Incoming Defense Minister Rattles Israeli Political Establishment

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Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Liberman Visits Damascus Gate The Chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu party Avigdor Liberman visited Jerusalem's Damascus Gate on the afternoon of March 9, 2016 in solidarity with the IDF and security forces.

Incoming Defense Minister Rattles Israeli Political Establishment

Written by Michael Bachner/TPS on May 19, 2016

Jerusalem (TPS) – The news that MK Avigdor Liberman, chairman of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, will be Israel’s next defense minister has rocked the political establishment on the right and left. Liberman, a tough-talking former ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has sought the Defense Ministry portfolio for years – and appears set to receive it after a deal struck with Netanyahu on Wednesday.

Liberman’s rise follows a tumultuous day of negotiations and backroom deals on Wednesday, in which both Liberman and MK Isaac Herzog, chairman of the historically left-wing Labor party, vied for the job of defense minister and the chance to enter Netanyahu’s government.

“I regret the prime minister’s decision. I did not imagine that he would make such a paradoxical and dangerous move,” said MK Benny Begin, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio on Thursday morning. “The prime minister has been very proud of what he called ‘a reasonable, balanced and responsible’ defense policy, while Liberman’s statements give an opposite impression.”

Netanyahu received harsh criticism from opposition parties as well, including Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah who blasted Netanyahu for “bartering the most sensitive and important positions as if nothing mattered” in a Facebook post on Thursday.

Liberman was an ally of Netanyahu – the two ran together in a united party during the 2013 election, after which Liberman became foreign minister – until they had a public falling out two years ago. Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party remained in the opposition after last year’s election, and as recently as March he castigated Netanyahu as a “liar, cheat, and con-man.”

Liberman has been a frequent advocate for a harsher military response toward Palestinian terrorism, notably against the Hamas terror group that runs the Gaza Strip.

“The elimination of Hamas is the primary mission of the Israeli government and as defense minister I will carry it out,” Liberman said before last year’s elections. “We will not reach agreements and understandings with them. The only agreement that can be reached with Hamas is when they are buried in the ground,” he said, adding that such an Israeli policy cannot be implemented when the government is comprised of “a coalition of nerds.”

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads the centrist Kulanu party, praised the decision to include Liberman on Thursday.

“I welcome the expansion of the government,” said Kahlon. “Since the reports of Liberman’s appointment there have been voices criticizing his suitability for the job. I am personally opposed and completely reject the attempts to personally disqualify MK Liberman for the position. He must be judged just like any other minister.”

The Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry, however, issued a press release on Thursday describing Liberman’s appointment as “sending a strong message to the world that Israel prefers extremism” over peace.

Meanwhile, reports have emerged that Tony Blair, the Quartet’s envoy to the Middle East and a former British prime minister, colluded with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to push Herzog into the government – a move reportedly designed to facilitate a peace deal with the Palestinians. According to the report in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Blair even met with Herzog’s political partner, MK Tzipi Livni, in her Tel Aviv home this week, despite the fact that she is sitting shiva – the Jewish mourning ritual – for her brother.

Liberman is set to replace current Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, a senior Likud member who has recently clashed with Netanyahu over a series of issues related to the IDF’s independence from the political establishment.

Ya’alon, apparently alluding to the news of his ouster, said on Thursday that Israel is facing a crisis of leadership.

“There is a loss of our moral compass on basic issues,” Ya’alon said. “If I had to give a golden tip, it would be to navigate with a compass rather than a weather vane. Navigation with a compass is tried and true, and it’s also a question of leadership.”

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