The education of Israel's new defense minister

In the past, Avigdor Liberman was called to use an iron fist against Palestinians in order to curb terror, but as Israel's new defense minister he might change his tone.

al-monitor Israel's former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman waits for the arrival of the European Union foreign policy chief in Jerusalem, Aug. 29, 2011. Photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner.
Ben Caspit

Ben Caspit


Topics covered

terror, tel aviv, palestinian-israeli peace process, occupation, israeli-palestinian relations, israel defense forces, avigdor liberman, arab peace initiative

Jun 9, 2016

On June 9, Israeli social media was inundated with a Facebook post written on Oct. 13, 2015, immediately after one of the worst attacks that occurred in the wave of terrorism known as the "intifada of knives" or the "intifada of individuals."

The post read as follows: "I expect that after the Cabinet meets today, they will release the following clear decisions and instructions:

  1. No terrorist, male or female, should come out of any attack alive.
  2. Procedures for opening fire currently in use in the United States should be adopted here.
  3. Any East Jerusalem resident involved in terrorist activities will have their residency status revoked.
  4. Emergency legislation must be implemented, and a military government must be established wherever necessary in order to rein in terrorism.

Let me remind the Prime Minister and the Cabinet: Words do not stop terrorism. Security can only be achieved with an iron fist!"

The author of that post was Avigdor Liberman, then an opposition member of the Knesset known for his relentless attacks on the government from the right. At the time, he demanded drastic action to rein in terrorism.

Today, Liberman is minister of defense, and the brutal attack in Tel Aviv on June 8 was the first attack he faced in that capacity. After previous attacks, he had demanded, among other things, that targeted assassinations be reinstituted, that the homes of the terrorists be demolished immediately and even that Hamas senior Ismail Haniyeh be killed "within 48 hours" if the bodies of Israeli soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, held by Hamas since Operation Protective Edge in 2014, were not returned.

The new Liberman, or actually the old-new Liberman, is more judicious and much less bellicose. He arrived at the scene of the attack in the dynamic, pulsating heart of downtown Tel Aviv and made do with a brief, relatively composed statement: "I came here to salute the people of Tel Aviv, who are bearing the brunt of yet another difficult attack. … I don't intend to speak now or go into detail about the measures we intend to take. You can be sure, however, that I have no intention of making do with just talk."

The Tel Aviv attack shattered earlier assessments that the terrorism wave had died down and the "intifada of individuals" was behind us. There has been a sharp decline in the scope of attacks and attempted attacks over the past few months. But if this intifada has proven anything, it is, first and foremost, that its outbursts are unexpected. While stabbing attacks have declined considerably, shooting attacks are still with us, and they are becoming more sophisticated.

The perpetrators of the attack in Tel Aviv were two terrorists who coordinated among themselves. They arrived at the scene in suits and ties so that they would fit in the city's popular leisure spots. They knew where to go and carefully selected one of the most famous and most visited sites in the city. Armed with homemade submachine guns, they had a good meal at one of the restaurants, and when they were done, they got up and started shooting at the other patrons there.

The terrorists managed to kill four people and wound over 10 before they were injured. Both of them survived the incident, and photos of Israeli doctors and paramedics treating them to save their lives flooded the internet within minutes. This stirred up outrage among the right, which supports the approach of the "old Liberman": "No terrorist, male or female, should come out of any attack alive."

As it turns out, despite everything that happened until now, Israel still maintains its basic values and humanity. Its doctors continue to save the lives of terrorists at the site of an attack, even right after those terrorists kill Israelis.

This is the first significant test faced by Liberman, and it took place less than two weeks after he entered his new position on May 30. Haniyeh is still alive, targeted assassinations have not been resumed, and the policy of containing terrorism and distinguishing between terrorists and the general Palestinian population continues.

The two terrorists responsible for the Tel Aviv attack came from the village of Yatta in the West Bank, situated in Hebron district and home to some 40% of all terrorists in the current wave of terrorism. In fact, Hebron is the most fertile ground for homegrown terrorism in the entire West Bank.

On the morning of June 9, Israeli security forces began an extensive operation to locate people from Hebron or Yatta who are in Israel illegally. The goal is to force the local population to pay a price in the hope that it will spit out the terrorists living among them. It is a desperate move without any real hope behind it. Israel's defense establishment knows that there are no specific individuals to thwart and no particular people to assassinate. The perpetrators do not belong to any terrorist organization, and they have no record of committing acts of terror. They are young people who are simply fed up, so they decided to take matters into their own hands. That is the primary characteristic of the current wave of terrorism.

Nevertheless, over the past few months Israel has proved that it has a partial answer to the situation. The Shin Bet and police have established new units that patrol social networks to identify posts and other signs of persons determined to kill Jews. While quite a few attacks were prevented this way, under the current circumstances no one can ensure a perfect record.

Over the past 10 days, Liberman has become acquainted with all the secrets of Israel's cutting-edge security system. Although he is a former foreign minister and a past member of the security Cabinet, none of that compares to sitting on the 14th floor of the "Tower" in the Ministry of Defense compound in Tel Aviv. Entering the Holy of Holies of the Israeli security establishment is a lot like entering Aladdin's cave.

The heads of all the different military and intelligence services meet regularly with the defense minister on Thursday afternoons for a situation assessment. This is followed by an "Operations and Sorties" meeting, in which the minister hears directly about all the clandestine security operations that Israel is planning for the coming week and approves each action. All of a sudden, Liberman will get a grasp on what Israel is capable of doing and what it is really doing — details he never could have imagined even in his wildest dreams.

When you sit there in the "Tower" in the heart of Tel Aviv, your perspective invariably changes. In Israel, this phenomenon is described with the saying, "What you see from there, you can't see from here." Liberman will learn everything there is to know about Israel's power, but he will also come to understand the limitations of force.

The "Tower" in the Defense Ministry compound is situated right across from the site of the attack in Tel Aviv. Less than 100 meters (328 feet) separate the two sites. The dozens of gunshots fired during the incident could be heard clearly in the Israeli Defense Ministry. Last week, Liberman spoke of regional stability and the Arab Peace Initiative. He spoke about how Israel must not embark on a war of choice. This week he got pummeled by the bloody reality of the Middle East. It will be interesting to see what the outcome of this clash will be.

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