Last Friday, after weeks of political maneuvering, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Avigdor Lieberman to be his defense minister. A longtime political hard-liner who has filled various cabinet positions for more than a decade, Lieberman made his career with coarse talk: Israel, he said, should “cut off the head” of a disloyal Arab citizen, or take “a lesson from Putin” on how to deal with terror. His appointment served as a climax to parallel dramas: a public dispute between Netanyahu’s most conservative ministers and the Israel Defense Forces, which Lieberman’s appointment will inflame, and a secret peace initiative prompted by Tony Blair, involving players from the opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which the appointment effectively scuttles.
Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, the minister whom Netanyahu fired to make room for Lieberman, spoke bluntly at a press briefing on Friday. “To my great sorrow, extremist and dangerous elements have taken over Israel and the Likud Party,” he said. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was Ya’alon’s predecessor as defense minister under Netanyahu, angrily reinforced Ya’alon’s message on television later that night. Israel “has been infected by the seeds of fascism,” Barak said. “This government needs to be brought down before it brings all of us down.” At the Knesset on Wednesday, the former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, of the moderate Zionist Union, also condemned Ya’alon’s removal. “The Army is mandatory for all, so it must uphold Israel’s collective values,” she told me. “When my two sons served, I wanted them back with the same values they went in with.”
Ya’alon was the I.D.F.’s chief of staff when it crushed the Al-Aqsa intifada, in the early aughts. He ran the last Gaza war, advocated early on for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, and mocked Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent peace shuttles as “obsessive.” So his words of warning about Lieberman’s appointment carry particular weight, and also make a distinction that clichés about Israeli politics tend to obscure. When people speak of a “rightist” drift in the country, they are actually feeling two currents. The first is ideological: neo-Zionist, religiously inflected zealotry for the Land of Israel, representing at most a fifth of Israel’s Jews and valorizing the settlement project as messianic. The second is reactionary: the conviction that Israel has no partner for peace, that an Arab leader’s motivation to destroy Israel will correspond directly with his capability—reinforced with references to the pathos of Jewish history. This right represents a much larger constituency, shading into the centrist parties. Ya’alon—and Barak, too—are solidly in the latter camp. “Netanyahu always jumped from one camp to another,” Livni said.
Last week, perhaps inevitably, Netanyahu was forced to choose, first because of a controversy over recent knife attacks by Palestinian youths, which government officials have exhorted soldiers—barely out of their teens themselves—to deal with ruthlessly. There have been so many incidents in which disproportionate force was suspected that, in February, the I.D.F.’s chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, felt impelled to reaffirm I.D.F. rules of engagement and warn that it was hardly necessary to “empty a magazine into a teen-age girl carrying scissors.” Then, on March 24th in Hebron, in the West Bank, Sergeant Elor Azaria shot a knife attacker in the head as he lay wounded on the ground. He was taken to an Army prison by his superiors and eventually charged with manslaughter. (Azaria is currently on trial.) Netanyahu, however, had immediately called Azaria’s parents to reassure them that he saw their son as having done his duty; Ronen Bergman, the military correspondent for Yediot Ahronot, reported that the telephone call was seen by the brass as “a gross defiance of the military’s authority.” Lieberman came to court to show his support for Azaria, and called for his release. Late last month, there was yet another incident: a Palestinian brother and sister, who allegedly approached a checkpoint in the West Bank suspiciously, were shot and killed by an Army contractor. The surveillance video has not been released. Again the Army is investigating, and again the investigation was disparaged by the settler right.
The I.D.F. deputy chief of staff, Yair Golan, decided to speak out. On May 5th, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, he delivered a commemorative speech,calling for national soul-searching. In contemporary Israel, he said, there were the same “nauseating trends that took place in Europe in general, and in Germany specifically.” There is “nothing simpler and easier than hating the foreigner, there is nothing easier and simpler than arousing fears and intimidating, there is nothing easier and simpler than becoming bestial, forgoing principles and becoming smug.” As for the Azaria shooting, Golan said the I.D.F. should be proud that, throughout its history, it has investigated “severe incidents” without hesitation. “We didn’t try to justify ourselves, we didn’t cover anything up, we didn’t whitewash, we didn’t make excuses, and we didn’t equivocate.”
Both Netanyahu and Lieberman sternly reproached him. Golan had “cheapened the Holocaust,” Netanyahu said, and he summoned the general for a “clarification.” Golan quickly apologized for invoking the Nazis, but his words prompted a continuing controversy. Naftali Bennett, another far-right leader, demanded an end to the “festival of self-flagellation.” Herzog said, “This is what morality and responsibility sound like.” Ya’alon, for his part, who had dismissed veterans of the group Breaking the Silence as “traitors” for exposing routine violations of the I.D.F. code of conduct, could hardly permit attacks on the code itself. Shortly after Golan’s speech, Ya’alon spoke out: “The job of every I.D.F. commander, and certainly every senior commander, does not end with leading soldiers into battle but obliges him to map out values with the help of a compass as well as their consciences.” The attack on Golan was another tactic in an “alarming campaign aimed at politically damaging the I.D.F. and its officers.”
Netanyahu, meanwhile, was trying to cope with an equally severe diplomatic challenge. Behind the scenes, and with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s approval, Tony Blair had been working to pick up some of the pieces that Kerry left behind in 2014, trying to forge an interim regional understanding on the Palestinian question among Israel, Jordan, Egypt, the Saudis, and the Gulf states, the basis for a Western-backed Sunni alliance to counter both Iran and isis. Blair understood that, for Israel to show any diplomatic flexibility, Netanyahu would have to expand his government to include Herzog, whom all knew to be interested in the Foreign Ministry. According to Barak Ravid, the diplomatic correspondent for Haaretz, Blair visited Israel every two or three weeks, almost always meeting with Netanyahu, as well as with Herzog, updating them on his talks with Arab leaders.
In April, Herzog gave a speech emphasizing his centrist views, in effect associating himself with Ya’alon. In coördination with Blair, el-Sisi gave a speech on May 19th, urging “hope for the Palestinians and security for the Israelis”: “History will write a new page that will be no less and might even be more of an achievement than the signing of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel forty years ago,” he said. The day after el-Sisi’s speech, Blair flew to Israel and Herzog accelerated his negotiations to join the government with Netanyahu. Blair met with both and even tried to mediate between them, Ravid reported, all the while updating Kerry on his progress.
Then things fell apart. Herzog told Ravid that he had asked Netanyahu to put their understanding of the peace process in writing, and that Netanyahu had refused to do so. Livni did not tell me precisely what that understanding was, but in last year’s election Herzog all but endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which Blair said on Wednesday would unlock “some steps of normalization.” A written commitment might well cause Bennett’s right-wing faction to bolt from the government, which would be, from Herzog’s perspective, all to the good. But, without something written, Herzog would be making himself hostage to Netanyahu. “He refused to put things in writing,” Livni told me. “Much of his Likud list might leave with Bennett.” Netanyahu would become a minority voice in a government pursuing a regional peace. The negotiations ceased, and Netanyahu turned to Lieberman.
It would seem that Netanyahu has pulled off a threefer. By appointing Lieberman, his supporters will tell you, he brought the Army command to heel, spiked movement toward a regional deal that he could not control, and humiliated Herzog. And some will add that bringing Lieberman into the government is not really as dangerous as Ya’alon and Barak suggest. For all his bombast, the former prime minister Ehud Olmert once told me, Lieberman is actually a pragmatist, one who supported the two-state solution when he was foreign minister (although, revealingly, his vision called for redrawing the border to place hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs on the other side). After the Gaza war, during which he called for outright invasion, he floated the sensible idea of a U.N. trusteeship.
But these are short-term political considerations. The real question is whether, by making common cause with the settler right against the I.D.F., Netanyahu is taking on forces that may finally be too big for him to manipulate. The settlers already control education, justice, and rural development, while Netanyahu personally controls economic affairs, foreign affairs, and communications. Lieberman will bring the defense ministry into this orbit, and will likely try to advance the careers of officers sensitive to the settler agenda. (The political analyst Yoram Peri told me that as many as half of the rising officers in the I.D.F. today wear the settlers’ knitted yarmulkes.) But the senior command, in both the military and intelligence services, remains hostile to Netanyahu. He has not only challenged their authority; he is challenging the prestige of Army service, and is threatening to debase the values with which they claim authority.
So Netanyahu may keep power for a while, but in losing the Army he has lost a major source of his legitimacy. Ya’alon himself has called for the formation of a new center-right movement to challenge Netanyahu. Livni told Channel Two last Friday night that her chief goal is to unite all democratic parties in a single opposition bloc. Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister and the leader of the centrist party Kulanu, remains the linchpin of Netanyahu’s majority; his views, and those of his voters, are certainly closer to Ya’alon’s than to Bennett’s or Lieberman’s.
Yet the most significant portent of pressure came on that same television broadcast, not from any politician but from the channel’s military correspondent, Roni Daniel, who usually spars with others as the resident skeptic and hawk. Daniel could not hold back his anger at Netanyahu’s political machinations or his sellout to settler apologists. “I plowed the fields next to the Jordan River. They told us to go to the Army; we went to the Army. They told us to become officers; we became officers and commanders and served in the reserves. I went and fought all of the wars I was asked to fight,” he said, pounding his fist when Likud’s Yuval Steinitz, the infrastructure minister, tried to interrupt him. “For the first time I feel, because of this kind of politics, I’m not sure that I want my children to live here.”