Tel Aviv Diary: Coalition Talk Leaves Israelis Unnerved

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, talks with former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on January 16, 2013. Discussions between the two men about joining together in a coalition government are being held in the shadow of rising tensions between the military and politicians over whether stronger military action against terrorism is needed. Amir Cohen/reuters

Today was one of the wildest days in the history of Israeli politics. It started with the political turmoil generated by talks of including the Labor Party in the government. By the afternoon, those talks had been suspended.

After a successful meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, it was announced that a committee had been formed to negotiate his right-wing party (Yisrael Beiteinu) joining the government.  

This is the same Lieberman who one month ago called Netanyahu “a degenerate liar and swindler.” All of this took place against a larger story of continuing tensions between the military and the government.

Today’s saga began with members of the Israeli Labor Party seeming to be conducting their own circular firing squad. After vehemently denying that he was negotiating to enter the Netanyahu government, head of the Labor Party Yitzchak “Buji” Herzog admitted he was in advanced negotiations to do so.

The exact reasons why he is doing this now remain a bit of a mystery. Most observers believe that it is related to the Labor Party’s steep drop in popularity in recent polls; polls show Labor losing between a third and half of its seats in parliament if elections were held today.

Yesh Atid party’s Yair Lapid has been the main beneficiary of the Labor’s projected loses, with Lapid’s party gaining almost all of the lost seats.  

Herzog’s moves have not been appreciated by almost any of the other parliament members of his party—with all but three declaring they oppose the move and some maintaining further that there is no circumstance under which they would accept any position in a Netanyahu government.

Opponents of the Labor Party agreeing to enter into a Unity Coalition all claim that any government under Netanyahu will make no changes in policy, despite having the Labor Party inside.

In his defense, Herzog asserts that there are extraordinary opportunities for negotiations with the Arab world at this moment—negotiations in which he alone would be able to engage. Yesterday, Herzog cited a speech by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi calling for renewed talks between Israel and the Palestinians, under Egyptian auspices, as one of those opportunities.  

Today, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Lieberman, announced he would be willing to enter the government if he were offered the post of defense minister, and if Netanyahu supported his bill to impose the death penalty for convicted terrorists.

This afternoon, Netanyahu invited Lieberman to meet, and Herzog announced that he was suspending his discussions with Netanyahu until Netanyahu decides what sort of government he wants—that is, according to Herzog, a government of fear and isolation or a government of hope and possibilities.

By this evening, it was announced that the Yisrael Beiteinu and the Likud had created a joint committee to negotiate their entry into the government. Stav Shafir, one of the most popular members of the Labor Party, called on Herzog to resign tonight, saying the only thing his negotiations brought was the possibility of Lieberman becoming defense minister.

These discussions were held in the shadow of rising tensions between the military and the political echelons that have been mounting over the past few months. This past month that strain reached a completely new level.

Fairly or not, in most of the world the military has the reputation of being the ones who take extreme actions—much more so than the political leadership. Traditionally, however, that has not been the case in Israel, where the senior leadership of the armed forces has been politically cautious and seemingly more aware of the limitations of power.

Such has been the position of the military during the last few Gaza wars—and even more so over the past few months (during the sharp uptick in violence, primarily perpetrated by young Palestinians).

Some members of the Netanyahu government have been calling for stronger military action. At the same time, many in the military have stated that there is no military solution to the current wave of hostilities.

Over the course of the last month, the different approaches between the military and the civilian government have become ever more apparent. After the shooting of a subdued attacker by an Israeli soldier, an act that seemingly violated military rules of engagement, the soldier’s actions were immediately condemned by the top military leadership, including Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon. The soldier was promptly arrested.

At first, Netanyahu condemned the shooting. Shortly after, when right-wing politicians led by Minister of Education Naftali Bennett came to the soldier shooter’s defense, Netanyahu seemed switched his position. The prime minister called the family of the accused soldier to express sympathy, leaving the top military brass exposed to further criticism.

Then, two weeks ago, a new controversy developed when Army Deputy Chief of Staff General Yair Golan gave a speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day warning of certain phenomena in Israeli society today that remind him of events in Europe 70, 80 and 90 years ago.

Golan was met with a wave of attacks leveled at him by politicians from the right wing, among them Netanyahu. The legislators chastised Golan for having the audacity to make any connection between the Holocaust and events taking place in Israel. Some called for Golan’s resignation.

Minister of Defense Ya’alon was the only minister who defended Golan. For his part, Golan clarified his remarks and said it was not his intention to compare in any way Israel today to Nazi Germany.

Over the weekend, Ya’alon found himself in the eye of the storm once again when he gave a speech in which he called on senior Israeli Defense Force officers not to be afraid to speak their minds—even if their opinions differed from those of the political leadership.

Ya’alon was attacked by numerous politicians and was called to a meeting with Netanyahu. At the end of the meeting a joint statement was issued in which Ya’alon acknowledged the primacy of the political branch over the army and Netanyahu stated he respects the right of the military to express their judgement in areas of professional concern.

This controversy, however, shows no sign of dying down. Last night, Israel’s Channel 10 showcased a secret recording of the commander of the Hebron area, Colonel Yariv Ben-Ezra, giving an orientation briefing to the officers of reserve battalion about to be deployed there.

In the recording, Ben-Ezra attacks the soldier who killed the subdued Palestinian, saying there was no danger to life in that case, and that actions like that endangers his soldiers. He went on to say that the army must resist the efforts of politicians and rabbis to influence soldiers to develop their own code of conflict.

Finally, Ben-Ezra contended that there is no real military means to end the current round of violence, which he predicts will get worse, unless there is an overall change in direction.

With the latest developments this evening, there is a real chance that Ya’alon will find himself replaced by Lieberman, a politician who publicly leapt to the defense of the soldier who killed the attacker in Hebron.

Marc Schulman is the editor of HistoryCentral.com.