Last Thursday, President Barack Obama once again defended the Iran nuclear deal, claiming that even Israel, “the country that was most opposed to the deal,” has “acknowledged that this has been a game changer.”
“You will recall that there were all these horror stories about how Iran was going to cheat, and this was not going to work, and Iran was going to get $150 billion dollars to finance terrorism, and all these kinds of scenarios; and none of them have come to pass. And it is not just the assessment of our intelligence community, it is the assessment of the Israeli military and intelligence community.”
The next day, the Israeli Ministry of Defense issued a statement directly comparing the Iran nuclear deal to the 1938 Munich Agreement with Nazi Germany, which ceded some parts of what was then Czechoslovakia to Germany and today is widely regarded as a disastrous act of appeasement toward the Nazis that failed to prevent World War II and the Holocaust.
“The Munich Agreement didn’t prevent the Second World War and the Holocaust precisely because its basis, according to which Nazi Germany could be a partner for some sort of agreement, was flawed, and because the leaders of the world then ignored the explicit statements of Hitler and the rest of Nazi Germany’s leaders.”
The Israeli Defense Ministry’s statement was a bombastic and personal attack on President Obama that came right as drawn-out negotiations over a new 10-year, $40 billion Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on US military aid to Israel were being finalized.
A year after the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, and after all the bad blood that has flowed between Washington and Jerusalem over the issue, why did the Israeli Defense Ministry suddenly feel the need to reopen old wounds — and in such a blatantly antagonistic way?
The answer has to do with the personal political machinations of a controversial character in Israeli politics: Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's new defense minister. It turns out that this whole diplomatic spat arose because Lieberman wanted to prove a point to his rivals within the ministry.
Avigdor Lieberman: the man behind the controversy
Henry Kissinger once quipped that “Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic political system.” Avigdor Lieberman, the new defense minister, has apparently taken this adage to heart: Everything, it seems, is subservient to his own politics, including Israel’s relationship with the United States.
Lieberman was brought into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, and named as defense minister just over two months ago under contentious circumstances. “Delusional,” an “insult” to the army, and a manifestation of a “budding fascism” within Israeli society were just some of the political reactions to his appointment.
Lieberman is well known for his hard-line and ultranationalist rhetoric and his blatant race-baiting of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. He has called the community, which makes up 20 percent of the population, a “fifth column,” saying openly that any deemed disloyal to the state should have their “heads cut off.”
Lieberman had also been an unwavering critic of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) policies, which he viewed as too lenient in its handling of Palestinian violence. As recently as April, Lieberman called this approach “defeatist and weak,” arguing for more far-reaching measures including the execution of terrorists and the deportation of their families.
But perhaps most important is that Lieberman was widely perceived within Israel as woefully unqualified for the position. His hastily dismissed predecessor, Moshe Yaalon, was a respected retired general and IDF chief of staff. Lieberman’s undistinguished military career only saw him attain the rank of corporal. With all the security threats arrayed against it, there really is no more important position in Israel than defense minister, save for the premiership.
For all these reasons, then, Lieberman’s insertion at the helm of the army was always likely to be viewed with suspicion by the IDF’s top officers. And the feeling was probably mutual.
The Defense Ministry statement was a political move by Lieberman
Yet, since taking up the defense ministry portfolio, Lieberman had actually shown a pragmatic and professional approach to the business of running the most powerful military in the Middle East. The controversy surrounding Lieberman’s initial appointment had, prior to last week’s statement, ebbed.
Select leaks to military journalists stressed his good working relationship with the IDF General Staff. For all his bluster prior to assuming the current post, Lieberman has in practice allowed the generals to maintain their preferred policies, in particular with respect to Palestinian civilian and economic life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The relationship between Lieberman and the General Staff, however, may have begun to turn in late July. In an appearance in front of the Knesset’s Foreign and Defense Committee, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot reportedly told lawmakers that the greatest threat facing the IDF wouldn’t be found in his intelligence briefing, but was rather political interference in strictly military affairs.
"Loss of public trust,” he said, stemming from political attacks on the IDF from certain politicians and organizations “to promote agendas that have nothing to do with the IDF” threatened to undermine the army’s discipline and values.
Eisenkot was clearly alluding to the ongoing manslaughter trial of an IDF soldier who this past March shot dead an incapacitated Palestinian attacker in Hebron. The trial has become heavily politicized in Israel, with the soldier turning into a cause célèbre for right-wing politicians — including, prior to becoming defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman.
Eisenkot was asked by lawmakers which politicians exactly were undermining public trust in the army. “You can Google it and find out who they are,” he reportedly shot back.
One week after the Knesset hearing, Eisenkot traveled to Washington for a series of high-level meetings with his US defense counterparts. Joseph Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, feted Eisenkot with the Legion of Merit medal, given to foreign officials who “distinguished themselves by exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services.”
That same day President Obama gave the press conference where he made the case for the Iran nuclear deal; the next day the Israeli Ministry of Defense issued its statement.
Lieberman wanted to send a clear message: I’m in charge, and the army works for the politicians. Not the other way around.
Was Netanyahu in on it?
Perhaps the weirdest aspect of the Defense Ministry statement is that Lieberman himself hadn’t previously made the Iran nuclear deal a major political issue — not as a member of the opposition and a fierce government critic, and not in the few months since he became defense minister. Criticism of the deal was usually left to Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who in the past has described the deal in language not much different than that in the Defense Ministry statement.
The question therefore needs to be asked: Was the Defense Ministry statement coordinated with the prime minister’s office? Was Lieberman simply doing Netanyahu’s bidding? The likely answer is no.
Netanyahu has made finalizing a new MOU with Washington a major priority; indeed, negotiations are handled through his office and his national security adviser was in Washington, DC, last week for that very purpose. More than that, Netanyahu’s response to this diplomatic spat in recent days can be summed up in two words: damage control.
At first Netanyahu issued a hurried statement playing down differences with Washington, emphasizing the strong alliance with the US while also arguing that the Israeli government’s position regarding the Iran nuclear agreement remained unchanged (read: bad deal).
Then reports came out that the prime minister called the US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, stressing that he had no advance warning regarding the statement. Finally, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s energy minister and a close Netanyahu confidant, took to the airwaves to say what should have been obvious even to critics of the nuclear agreement: "It's a bad deal but it's an accomplished fact and during the first year we spotted no significant breach from the Iranians.”
With regard to Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister, however, this was the first outward sign of his unpredictability — all in the service of his own political gain. He was apparently willing to disrupt the US-Israel relationship at a sensitive moment to prove a point to the IDF General Staff.
Indeed, it shouldn’t be discounted that Lieberman’s ultimate target may have actually been Netanyahu himself: intended to send a message that although Lieberman may now be inside the government, and inside the tent, the prime minister shouldn’t take him for granted.
The US-Israel relationship will survive in spite of all the drama
“My word is my word,” Lieberman is fond of promising the Israeli public; it’s become his official credo, just as he continues to reverse himself on a host of issues. On Monday, the Defense Ministry issued another statement, apologizing for last week’s statement and claiming that it “wasn’t meant to draw a direct historical or personal equivalence” to, ostensibly, Neville Chamberlain and the appeasers of Munich.
“The difference between … Israel and the U.S. [on the Iran deal] doesn’t undermine in any way our deep appreciation for the U.S. and the president on their tremendous contribution to Israel’s national security,” the statement read.
The “crisis” of recent days, if it can even be called that, will pass — that much is sure. A new MOU is still expected to be signed soon, and relations between Jerusalem and Washington will go back to their normal, recent setting: with an eye on the upcoming November election and a wary countdown to the end of Obama’s term (from both sides).
Obama’s comments regarding Israel’s “military and security community” being supportive of the deal are rose-tinted but, strictly speaking, correct. Eisenkot summed up the prevailing mood this past January, saying that “The agreement is a significant change of course for Iran. There are many risks but also opportunities.” The sky is not falling, and the agreement is decidedly not a prelude to world war and another Holocaust.
Netanyahu’s frantic efforts to distance himself from his new defense minister have been fairly convincing. He likely explained to his American counterparts what many Israelis already know: that Lieberman’s words are indeed just that — words.
Neri Zilber is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture and an adjunct fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. You can follow him on Twitter @NeriZilber.