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The strange case of the Israeli defense minister

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is a rare bird in the sense that he has no significant military experience, never commanded a military unit and speaks a different language from that of the military world.
Israel's new Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, head of far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, reviews an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel May 31, 2016. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun - RTX2EXRI

The wave of stabbing attacks known in some circles as the “individual infitada” resumed last week. This time, it was accompanied by a trickle of mortar fire in the Golan Heights, a consequence of the fighting between Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and the rebel forces. On Sept. 20, the Israeli air force successfully shot down a Hamas drone over Gaza. However, Israel’s most active front was an internal one: the rising tension between the country’s two security chiefs — new Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and the chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot.

As of now, the two parties have managed to contain the tension, making sure it does not spread or escalate into a full conflict. Mutual appreciation and common interests still overcome the soured relationship and the vast differences between them on various issues. Nevertheless, neither forgets that the epic conflagration at the start of the decade between Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak also started as a low-intensity feud before it erupted into a major conflict, the aftermath of which continues to plague the defense establishment even today.

Liberman is not integral to Israel’s defense system. He is not of the same flesh and blood as its military leaders. Eizenkot and the other members of the General Staff have no idea how to take the new minister, who may as well speak another language and come from a different planet. He did not rise up within the defense establishment, he never held a command position and he is unfamiliar with the military experience. He doesn’t owe anyone anything, and his worldview is very different from what is known as “Israel Defense Forces (IDF) values” and the traditional patterns of behavior within the military.

For the first few months, at least, both Liberman and Eizenkot managed to overcome these differences. Even today, their staffs emphasize that cooperation between them is excellent. The two men so appreciate each other that differences of opinion are resolved between them in private. This description of circumstances is still accurate. Nevertheless, the chief of staff’s stomach is starting to hurt, and there is a rift widening between the two men. While it has yet to become impassible, the ground hasn’t been solid for a long time.

The first signs of deterioration in their relationship were relatively minor. On Sept. 1, Liberman overturned Eizenkot’s decision to shut down the country’s military academies for high school students by deciding to leave one of them open. This was preceded by the bizarre announcement released by the Defense Ministry on Aug. 5, criticizing comments by US President Barack Obama and comparing the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers to the 1938 Munich Agreement. That statement was released on the day that Eizenkot returned from a successful working visit to the United States and left him humiliated. That day, a member of his staff told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The chief of staff swallowed his tongue when he heard the announcement.” Yet Eizenkot showed self-control. He is the kind of chief of staff who would never speak out against the political leadership.

The real chasm separating Liberman from Eizenkot, however, concerns the trial of Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot a disarmed Palestinian suspect in Hebron on March 24. For the past few weeks, the trial has been at the center of an uproar among the Israeli public and the military. The soldier, who shot a dying Palestinian attacker, is being tried for manslaughter before a military tribunal. Many Israelis side with him and are outraged at the defense establishment for even putting him on trial. As a member of the opposition, Liberman was unequivocal in his backing of the soldier and even attended his hearings in a show of support. Since that time, however, he was appointed defense minister.

On Sept. 12, Liberman announced that even if the soldier made a mistake, he will receive the backing of the entire military. With that statement, he stabbed not only Eizenkot but the entire defense establishment in the back with a rusty knife. The chief of staff is widely considered the last line of defense for “IDF values,” the ethics of warfare and the army’s humane image.

While Eizenkot hasn’t said a word since the defense minister released this statement, people around him say that he has been acting like he got “punched in the stomach.” The fact that Israel’s defense minister does not distinguish between supporting a soldier who made an innocent mistake and supporting a soldier who took the law into his own hands and (allegedly) committed a crime is worrying to him and the entire General Staff. No one really knows what Liberman meant when he promised to stand beside the soldier even if he is convicted. It is obvious to everyone that Liberman’s statement was, for the most part, for political consumption.

The problem is that after his most recent statement dissipates, real damage to the IDF will remain. As far as the chief of staff is concerned, the main battle facing him in his current term is the fight over the IDF’s values and image. He is focused on the relationship between the army and society at large and determined to prevent the IDF from losing its sense of ethics and morality.

At the same time, it cannot be stressed enough that the personal relationship between the two men is still very good, because it is based on mutual respect. Eizenkot is the kind of officer that Liberman likes best. He is a soft-spoken and modest individual who prefers action over words and keeps his promises. At the same time, Eizenkot sees certain advantages in Liberman as minister of defense. He appreciates the forceful backing that Liberman gives the IDF when it comes under attack from HaBayit HaYehudi head Naftali Bennett on the right and the fact that he doesn’t interfere with what happens within the IDF. Liberman gives Eizenkot absolute freedom to run the military as he sees best.

As one senior IDF officer told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “If it’s up to them only, they will get along very well together until the end of the term. They have a basic understanding between them in which Liberman lets Eizenkot do whatever he wants, and Eizenkot lets Liberman say whatever he wants.” Nevertheless, what happened just a few years ago between Barak and Ashkenazi must not be forgotten. It is in the supreme interests of both Eizenkot and Liberman to avoid that slippery slope entirely.

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