Defense Minister Liberman Softens Tone
Jerusalem (TPS) – Just a few months ago, Avigdor Liberman promised to issue a startling ultimatum to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh over two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers being held hostage by the terror organization in the Gaza Strip.
“I am saying – and you can hold me by my word on this, it’s all being recorded – If I’m defense minister, I will give 48 hours to Mr. Haniyeh: either return the bodies and the civilians or you will die,” Liberman said in March. “As far as I’m concerned you can buy a grave at the nearest cemetery.”
Now a week into the position of defense minister, Liberman seemed to downplay that hardline rhetoric at a press conference on Monday.
“It’s only been one week,” Liberman chided a journalist who asked whether he would implement his 48-hour ultimatum of assassination (perhaps inspired by the websiteisismailhaniyehdeadyet.com, launched after Liberman’s appointment to provide up-to-the-second updates on whether Haniyeh is dead yet). “Ask me those kind of questions at the end of my term.”
The remarks seem to suggest a softened tone for the typically brash and tough-talking Liberman, whose entry into the role of defense minister sparked protests from some corners of the Israeli defense establishment – including the previous Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon – who warned of an “extremist takeover” of the government and the Israel Defense Forces.
Prior to last year’s elections, Liberman spoke of his plans to carry out a more aggressive campaign against Hamas.
“The elimination of Hamas is the primary mission of the Israeli government and, as defense minister, I will carry it out,” Liberman said at the time. “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.”
Yet Liberman’s comments on Monday indicated that he has no plans to immediately assassinate top Hamas figures, much less eliminate the organization altogether. He also doubled down on remarks he made last week supporting the initiative by Arab countries for a “regional peace” between Israel and the Palestinians, arguing that “the wholeness of the [Israeli] people is more important than the wholeness of the land [of Israel]” – comments seen as showing a willingness to cede territory and even welcomed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“I have been saying this for years,” Liberman said, referring reporters to a passage in his 2004 book My Truth and to other comments since 2011. “Our approach is a pragmatic foreign policy with strong national security,” he explained.
Liberman advocates a peace deal with the Palestinians based on “territory swaps,” he said, in which Israel would annex Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria while transferring some Arab-Israeli towns – and their citizens – over to the new Palestinian state.
Asked about his harsh criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – only a few weeks ago he called Netanyahu a “liar” and a “conman” – Liberman apologized two weeks ago and joked, “I had a surgery to lengthen my short fuse.”
At the press conference on Monday Liberman suggested that other members of the government would benefit from such a surgery, saying that Education Minister Naftali Bennett should “calm down” about his public coalition spat with Netanyahu.
“What’s necessary now is not declarations but rather collaboration and synchronized, quiet work,” Liberman said, declaring that he would not speak to the media until after Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year in the fall – a departure from his usual outspoken style. “To anyone who can’t hold back I recommend they visit the same doctor and get the same surgery to lengthen their short fuse.”