Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation on Wednesday awarded Hamas an important achievement. Just a day after the latest round of violence subsided, he adopted the terrorist group’s “recommendation” and stepped down.
Social-media cynics were quick to point out that it seemed like Lieberman and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh have traded places, and that rather than Lieberman taking out Haniyeh within 48 hours—as he famously vowed to do prior to being appointed defense minister—it was Hamas that sent Lieberman packing after only two days of fighting.
Reality is far more complicated, of course, and Lieberman’s resignation is not the result of an operational failure, but rather the result of a cognizant decision on his part, rooted in his growing frustration over Israeli policy in the Gaza Strip and the understanding that he has little impact on said policy.
He made his frustration known, and over the past few weeks, he took great care to publicly voice a position that contradicted that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, for his part, had the backing of Israel Defense Forces’ Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot and Shin Bet security agency director Nadav Argaman in his preference to reach some sort of understanding with Hamas that would translate into a long-term ceasefire.
Lieberman will surely push the narrative that his position was based on his perception of how the war on terror should be waged, but it is hard to escape the feeling that his decision was heavily tainted with political motives and a desire to carve out a better electoral position for himself and his party, Yisrael Beytenu, ahead of the next election.
The reality is that during Lieberman’s time as defense minister, matters of defense and security were managed above his head. He was certainly involved, but the final decisions were made by the military echelon and the prime minister.
The upside was that he really did give IDF officials the necessary leeway to do their job, calmly and without any overt or underlying friction, but the downside was that the defense establishment needs a strong minister to head it, to outline its course, and, when necessary, to call it out and take it to task.
From the get-go, Lieberman was wise enough to understand he needed the system to back him up. The defense establishment is a mammoth mechanism, and one can easily get lost within it or be dragged along by its captains. He knew that brawling would be bad for everyone; if anything, it would cement his image as a bully, so he consciously chose to do things differently.
Eizenkot was a solid partner for this strategy, and any disagreements they had—and there were quite a few—were settled quietly and professionally, with the chief of staff usually having the upper hand. Even when Lieberman put his foot down, things progressed prudently and more slowly than he might have hoped. Finally, when Lieberman understood that he had little effect on strategy as well, he decided to step down.
Still, the defense minister is not “just” another cabinet member. In the tumultuous Israeli reality, he is supposed to be second only to the prime minister.
Lieberman found it difficult to fill this slot, but to his credit, he used his position to maintain the defense establishment’s budget and multiyear work plan, as well as to affect civilian-related issued, such as the Homefront Command’s much-neglected national fortification plan. The way he handled the selection of the next chief of staff was also very professional.
His departure from the ministry will not leave a vacuum, but the question of his successor is one to look out for. The security events of the past week have again proven that Israel needs a full-time defense minister, especially if the prime minister is also the acting foreign minister.
The list of those chomping at the bit to be named defense minister is long and comprises many self-professed experts, but while essentially there shouldn’t be a problem naming a civilian to head the defense establishment, it seems that at this time, we need someone steady and experienced at the helm.
Two names come to mind as natural candidates for this position: Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Gallant, formerly GOC Southern Command, and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Political probabilities aside, they would integrate into the system seamlessly and sans the air of being yet another purely political appointment.
Moreover, as seasoned military men, they already know what Lieberman had to learn what any other candidate will have to wrap his head around quickly: National security is sacred, and wars cannot be fought—let alone won—with mere slogans.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.