Lieberman’s sudden resignation exposes deep rift over Gaza strategy

November 16, 2018 by Yaakov Lappin - JNS.org
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For several weeks, Israel’s outgoing Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman had made his dissatisfaction with Israel’s approach to Hamas in Gaza public—very public.

Israeli minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman announces his resignation from the Defense Minister position in the government following the ceasefire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, during a press conference in the Israeli parliament, on November 14, 2018. photo by Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90

Assuming the position of the internal dissenter, Lieberman made it clear that his call for the use of decisive military force was being rejected by the diplomatic-security cabinet. In addition, his assessment was that attempts to reach a more stable arrangement with Hamas are futile.

But it wasn’t just the cabinet that rejected Lieberman’s propositions. It was also, reportedly, the senior command of the Israel Defense Forces, which didn’t see the Gazan challenge eye to eye with Lieberman. While the IDF has drawn up detailed plans on how to defeat Hamas, it is not rushing to activate them, due to major concerns regarding who would take over running Gaza’s 2 million people, among a host of other issues.

On Wednesday, after Israel reached an unpopular truce with Hamas that ended a brief yet highly intense round of combat, Lieberman announced his resignation.

“The question is, why now? From my perspective, what happened yesterday, the ceasefire yesterday, combined with the whole arrangement process with Hamas is a surrender to terrorism. There is no other definition or significance. We as a country are buying quiet in the short term in exchange for severe harm to national security in long-term,” Lieberman said during a dramatic press conference.

He described clashing last month with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu over allowing Qatari fuel into Gaza—one of several steps Israel took to try and stabilize the Gazan arena, prevent an economic collapse and delay the outbreak of war.

For Lieberman, the breaking point came when Israel allowed Qatar to transfer suitcases filled with $15 million as payment for Hamas’s civilian government. “Those who say the money is being supervised are not being accurate,” he said. The truce with Hamas and Israel’s military responses were, “to put it lightly, inadequate, and I could not accept it,” he explained.

Lieberman dismissed comments by Netanyahu, who said that classified information relating to Israel’s strategic-security situation played a decisive role in the truce.

“I know all of the excuses and reasons, all of the intelligence. There is always something [going on] in the north and south, east and west. Near circles and distant circles. It is all excuses,” said Lieberman. “We had to first of all finish the story in the south. That comes first. The weakness we exhibited will certainly project to other arenas.”

With that, Lieberman left his post, creating political upheaval and destabilizing the ruling coalition in Israel—something that Hamas has celebrated as an achievement.

The more important front: the north

Analysts had mixed responses to Lieberman’s moves.

Professor Eyal Zisser, chair in contemporary history of the Middle East in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University, expressed deep scepticism over taking Lieberman’s comments at face value.

“I do not accept Lieberman’s explanations,” he told JNS. “To my understanding, he resigned due to political reasons—the desire to be depicted as strong to his voters,” said Zisser. “One can decide to drop a thousand tons of bombs on Gaza and not a hundred, but in the end, we will reach the same point that we are in today.”

Israel’s aversion to reinvading Gaza is the main factor in its dealings with Hamas, Zisser argued, saying, “It all starts and finishes here.” In addition, Israel is seeking to avoid damaging itself in international public opinion, according to Zisser.

As a result of these factors, “the government did not rush into a conflict, but preferred an arrangement and a truce,” he added. “I don’t think Hamas views Israel as weak, but at the propaganda level, they are certainly exploiting this. So the issue is not real deterrence, but the image in Israeli and Gazan public opinions.”

Nevertheless, Zisser agreed with the idea that linking considerations regarding other strategic arenas, like Syria and Lebanon, to the Gazan situation, is “a little shallow,” describing it “mainly as an excuse for those who, from the beginning, do not want to act in Gaza.”

Benny Miller, professor of international relations at the University of Haifa, said: “this is a classic case of tension between the view of the professional security chiefs, supported by the prime minister, and public sentiments, supported by the defence minister, following a bombing of civilian population by a hostile force.”

Yaakov Lappin/JNS

The defence chiefs are driven by a number of considerations, such as the lack of real utility in a military operation in Gaza, said Miller.

“It will not change the current situation much,” he assessed, though such an operation could bring with it considerable costs. He also expressed doubts about the Israeli public’s ability to “tolerate high levels of casualties in a land operation in Gaza.”

In addition, he said, the involvement of Egypt and Qatar in arranging the ceasefire will increase its chances of holding, “at least for a while.”

Miller viewed the linkage of other arenas as a relevant factor, stating that “the more important front—from a strategic perspective—is the northern front.”

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has amassed an arsenal of surface-to-surface projectiles, estimated at between 120,000 to 150,000, which is larger than that of most NATO militaries. According to Israeli assessments, it is also working to build underground factories for turning rockets into guided missiles in Beirut.  Hezbollah has also gained extensive combat experience in Syria, learning how to launch large raids, and coordinate firepower – experience it could employ in any potential future conflict with Israel. In neighbouring Syria, Iran continues to try and create weapons production sites and attack bases and to mobilize Shi’ite militias under its control in a manner that threatens Israel.

As such, Miller noted, “Israel should avoid a two-front war.”

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