Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli hard-liner who was named defense minister on Wednesday, recently issued a typically blunt ultimatum to Ismail Haniya, the leader of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, The New York Times reports.
“If I were defense minister,” Mr. Lieberman told an audience last month in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, “I would give Mr. Haniya 48 hours.”
“Either you return the bodies and the civilians,” he warned, referring to two Israeli men and the remains of two soldiers Hamas is holding in the Palestinian coastal enclave, “or you are dead. From my point of view, simply reserve yourself a plot in the nearest cemetery.”
Becoming defense minister was Mr. Lieberman’s main condition for a deal that augments Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition by adding Yisrael Beiteinu to it. The move increases the government’s number of seats to 66, from a precarious 61, in the 120-seat Parliament. The addition of Yisrael Beiteinu also buttresses the hawkish image of a government already dominated by right-wing and religious parties.
As the deal was announced, Mr. Lieberman sounded far more conciliatory. “My responsibility is for a level-headed policy that will bring stability to the region, to our country,” he said, adding that he intended to work in close cooperation with Mr. Netanyahu and the military.
Yet Mr. Lieberman, the foreign minister in two previous Netanyahu governments, is a polarizing figure with little direct experience in security affairs, and he has a long record of bellicose threats. His appointment has alarmed many in a country perennially on the brink of military conflict, and it led to charges that Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, had put its political survival above the well-being of citizens.
“Considering the importance of defense in Israel and that our children serve in the army, we need the best person possible in that position,” said Moshe Arens, a former minister of defense and of foreign affairs from Likud. Calling Mr. Lieberman’s appointment a “mistake,” Mr. Arens said that, while the demands of coalition politics required compromises, these “have to stop at the Defense Ministry.”
As well as his aggressive stance against Hamas, Mr. Lieberman has called for the ouster of President Mahmoud Abbas of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority.
Together with Naftali Bennett, the education minister and the leader of the right-wing party Jewish Home, Mr. Lieberman was highly critical of the handling of the 50-day war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, which ended without a clear victory for Israel.
Until recently, the exchanges between Mr. Lieberman and the government he is joining were no less acerbic.
At the gathering in Beersheba last month, Mr. Lieberman accused Mr. Netanyahu’s government of pursuing a “defeatist” policy in Gazaintended “to buy quiet at any price.”
Likud issued a response at the time saying that Mr. Lieberman “did not meet the threshold requirements” to be a military analyst, and the party described him as “a man who has only heard tennis balls whistle past his ear,” rather than bullets.
For all of Mr. Lieberman’s bluster, many Israeli analysts predict that he will become more pragmatic once he takes office.
“When you sit in the chair and consider the consequences of your decisions, things look different,” said Amos Harel, the military affairs analyst of the liberal newspaper Haaretz.
Mr. Harel and others cited the lyrics of a popular Israeli song that Ariel Sharon — a hard-liner who, as prime minister, evacuated all Israeli forces and settlers from Gaza — turned into a political mantra: “Things you see from there, you can’t see from here.”
Mr. Netanyahu also tried to play down the significance of the appointment. “In the end,” he said, “the prime minister is the one who navigates all the campaigns, along with the defense minister and the chief of staff.”
Mr. Lieberman’s appointment comes at a delicate time diplomatically. Israel is under international pressure over the Palestinian issue and is in the thick of difficult negotiations with the Obama administration for an enhanced 10-year military aid package that could top $40 billion.
As foreign minister, Mr. Lieberman, an immigrant from Moldova, then part of the Soviet Union, who lives in a West Bank settlement, was sidelined when it came to Israel’s critical interests, including its relationship with Washington.
Mr. Lieberman has also said that Israel should seek other allies and worked to strengthen ties with Russia.
A State Department spokesman, John Kirby, expressed the administration’s admiration for Moshe Yaalon, who quit as defense minister on Friday, but he added, “Our bonds of friendship are unbreakable, and commitment to the security of Israel remains absolute.”
Mr. Netanyahu said that his government would continue to seek peace with the Palestinians, and Mr. Lieberman said on Wednesday that he was equally committed to reaching a final status agreement. He has, however, set his own terms for a deal, including transferring some towns populated by Israel’s Arab citizens to Palestinian control. (He also once called for the beheading of Arab citizens who showed disloyalty.)
In recent days, Mr. Netanyahu welcomed what appeared to be a behind-the-scenes move for a regional conference hosted by Egyptthat had begun to take shape while he was in earlier coalition talks with Isaac Herzog of the center-left Zionist Union. It is not immediately clear where the shift rightward leaves that initiative.
Shmuel Sandler, a political-science professor and expert on Israeli foreign policy at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said that some Arab leaders were ready “not out of love for Zionism but because of their own interests, to accept Israel as a legitimate actor.”
“It will be sad if we miss that opportunity because of domestic politics,” he added.
There is also concern over what kind of working relationship Mr. Lieberman will have with the army’s top generals, having recently positioned himself as their adversary.
His appointment comes as Israel has been grappling with a wave of Palestinian stabbings and other attacks that pitted the army chiefs, who urged restraint and a strict adherence to open-fire regulations, against an increasingly belligerent segment of the Israeli public.
Mr. Yaalon, a former chief of staff, stood firmly with the military, while some other ministers fanned the populist ire.
In a case that has roiled Israel, Mr. Yaalon and the military chiefs were uncompromising in their condemnation of a sergeant, Elor Azaria, who shot and killed a disarmed Palestinian assailant in the head as he lay wounded on the ground. The soldier has been charged with manslaughter and is on trial in a military court.
Mr. Lieberman showed up at the military court to support the soldier and called the legal proceedings “theater of the absurd.”
In a Facebook post, he wrote, “I hope that at the end of the process the soldier will be acquitted and it will be clear to everybody that it is the right of every Jew, and especially of a soldier, to protect himself from a terrorist who has come to kill him.”
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