Tel Aviv Diary: Some Hanker After an Israeli Putin

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Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu in the Kremlin in Moscow on June 7. Marc Schulman writes that some Israelis ask, with near admiration, “How does Putin get away with it?” After all, his air force has been killing hundreds of innocent civilians in Syria. Maxim Shipenkov/reuters

Two months ago MK Avigdor Lieberman replaced MK Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon as Israel’s defense minister.

Lieberman’s appointment was met with surprise, as he has no experience in the area of defense and has been a constant critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the right flank of the political spectrum. Lieberman has repeatedly suggested that Israel reconquer the Gaza Strip and not allow Hamas to remain in power.

In his first days as defense minister, Lieberman did his best to project the image of a responsible official, even conducting a successful visit to the United States. However, the past few weeks have not remained as smooth as the start of his term.

On August 21, for the first time under Lieberman’s watch, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had to decide how to respond to a rocket attack from Gaza after an ISIS cell fired a Grad rocket at Israeli border town of S’derot.

This time the rocket landed in S’derot. Luckily, it fell harmlessly in a garden, killing or wounding no one and causing negligible property damage.

In the past, Israel would have responded to this sort of attack with a symbolic bombing of some empty Hamas installation in Gaza. The rationale had been that as long as Hamas itself had not carried out an attack, the response should be limited, i.e. just enough to make it clear Israel considered Hamas responsible for anything that happens inside Gaza.

Sunday night was different. Israel responded with 11 airstrikes and fired 37 tanks and artillery rounds at Hamas and Islamic jihad targets, delivering the strongest response since the 2014 summer war.

Though the targets were all uninhabited, the explosions were so loud that many of the people attending a music festival in S’derot (the same border town hit by rocket fire earlier) chose to leave the concert early for fear the situation might escalate. The IDF was criticized for attacking Gaza during the festival performance.    

On Sunday night, as Tel Avivans went to sleep, the question on everyone’s mind was: Will Hamas respond? So far, everything has been quiet and most analysts believe Hamas has no interest is an escalation. Of course, they could be wrong.

Was Sunday’s larger response a function of Lieberman becoming defense minister? Some sources claim the vigorous response was merely the implementation of a new policy, put into place long before Lieberman took office. Others disagree and think the intensity of the response was a clear reflection of Lieberman’s world view.  

After an uneventful introduction as defense minister, Lieberman has recently been making some waves. Two weeks ago, he responded to a statement made by President Obama, indicating that many in the Israeli defense establishment were happy with America’s agreement with Iran, by issuing a statement comparing the U.S.–Iran agreement to the Munich Agreements of 1938 (a remark for which Lieberman was forced to apologize).

Then, last week Lieberman ordered a division of the army to stop sending volunteers to play with children of illegal immigrants living in South Tel Aviv, after neighborhood residents complained.  

Lieberman, who runs his party as a personal dictatorship, is popular among his supporters, especially among the Russian immigrants who have been the backbone of his patrons. Many of these same party Lieberman loyalists believe that Israel needs a strong leader, like Putin, whose strength is admired.

Putin is popular both among Russian immigrants here as well as back home in Russia. By all objective analysis, Putin has been a successful leader, credited with strengthening Russian influence in the Middle East and conquering the Crimea as the world has stood by.

Some Israelis ask, with near admiration, “How does Putin get away with it?” After all, his air force has been killing dozens, if not hundreds of innocent civilians in Syria almost every day, and yet not one person has taken to the streets of Europe to protest.

There is no BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement against Russia; little condemnation. Yes, there are some modest economic sanctions in place (condemning Russia’s actions in Crimea), but its behavior—and that of Iran—which have led to the deaths of thousands, seem of little concern to the rest of the world.

Some Israelis say that we need an Israeli Putin, someone who cares little of what the world thinks and will only act on what he believes to be in our interest. In Tel Aviv, people with that world view are a small minority. Tel Aviv, the cosmopolitan city whose numerous start-ups sell globally, is concerned about the reactions of the world.

However, once you leave Tel Aviv, public opinion in Israel begins to change. You hear more and more voices supporting the Lieberman view that our enemies only understand displays of strength.

Everyone agrees that we live in a very dangerous neighborhood. How Israel balances between its liberal democratic tendencies and its need to be strong in region that seems to be falling apart, will be the story of the coming months and years.

Marc Schulman is the editor of HistoryCentral.com.