By Joshua Tartakovsky, May 26, 2016
Despite the current impasse in negotiations between the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party (Israel is Our Home, a party supported largely by émigrés from the former Soviet Union) Avigdor Lieberman, an agreement is likely to be reached and Lieberman is likely to become Israel’s next minister of defense.
In a speech in January in a conference at the Institute for National Security Studies, hawkish defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who just resigned after the news was made of the new appointment, expressed his opinion on who poses the greatest threat to Israel: Iran or ISIS. “There are voices who say otherwise, that it’s now ISIS. But if I had to choose between Iran and ISIS – I would prefer ISIS. ISIS does not possess Iran’s capabilities,” Ya’alon explained. He justified his position by claiming that Iran possesses greater capabilities while overlooking the fact that Iran is a country where a large Jewish community exists peacefully even as the latter has a checkered human rights record while ISIS is a non-state actor that has been targeting minorities through the use of brutal methods.
In the past, Ya’alon met with rebels fighting against the secular regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who received treatment in Israeli hospitals and admitted that Israel is helping rebels in Syria. A former researcher at the neocon Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Ya’alon advocated removing Assad from power, was skeptical of Russia’s ability to fight terrorism in Syria, and placed his bets on closer ties between the US and Israel. Ya’alon has also likely been the main mover behind the recent attacks on Hezbollah forces in Syria as Netanyahu sought a closer relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
With his determinist views on Hezbollah and Iran, Ya’alon has been inflexible at seeing other opportunities on the table. He advocated a US intervention in Syria and expressed the view that anti-terrorism operations in Syria will be unsuccessful. However, his prediction was premature as Palmyra has in fact been liberated recently. On May 18, the Algemeiner had a surprising reportallegedly coming from Mustafa Mughniyeh, son of Imad Mughniyeh, the senior Hezbollah leader who was killed in a joint operation by the Mossad and CIA:
A former Hezbollah operative who is active on social media wrote on Twitter that the newly appointed “chief of staff” of the Shiite terrorist organization considers Israel a strategic ally, the Hebrew news site nrg reported on Wednesday.
According to the report, the retired operative tweeted that Mustafa Mughniyeh “told his inner circle to admit the truth: that Israel is a partner in the war against the Sunni enemy, which is why we are not fighting it [Israel] at the moment.” Mughniyeh also reportedly reminded Hezbollah commanders that “the only force which saved the Shiites from Palestinian occupation in southern Lebanon in 1982 was Israel.”
With ISIS becoming an increasing threat not only to Syria and Iraq but also to Lebanon and Egypt, assuming Lieberman is indeed appointed, Israel may be letting go of plans for regime change in Syria. With Lieberman’s pragmatic approach, Israel may be shifting closer to a multipolar order and seeking to reach an understanding on Syria, and possibly even future relations with Hezbollah and Iran, in the war against ISIS. Indeed, while liberal US newspapers have largely presented Lieberman as a racist and a right-wing extremist, he has not called for a US intervention in Syria, unlike Ya’alon.
Lieberman is not known for being an overly sensitive man nor for being adept at controlling his speech. He has demanded a loyalty oath from Arab Israelis, suggested that Arab villages in the Galilee become part of a future Palestinian state, and advocated bombing Egypt’s Aswan Dam. However, anyone who would examine the actual records of Ya’alon and Lieberman will discover that while Lieberman has engaged in inflammatory rhetoric, he has proven himself to be more flexible in negotiations while Ya’alon has presented himself as a liberal but pursued an aggressive neocon policy in the region.
Lieberman’s probable appointment as Israel’s minister of defense, at a time of heightened tensions between Netanyahu and Obama, as future US military aid is still being negotiated, and as Israel is facing increasing pressure from France and the BDS campaign globally, indicates that Israel has deliberately chosen to distance itself from the US. Netanyahu seems not to mind the diplomatic price he will pay for Lieberman’s appointment. Perhaps he has little to lose. It appears that Israel is choosing to let go of fitting in with liberal human right pretenses as it faces increasing isolation in Europe and on US campuses, and may be seeking pragmatic relations based on mutual respect with countries which were not traditionally its friends. The rising power of ISIS has resulted in growing cooperation between Egypt and Jordan despite the fact that the Palestinian question remains unsolved, and this same principle can apply to other countries as well.
However, Lieberman has still not been appointed, as a key stumbling block in negotiations remains Lieberman’s social demand: guaranteeing fair pensions for elderly Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union. The 1990s saw a massive influx of Soviet Jews to Israel, who now constitute one and a half million citizens. 40% of the migrants were 25-40 years old at the time, and a vast majority did not manage to save enough money for retirement. This generation that will now retire will face a meagre pension which cannot possibly provide for even a basic livelihood. Lieberman has demanded that pensions for Soviet migrants match at least the minimum wage pension but this would place a heavy burden on the Israeli budget and will be the first time Israel takes it upon itself to guarantee fair pensions in 20 years, reports the Israeli paper The Calcalist. Such a massive pension plan would inevitably mean less funding for other ministries and will increase demands by other marginalized social groups; hence the impasse in the negotiations as other ministers are less keen on taking Lieberman on board. However, according to reports, Prime Minister Netanyahu seemed willing to accept Lieberman’s pension demand. On a side note, the US liberal media did not bother to mention Lieberman’s social demands as it sought to present him as a right-wing fascist.
However one may look at this issue whether one supports the State of Israel or not, Lieberman is not well-liked by Hillary Clinton (even her husband expressed the view that peace could not be reached because of Russian Jewish immigrants in Israel). The news of the likely appointment was not greeted favorably in western countries. If Netanyahu appoints Lieberman, that will mean that Israel is shifting away from the West and may even pursue closer relationships with non-Western global powers. However, in response Netanyahu is likely to face both increasing isolations from the West externally and also attempts to topple him internally by Western-sponsored NGOs operating in Israel.