On the eve of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Washington, for his first meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House, winds of war are blowing through the top ranks of the government. One war faction, led by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is pulling towards Gaza; another war faction, led by Netanyahu, is pulling towards Iran.
These words are not aimed at frightening the Israeli public. In the field of intimidation, there are commentators much more enthusiastic than me. There is no war yet, but the flames are rising high, and there are those who are interested in fanning them.
Let’s start with the small war, the Gaza one. Lieberman entered the Defense Ministry with one goal: To establish himself among the public as a natural and necessary candidate for the position of prime minister. The mission he has undertaken is complicated and quite difficult to achieve. It requires, among other things, a return to the Likud party. That will happen at some point, as Lieberman has used up everything he can get from Yisrael Beytenu, and all he is left with is the burden: The investigations, the criminal charges, the voters who have disappeared. His followers in Likud—and there are many of them—will make sure to open the door for him.
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In the meantime, he is proving to the Likudniks that he is the minister most devoted to Netanyahu. More than Tzachi Hanegbi, more than Yoav Galant. Lieberman will stand behind Netanyahu in all his investigations, speak in his favor, pray for him. And if Netanyahu falls, he won’t have to ask for onion to induce crying; the tears will just flow on their own.
This mission requires much more than that: A move from the radical right to the moderate right. The entire right wing is moving to the right, even Netanyahu, and only Lieberman is moving to the left. The man who traveled all the way to the military court in Kastina to support Elor Azaria is the man who is now backing the court; the man who used every opportunity to mock the IDF top command’s performance is now representing the General Staff loyally, adopting the generals’ appointments, and is as concerned as they are about every political move that sets the territories on fire or irritates our friends in the world.
On the crucial day, he will be able to say: I am the only person who has served both as foreign minister and as defense minister; I am experienced; I am pragmatic; I am highly regarded in Israel and in the world; I am the successor.
There is only one issue in which the new Lieberman is connected to the old Lieberman: Gaza. “If I were defense minister,” he once said in a cultural event in Be’er Sheva, “I would say to Mr. (Ismail) Haniyeh: Either you return the bodies and the civilians within 48 hours, or you’re dead.” The promise was filmed and aired time and again since then. It haunts him.
In the meantime, the Israeli government, with Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, has offered Hamas quite a generous proposal—both living prisoners and bodies. Hamas rejected the proposal out of hand, made it public and mocked Israel in the media. Mr. Haniyeh is not dead; he is alive and kicking. Netanyahu is prepared to play this game, to move with Haniyeh from Operation Protective Edge 1 to Operation Protective Edge 2, not to let Gaza live and not to let Gaza die. Lieberman seeks to move closer to attack and neutralize the enemy.
Gaza will be a footnote at most in the conversation between Netanyahu and Trump. The main issue will be Iran. Netanyahu is arriving in Washington at an interesting timing. Iran had just test-fired a long-range missile; Trump responded with a warning; Iran announced that it didn’t give a damn; Trump threatened, and sent a battleship. According to a story leaked to the Wall Street Journal, he is interested in driving a wedge between Russia and Iran. He and Putin, he believes, will teach the ayatollahs a lesson.
Iran has two bitter enemies in Trump’s cabinet: Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. They both fought in Iraq a decade ago—Mattis as a division commander, Flynn as a senior intelligence officer. They saw with their own eyes Iranians killing American soldiers, intentionally. They have not forgiven the Iranians. Israeli defense officials have a lot of appreciation for Mattis; they have less appreciation for Flynn.
When it comes to Iran, these two side with Netanyahu. What do you suggest, Trump will ask him. Netanyahu will respond with a series of suggestions, starting with imposing economic sanctions to improving or cancelling the nuclear agreement. He has a golden opportunity here.
He must not succeed too much, however. If he convinces Trump to bomb Iran, the immediate Iranian response won’t be on American soil but in Israel, in the form of thousands of rockets that will be launched from Lebanon and Syria. In addition, when the war will get more complicated, as wars do, the war opponents in America will point an accusing finger at Israel.
By Ynet News