Avigdor Lieberman’s political bet against Prime Minister Netanyahu was as reckless and foolish as his military bet against Hamas. Both targets were stronger than he expected and in both cases he ended up exposed and weak.
JERUSALEM, PALESTINE — Sitting with a few friends in the cafeteria of the Knesset, the Israeli house of representatives, one could sense that elections were in the air, or at least a vote of no confidence that would lead to elections. We were waiting for a meeting with Knesset members of the Joint List, and the hustle-bustle around the cafeteria was ominous. All that was needed was a catalyst, something that would push things over the cliff.
In what was an embarrassing military failure for Israel, Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip were able to identify undercover Israeli military vehicles full of special-forces commandos. The Israeli commandos, who were reportedly dressed in civilian clothes and were driving in civilian vehicles began firing at the Palestinian forces and in the battle that ensued a senior Israeli officer, a Lt. Colonel, was killed and a captain was severely wounded.
Israeli warplanes and helicopters on alert flew in, killed seven Palestinian fighters and evacuated the Israeli forces who were at this point exposed and helpless, out of the Gaza Strip. The Lt. colonel, whose name Israel is not revealing, was very likely the commander of the special ops unit involved. The fact that he was in the vehicle points to the importance of the mission and the need for the kind of expertise and experience only a unit commander would have — in other words, this was no small operation.
All that Israeli media outlets revealed about the man who commanded the operation, and likey commanded the unit that was charged with executing it, was his first initial, “M.” In one report the Israeli papers said that in the town where he lived, even his neighbors had no idea he held such a senior rank and certainly no one knew about his work. The IDF censor stated that his identity will never be officially revealed. Unlike when another Lt. Colonel, Yonatan Netanyahu, who was commander of an Israeli special forces unit, was killed in the 1976 attack on Entebbe.
Then, when Yonatan Netanyahu, who was the older brother of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was killed, his identity was not only revealed, he became a revered figure in Israeli folklore. In Entebbe however, the operation was deemed a spectacular success. Here the force was discovered by a routine Palestinian guard, the commander was killed, and the operation was not only exposed, but also exposes that Israel was once again violating International law, this time by disguising fighters as aid workers. Having the minister of defense present his resignation after the failure of this operation seems perfectly appropriate.
As might be expected, Avigdor Lieberman resigned shortly after this embarrassment. However, his resignation was presented as a principled political move, not as a result of failure. He was quoted as saying, “I was not looking for reasons to resign. I made many attempts to convince and influence from within the cabinet, despite the price I was paying.”
Leiberman, for whom defense minister was a dream job, resigned saying that he could no longer serve in a government that bows down to Hamas instead of destroying it. He accused the prime minister of refusing “viable military plans” for the destruction of Hamas. One has to be impressed by the audacity it takes for a minister of defense who had just overseen a colossal military failure to accuse his prime minister of refusing to execute other military plans he concocted.
But Lieberman’s political bet against Prime Minister Netanyahu was as reckless and foolish as his military bet against Hamas. Both targets were stronger than he expected and in both cases he ended up exposed and weak. Netanyahu is as a strong a prime minister as Israel has ever seen. His accomplishments on the international stage and his political prowess dwarf those of Lieberman, or any other Israeli politician for that matter.
Lieberman’s nemesis — Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who desperately wants the defense portfolio — threatened to resign if he was not allowed to head the defense department in Lieberman’s place, but his threats were empty and he ended up remaining in the coalition. Netanyahu outsmarted them both by doing what many prime ministers had done before him: he took the defense portfolio to himself. Already one report has it that Netanyahu the defense minister is generously dispersing funds to the army. One Israeli commentator wrote:
Now when the prime minister wants to convince his foreign and defense ministers he is spared the need to coordinate the schedule of three people, since all three portfolios are held by him.”
On Wednesday, November 21, the Knesset entertained four separate no-confidence votes. Netanyahu’s coalition government survived, albeit with a narrow majority of 61 votes, or just half plus one, keeping Netanyahu in power. With another year to go before general elections are scheduled, any expectation that a seasoned politician like Netanyahu would be outmaneuvered by Lieberman or Bennett is foolish. If there is one thing Netanyahu knows, it is how to survive a political storm, and even a military failure such as this one.
Top Photo | Israeli defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Photo | AP
Miko Peled is an author and human rights activist born in Jerusalem. He is the author of “The General’s Son. Journey of an Israeli in Palestine,” and “Injustice, the Story of the Holy Land Foundation Five.”