With his offer to bring the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party into his governing coalition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has probably formed the most right-wing ruling coalition in the country’s history. And with his offer to make party leader Avigdor Lieberman defense minister, Netanyahu is putting Israel’s formidable armed forces into the hands of a man with little military experience but who makes no bones about his willingness to use Israel’s military against its enemies.
News that Netanyahu invited Lieberman and his party’s six Knesset seats into the government came as attention was focused on an expected announcement of a unity government with opposition leader Isaac Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union. That move was supposed to add a moderating influence on the government’s rightward tack. And if Herzog had become foreign minister, as was predicted, Israel would have had an international spokesman that the outside world regarded as sober and reasonable. It would also have led to a split in Zionist Union, as only a few of its MKs were prepared to join the Netanyahu government.
Hemmed in from the left, Netanyahu turned right. With Yisrael Beiteinu, the government has a larger, more stable majority. But it also contains Lieberman, an ambitious, divisive figure. His home is in Nokdim, a settlement in the West Bank, a territory under the defense minister’s jurisdiction.
Lieberman, who was a corporal in the artillery corps, will not be the first defense minister to come from the ranks of noncommissioned officers, but it is not his military service that people are talking about. Instead, they recall that Lieberman turned heads in capitals throughout the Western world during his recent stint as foreign minister, when he was effectively labeled persona non grata in Washington. While some of his policy ideas are popular among the right, they give many in the current U.S. administration and in the American Jewish community pause, such as a call to transfer some of Israel’s Arab population to citizenship of a future Palestinian state.
The newly constituted Netanyahu government is not the Israeli government that the United States or Europe wants. As such, that new governing coalition is likely to have a difficult time on the diplomatic front. With a French peace initiative on the horizon, a new Quartet report about settlements due out and a possible U.N. attempt to impose an Israeli-Palestinian solution this year, Israel’s government needs diplomatic flexibility and credibility in order to navigate what could be very challenging days ahead.
Electoral stability is important. And a strong governing majority is what every administration prays for. But with the embrace of and delegation of national defense authority to Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu and Israel may be paying too high a price for what they believe will be domestic political comfort.