Giving Lieberman benefit of doubt — for now

When the announcement came out last week that Lt. Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya’alon had resigned from his political positions as Israel’s Minister of Defense and Member of Knesset from the Likud party, no one was really surprised.
His relations with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu had been bumpy from the beginning. Ya’alon, a decorated combat officer who rose to the highest rank possible in the IDF and finished his career as its Commander in Chief, had a hard time taking orders from a career politician whose service in the IDF, as a captain in an elite unit, was respectable, if unremarkable.
Bibi, on the other hand, didn’t appreciate the perceived patronizing by his higher-ranking, more experienced and sometimes a bit too outspoken subordinate.
The final straw came last month over two statements Ya’alon made. Bibi essentially gave him the option to resign or be fired. He “resigned.” That was not surprising.
What raised eyebrows, rolled eyes and sent pundits everywhere except in Israel into highly caffeinated hand-wringing angst, was the immediate offer of the job to Avigdor Lieberman.
The Israelis knew that on the one hand,  Bibi had no choice, and on the other — it could have been worse. I’ll try to explain:
While in the United States the executive and legislative branches — federally, statewide and locally — draw their power and authority from the voting public directly, in Israel the executive branch (prime minister, ministers, etc.) is instated and empowered by the Knesset, both individually and collectively.
Israel has a democratic system of proportionate representation. Voters for the Knesset cast ballots for a party — not an individual candidate. The parties are competing for the 120 seats in the Knesset.
After an election, all valid votes are counted and the Knesset seats are allocated proportionately to the number of votes each party received. If Party A received 30 percent of the votes, it will get 30 percent of the 120 seats: 36 seats or Members of Knesset (MKs). Once allocated, the new MKs are sworn in.
In order to form or maintain a government, a party has to receive a vote of confidence from at least half of the sitting MKs+1 = 61. Anything less and the government will not be confirmed or will fall.
Since no party in Israel’s 68 years of history has ever received 61 seats in an election, every prime minister candidate has had to cobble together a coalition of several parties, and for the next few years try to keep everyone in their coalition happy …
After the last election Bibi formed a coalition with a razor-thin majority of 61. Ya’alon’s resignation of his Knesset seat left the coalition under the threat of losing a no-confidence vote at any time. Bibi had to act fast to stay in power:
First he tried to get the center-left “Zionist Union” party (24 MKs), led by Yitzchak (“Bujy”) Herzog, but that fell through.
Since the “Joint List” Arab party (13 MKs) is not an option, Bibi turned to the party that has always been his ideological and political “Plan B” (or maybe it was really “Plan A” all along?), Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing nationalistic “Yisrael Beiteinu.” With six MKs,  it pretty much solidifies the government’s position.
Lieberman demanded and received the Ministry of Defense.
Agreement was ratified by the Knesset, and Lieberman was sworn in.
Understandably, not everyone in Israel is happy, but aside from those few perennial declarers who say (again) that they are “packing their bags,” everyone understands that this is the cost of Israel’s style of democracy.
As for Lieberman as defense minister, I’m taking a wait-and-see position. Though he may not have been my first choice to replace Ya’alon, he might just turn out to be the right person at the right time. I disagree with those that are arguing that the position should be held by someone from within the IDF.
Due to the importance of the defense portfolio, prime ministers have often held the DM position in addition to their prime ministerial duties. Seven of the 16 defense ministers to date were serving prime ministers: David Ben-Gurion, Levi  Eshkol, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Bibi (two days…).
Five of them (Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya’alon) were former IDF Chiefs of Staff. Most of them were either civilians or served at low ranks. See the list at left.
Anyone familiar with the last 68 years knows that Israel has had excellent defense ministers who had no IDF experience at all — Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Arens, Peres, Begin — and civilian ones those were not that great, Lavon and Peretz, for example.
And even among those who had IDF experience, some were great, some were good, and at least one made a terrible decision that cost Israel over 9,000 casualties of which 2,656 were IDF killed.
Like I said — I’m taking a wait-and-see position on Lieberman as defense minister.
Agree or disagree, that’s my opinion.
Lt. Col. (IDF res) Gil Elan is president and CEO of the Southwest Jewish Congress, and a Middle East analyst. Email:
Upcoming briefings and SWJC events are listed at:
DISCLAIMER: Opinions are the writer’s, and do not represent SWJC directors, officers or members.

Past defense ministers

Below is the list of Past defense ministers and whether they served in the IDF.
Order    Minister
1    David Ben-Gurion    civilian
2    Pinhas Lavon    civilian
–    David Ben-Gurion    civilian
3    Levi Eshkol    civilian
4    Moshe Dayan    IDF (General)
5    Shimon Peres    Civilian
6    Ezer Weizman    IDF (General)
7    Menachem Begin    Civilian
8    Ariel Sharon    IDF (General)
–    Menachem Begin    Civilian
9    Moshe Arens    Civilian
10    Yitzhak Rabin    IDF (General)
–    Moshe Arens    Civilian
–    Yitzhak Rabin    IDF (General)
–    Shimon Peres    Civilian
11    Yitzhak Mordechai    IDF (General)
–    Moshe Arens    Civilian
12    Ehud Barak    IDF (General)
13    Binyamin Ben-Eliezer    IDF (General)
14    Shaul Mofaz    IDF (General)
15    Amir Peretz    IDF (Captain)
–    Ehud Barak    IDF (General)
16    Moshe Ya’alon    IDF (General)
–    Benjamin Netanyahu    IDF (Captain)
17    Avigdor Lieberman    IDF (Corporal)

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