JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s incoming defense minister once called for bombing Egypt, suggested just weeks ago that Israel kill Hamas’ leader in the Gaza Strip and opposed the prosecution of a soldier accused of killing a wounded Palestinian. These are just a few of the positions that could put former bar bouncer Avigdor Lieberman at odds with the military he now commands.
While people close to Lieberman insist he is a pragmatist, his long history of incendiary statements bode poorly for him as he takes over one of the region’s most sensitive posts. As Israel’s defense minister, he will be responsible for overseeing military policy and handling delicate security matters with international allies whom he has antagonized in the past.
Lieberman has held a number of senior Cabinet posts, including stints in the inner Security Cabinet, but he has little military experience, reaching the low rank of corporal during a brief military career decades ago. In contrast, his predecessor, Moshe Yaalon, was a former military chief of staff.
“We cannot take risks with defense,” former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, an elder statesman of the ruling Likud party, told the Ynet website after Lieberman’s upcoming appointment was disclosed last week. “It is a great mistake.”
Former minister Benny Begin, son of Israel’s first right-wing prime minister, called the appointment “bizarre.”
Lieberman, a 57-year-old immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, is one of the country’s most polarizing politicians. He entered politics as a top aide to Netanyahu in the 1990s before forming Yisrael Beitenu, a secular, ultranationalist party whose base of support is the large immigrant community from the former Soviet Union. His Hebrew remains laced with a strong Russian accent. He also is a West Bank settler.
Over three decades, he has at times been Netanyahu’s closest ally and other times been a fierce rival. He has twice served as Netanyahu’s foreign minister, in one instance embarrassing Netanyahu by arguing against the establishment of a Palestinian state in a speech at the United Nations. Netanyahu later distanced himself from the speech.
On Wednesday, they renewed their partnership by announcing a new deal to bring Yisrael Beitenu into Netanyahu’s narrow governing coalition. Lieberman is to be formally sworn into office next week as defense minister.
The addition of the five seats of Yisrael Beitenu will give Netanyahu a 66-54 majority in the 120-seat parliament, providing new room to maneuver on domestic affairs. But it risks alienating Israel’s allies abroad and the military, the country’s strongest and most important institution.
Lieberman has angered Egypt, which has close security ties with Israel, with comments years ago calling for Israel to bomb the Aswan Dam. In another flap, he said Egypt’s president at the time, Hosni Mubarak, could “go to hell.”
It remains unclear how Egypt will react to the appointment, particularly after its president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, said this month that ties could become “warmer” if Israel reaches peace with the Palestinians. Lieberman has been a noted skeptic of U.S.-led Mideast peace efforts.
Lieberman has antagonized Washington at times by throwing cold water on American peace initiatives. He also has angered the Americans with legislative proposals viewed as racist, such as a failed proposal to force Arab citizens of Israel to take an oath of loyalty in order to vote. During the latest coalition negotiations, he tried but failed to force the government to approve the death penalty against Arabs convicted of terrorism.
As Washington negotiates a new military aid package with Israel, Lieberman’s past could come back to haunt him.
Peace talks with the Palestinians also seem to be a longshot. Lieberman is an outspoken critic of the Palestinian leadership.
In a statement last week, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said Lieberman’s appointment “sends a strong message to the world that Israel prefers extremism, boosting occupation and settlements over peace.”
At a ceremony marking their alliance Wednesday, both Netanyahu and Lieberman attempted to send messages of moderation.
“I am committed to promoting the peace process. I am committed to make every effort to reach an agreement,” Netanyahu said.
Lieberman said he was committed to “responsible, reasonable policy.” He spoke in English in an apparent attempt to reassure an international audience. “All of us have commitments to peace, to the final status agreement, to understanding between us and our neighbors,” he said.
But Lieberman’s biggest troubles could come at home with the army. As Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Lieberman criticized the handling of Israel’s 2014 war against Gaza militants, saying the army should have taken a more forceful action.
Just last month, Lieberman was quoted as saying that if he were defense minister, he would give Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh 48 hours to return the remains of two dead Israeli soldiers the militant group is holding, and to send home a pair of captive Israeli civilians it also claims to have. “Either you return the bodies and the civilians, or you die,” Lieberman said.
The Israeli military tends to be more pragmatic and moderate than hard-line politicians like Lieberman who dominate the government. It is unclear how they will respond if he issues an order that the generals disagree with.
“Why is Netanyahu choosing to (appoint) a man who … cannot be trusted to support him in public, will alienate a not-insignificant proportion of international supporters of Israel, will exacerbate tensions in parts of the Arab world, and who will render at least some Israeli parents considerably more wary when the day comes for their children to be enlisted,” wrote David Horovitz on the Times of Israel website.
In many ways, Lieberman’s appointment is the direct result of these clashing world views. His predecessor, Moshe Yaalon, was forced out after backing the military in a series of disagreements with political hard-liners.
Earlier this month, a top general compared recent trends in Israeli society to the atmosphere in Nazi-era Germany. The comments, made on Israel’s Holocaust memorial day, enraged Netanyahu, while Yaalon supported the general’s right to speak.
The army’s chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, came under fire earlier this year from parliamentary hard-liners by encouraging soldiers to use only “necessary force” to subdue Palestinian attackers. The hard-liners say attackers should be killed on the spot.
In March, military leaders criticized a soldier who was caught on video fatally shooting an already-wounded Palestinian attacker in the head — and he is now on trial for manslaughter. Lieberman went to the court to offer his support to the soldier.
But people close to Lieberman say that he is more pragmatic and level-headed than his public persona. Lieberman himself has even offered an unorthodox plan to establish a Palestinian state, saying that Israel’s borders should be redrawn to place as many Arab citizens of Israel as possible in a future Palestine — while incorporating most West Bank settlements into Israel.
Eliezer Marom, a former head of the Israeli navy, told Army Radio that Lieberman should be given a chance.
“The man is with great political experience,” Marom said.