for convicted terrorists. In the State of Israel’s 68-year history there have only been two executions: army officer Meir Tobianski on June 30, 1948 by firing squad after he was convicted of treason by court-martial during the War of Independence, and Adolf Eichman on May 31, 1962 by hanging after he was convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his central role in perpetrating the Holocaust.
Tobianski, it must be noted, was executed quickly with no right to appeal. A year later, evidence revealed he was not guilty and he was exonerated.
Liberman’s other main demand was that he replace Ya’alon as defense minister; a demand that Netanyahu accepted. With that acceptance, Ya’alon resigned from cabinet and from his seat in the Knesset.
Netanyahu said he regretted Ya’alon’s resignation and said he had offered to appoint him foreign minister.
In resigning, Ya’alon cited Netanyahu’s conduct during “recent developments” (presumably the negotiations that brought in Liberman), which demonstrated the prime minister’s “lack of trust” in him.
It would be hard – if not impossible – to make the case that Liberman is more qualified than Ya’alon to be defense minister. With rare exceptions, Israel’s defense ministers have enjoyed the confidence of Israel’s military because they have had distinguished military careers serving in the highest ranks of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Ya’alon, for example, rose to be the IDF chief-of-staff. Liberman, in contrast, served briefly in the IDF, attaining the rank of corporal, and has often been highly critical of the restraint shown by Israel’s military in difficult circumstances.
While it’s still much too early to know what all of the consequences of these developments will be, a few questions are obvious.
Will Herzog’s tenure as chair of the Zionist Union come to an end? His move toward joining Netanyahu’s coalition was not supported by many of the Zionist Union Knesset members and the result could only have embarrassed him.
As defense minister, Liberman assumes tremendous power in the West Bank. While Ya’alon was pragmatic and somewhat conciliatory with the Palestinians, Liberman has been seen to be much more hardline. Will the Palestinian Authority be able to work with him, for example, on day-to-day security co-operation?
And will there be an impact on Israel’s current negotiations with the U.S. for long-term defense aid? Ya’alon enjoyed generally good relations with the U.S. while Liberman, as foreign minister, did not.
What about Ya’alon’s political future? Will he be a formidable challenger to Netanyahu’s leadership within Likud? Or to Likud as the leader of a new, more moderate centre-right party?
“I have no intention of [permanently] leaving public life, and in the future I will return as a candidate for national leadership,” he said in his resignation speech.