Tel Aviv Diary: Defense Switch Sends Chills Through Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, sits next to new Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Jerusalem on November 21, 2012. Marc Schulman writes that the impending firing of former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and his ultimate resignation shook most Israelis, even many long-standing supporters of Netanyahu. Baz Ratner/reuters

It has not been an easy week for liberal Tel Aviv. On Wednesday morning, a final agreement was reached in Israel between the Likud (the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) and Yisrael Beiteinu (the party of Avigdor Lieberman).

Now something that seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago—the replacement of right-wing but very experienced Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon with an extreme right-wing, totally inexperienced Lieberman—has happened.

Lieberman, who has called for the imposition of the death penalty on terrorists, has long coveted the defense post. However, most observers didn't believe that Netanyahu—who has always been very cautious in his appointment of defense ministers and has always chosen experienced individuals for the job—would have conceded to Lieberman's demands and agreed to appoint him.

The outgoing defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, has been wholeheartedly loyal to Netanyahu in the past, though in the past few weeks he has found himself increasingly at odds with Netanyahu.

Ya'alon felt Netanyahu had been unsupportive of the army, choosing (for narrow political reasons) to align himself with far-right army critics, whose support for the soldier who killed a wounded attacker in Hebron was popular. Despite their differences, Ya'alon could never have imagined that Netanyahu would replace him with Lieberman.

When it became clear to Ya'alon that that was what Netanyahu was planning, Ya'alon resigned. In an impassioned speech, Ya'alon said, "I fought with all my might against the manifestations of extremism, violence and racism in Israeli society, which are threatening its sturdiness and also trickling into the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces], already hurting." He went on, "But to my great sorrow, extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel and the Likud party and are shaking the country's foundations and threatening to wound its residents."

The impending firing of Ya'alon and his ultimate resignation shook most Israelis, even many who have supported Netanyahu in the past. Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, a lifetime member of Likud, wrote an editorial in which he said giving the Defense Ministry to Lieberman has shown the Israeli public that Netanyahu does not really care about the defense of Israel and that this last action would be the beginning of the end of Likud's hold on power.

Former Minister of Defense and Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who served as defense minister immediately before Ya'alon, appeared on Israeli TV warning that the Israeli government was showing signs of fascism.

In addition, on Friday night, Ron Daniel, one of the most respected military commentators, known for his unwavering support for the actions of the army, shocked fellow commentators when he said that after the events of the last week he was not sure he wanted his children to live in this country.

The prime minister's supporters were hard put to offer any explanation for removing Ya'alon, other than to say, "It's only politics," and "Ya'alon could have stayed in the government and become foreign minister—if he had wanted."

Netanyahu responded by saying, "I believe that if Bogie Ya'alon had not been asked to leave the Defense Ministry and enter the Foreign Ministry, what he calls 'a crisis of faith between us' would not have developed and he would not have resigned."

On Sunday, in the middle of Tel Aviv, opposite Rabin Square—against the backdrop of these political machinations—an Arab-Israeli employee at a local supermarket was beaten up by undercover members of the Border Police, who were searching for illegal Palestinian workers.

The battered employee, who questioned the identity of the Border Police, required hospitalization to treat his wounds—and, of course, was seized for resisting arrest.

This deplorable event might not have caused much controversy had it not taken place in the middle of the day, where dozens of witnesses tried to intervene and were threatened by the police—all of which was caught on video.

While the police announced they were opening an investigation into the incident, police top brass defended the actions of the officers. In the meantime, 60,000 shekel ($15,600) in donations has been collected to pay for the college education of the Arab-Israeli who had been attacked.

Finally, on May 24, the long awaited state comptroller's report on the affair known as "Bibi Tours" was released. The state comptroller's report harshly criticized the behavior of Netanyahu during the period he served as finance minister, stating that he had violated norms of behavior by having various outside individuals, including people who did business with the government, pay for his personal travel.

The state comptroller said that some of Netanyahu's behavior might have risen to the level of criminality, but he would not report on those matters. Instead, the state comptroller chose to give the evidence to the attorney general to determine.

There was nothing truly new in the comptroller's report. Israel's channel 10 News first reported on the "Bibi Tours" affair in 2011. However, it was the reaction of the prime minister and his representatives that was even more disheartening than the report itself. Netanyahu issued a statement attacking Channel 10 and its main political reporter, Raviv Drucker, for their biased reporting.

On Wednesday morning, the main headline on the most widely read Israeli newspaper, Yisrael Hayom (subsidized by U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson), declared, "Disappointment in the Left That the State Comptroller's Report Will Not Make the Government Fall."

Suddenly, the report by the state comptroller, who was appointed by Netanyahu, was portrayed as a ploy by "the left" to stage a coup against Netanyahu.

It has been one week since Lieberman first stated in a press conference that he would join the government—if he were to be appointed defense minister. It has been a week that most Tel Aviv residents would like to forget.

Marc Schulman is the editor of