TEL AVIV, Israel — In a move aimed at securing his seat as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has dumped a defense minister widely admired as "a principled and hardened warrior," one with deep combat experience that underlies a nature of restraint. In his place, Netanyahu has empowered as experience as a widely respected for his combat of a defense minister a perceived war monger with no combat experience who advocates hostilities as a first course of action.
As part of a political deal to bolster his razor-thin coalition, Netanyahu tapped former foreign minister and political rival Avigdor Lieberman to head Israel's Ministry of Defense.
The rough-edged former immigrant from Moldova brings six seats to Netanyahu's previous 61-seat majority in a 120-seat government, widely viewed here as the most right wing in Israel's history.
Netanyahu on May 19th informed Moshe Ya'alon, the former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff who has served as defense minister for the past three years, that he was giving the defense portfolio to Lieberman, a former confidant turned critic who has blasted both Netanyahu and Ya'alon for being unworthy of leading the country.
Earlier this month, during a spate of rocket launches from Gaza, Lieberman exhorted Netanyahu and Ya'alon to take "disproportionate" action against the Hamas-ruled Strip. In response to Lieberman's repeated invective, Netanyahu's Likud Party ridiculed the anemic military experience of Israel's next defense chief.
"The only thing that has whizzed past his ears is a tennis ball," the Likud Party noted in a statement. This is a man, the party wrote, "who never led even one solider into battle and never made an operative decision in his life."
At a somber May 20 press conference at MoD headquarters here, Ya'alon said he was temporarily bowing out of public life in order to regroup for a future fight against "extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society that are threatening national resilience" and harming the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
"I have no intention of leaving public and political life, and in future will return to vie for the national leadership of Israel," Ya'alon said in his exit address.
In recent months, Ya'alon had clashed with fellow ministers and members of Netanyahu's Likud party on numerous issues of principle involving the rule of law, rules of engagement, and the need to forcefully combat terror in ways that do not collectively punish Palestinian civilians in the West Bank or Gaza.
When an IDF medic shot a prostrate, incapacitated terrorist in Hebron last March long minutes after he was neutralized by forces at the scene, Ya'alon was the first to stress normative rules of engagement and the need to adjudicate the matter in military court.
Despite widespread public support for the so-called Hebron shooter – including from Netanyahu, who telephoned the soldier's father, and Lieberman, who showed up at the soldier's hearing -- Ya'alon urged Israelis "not to forget our humanity… even when our blood boils."
"We must act with cool headedness and good judgment and avoid harming civilians. We can win while remaining human beings," Ya'alon said at the time.
Since then, he has repeated this theme in numerous speeches, warning against losing Israel's "moral compass" and allowing a strident and racist-fuelled minority to threaten the nation's "basic values."
He supported Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, IDF chief of staff, who, during a spate of stabbing attacks earlier this year, was assailed by ministers for telling high school students that he didn't want to see a soldier "empty his magazine" at a 13-year-old girl, "even if she is committing a very serious act."
And earlier this month, he rallied behind Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, Eisenkot's deputy, who spoke at a Holocaust memorial event about the phenomena of intolerance, hatred and violence in Germany of the 1930s that "exist here in our midst, today, in 2016."
Despite condemnation by Netanyahu and calls by cabinet ministers to sack the IDF vice chief, Ya'alon refused to reprimand Golan for the pre-Holocaust comparison or his warning "There is nothing easier than becoming callous, morally corrupt and hypocritical."
On the contrary, at an Independence Day event early last week (note to eds: May 15), Ya'alon insisted that IDF officers have the obligation to warn the public and political leaders of dangerous trends that threaten national strength and resilience.
"Today is a sad day for the state of Israel, which lost a principled warrior, one of the best defense ministers the country has had," said reserve Maj. Gen. Eyal Ben-Reuven, a Knesset member from the opposition Zionist Union party and a former subordinate of Ya'alon's.
In a May 20 interview, Ben-Reuven said he disagreed on many matters of policy, especially with regard to a two-state solution of Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security. "Ya'alon is responsible and capable. There's no question that, in his mind, he put the country first and never succumbed to petty populist politics.
"Lieberman is exactly the opposite," he said.
Like most members of Netanyahu's government, Ya'alon did not support the two-state solution to the Palestinian problem. Nevertheless, he championed strong and expanded security coordination the Palestine Authority, enhanced humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip, and rejected calls by government leaders to withhold bodies of terrorists killed by Israeli forces during the recent spate of so-called lone wolf attacks.
Amir Peretz, a former Israeli defense minister, said the manner in which Netanyahu made the deal with Lieberman's party – at the expense of the centrist Zionist Union party with whom the prime minister was conducting parallel coalition negotiations -- was more troubling than the prospect of Lieberman as Israel's next defense minister.
"The outcome was a political maneuver of the lowest, most inappropriate type, because Netanyahu engaged in negotiations with a party that wanted a peace process at the same time that he was engaging with Lieberman, who is vehemently opposed to any type of coordination with the Palestinians," Peretz told Defense News.
Peretz, one of only a few civilian defense ministers in Israeli history, said lack of military experience shouldn't disqualify Lieberman for the post. Rather, he said Lieberman's statements and actions should render him unfit for the job.
"We're talking about someone with a very narrow and confrontational world view; someone who wanted to bomb Aswan, conquer the Gaza Strip and dilute our special relationship with the United States by cozying up to Russia and China," said Peretz.
He was referring to Lieberman's speeches delivered while he was foreign minister, in which he urged an expansion of Israel's alliances to include Russia and other influential world powers.
"Avigdor Lieberman has a long and ugly track record of irresponsible, reckless and deliberately inflammatory rhetoric and actions," Americans for Peace Now (APN), an affiliate of the Israel-based pro-peace organization said in a May 19 statement. "As foreign minister in Netanyahu's previous government, he caused severe damage to Israel's foreign interests, creating crises in Israel's relations with regional and global allies."
The organization assailed Lieberman as "a hate-monger who lives in a settlement located deep inside the West Bank" and "a pyromaniac" who should "not hold a decisive vote over issues like whether to start a new war in Gaza or Lebanon, or whether to bomb Iran."
By appointing Lieberman, APN said Netanyahu is "once again showing the world that he puts politics and personal political survival above the national security of Israel and its people."
Mohammed Mar'i, public relations director of the Palestine Media Center, said Lieberman's appointment was part of "a political game" in Israel that should not materially worsen an already bad situation between Netanyahu and Abbas. In fact, he said many Palestinians prefer a right-wing government "so the world has no allusions about Israel's desire to halt settlements and change its unacceptable and harsh policies."
"My own personal opinion is that Lieberman will not launch a war in Gaza or in the West Bank in the coming months. Netanyahu is dominating the political arena in Israel and won't allow Lieberman, even if he wanted to, to escalate tensions. The same holds true for [Abbas], who will not allow violent actions in the Palestinian streets that will trigger war or change the situation on the ground," Mar'i told Defense News.
Neither Netanyahu nor Lieberman have publicly commented on the coalition deal. A signed agreement between the two is expected by Monday.