Lieberman opens up in first interview since resignation
Former defense minister asserts his right-wing credentials accusing Netanyahu of being all talk, no deeds and surrendering to terror by ignoring his calls for a tougher stance on Gaza; 'Appointing Bennett for the defense post can save the education system;' After elections: 'I will only join a right-wing government.'
On Tuesday evening, shortly after the cabinet meeting ended and a cease-fire was reached between Israel and Hamas, Avigdor Lieberman realized that he could no longer serve in the position of defense minister. He even consulted with his wife Ella about the possibility of resigning. But the straw that broke the camel’s back came later that night. Spokesmen for the prime minister told several media outlets that the defense minister was in agreement regarding the implementation of the cease-fire.
"Fake news," Lieberman responded. It was enough for him to go to bed as defense minister and wake up with his resignation announcement in hand.
On Wednesday, he convened the Yisrael Beytenu faction and informed them of his decision. Immediately afterwards, he held a dramatic press conference where he announced his resignation, shaking the political arena, which finds itself at the cusp of an early election campaign.
In his first interview since his resignation, Lieberman claims that in recent months he has not received backing or support from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who preferred negotiating with Hamas rather than destroying them.
"At the last meeting, I presented the cabinet with a structured proposal of exactly what should be done, and to my surprise it even received (Education Minister Naftali) Bennett's support," he says. "But there was an attempt to push it aside and go another route, something I could not accept — neither the cease-fire nor the transfer of money and fuel to Gaza."
Lieberman was insistent that Hamas be dealt a very hard blow, without sending in ground troops, using the air force alone.
"I will not go into all the details, but we have enough options to hit Hamas very hard without going into the Gaza Strip. Such plans were already submitted to the cabinet. What we need to understand is that at the moment, Hamas continues the violence and gets awarded to an extent I cannot accept. They get economic benefits such as Qatari fuel, salaries and open crossings, while continuing the violence on the border fence," he said.
“We sustained 44 wounded and one casualty, a greenhouses was burned in Netiv Ha'asara, a missile was fired at a bus. I cannot live with Hamas continuing the violence and altering it in accordance with their wishes while continuing to receive economic benefits,” Lieberman said. “I demanded that each concession to Hamas be reciprocated with a commitment to end the violence, because no one goes to the border protests by foot, everyone travels by organized buses that Hamas pays for.”
The second matter Lieberman spoke of was the POW's: “We ought to have made every improvement in the economic situation dependent on the return of the POWs and MIAs. Everyone spoke about it, but as soon as Hamas could be pressured and leveraged — at the last minute they got what they wanted without returning the POWs and MIAs."
When asked why he decided to quit now, Lieberman responded: "I was not looking for reasons to resign. I made many attempts to convince and influence from within the cabinet, despite the price I was paying. The very same people in the cabinet who torpedoed my proposals for determined action against Hamas are the ones who would ask in the media the following day: 'well, what about Ismail Haniyeh? 48 hours have already passed.’
“I was prepared to suffer a personal and electoral price,” Lieberman continued, “as well as damage to my reputation —until the last two struggles I waged: transferring funds to Hamas and the cease-fire, which is a complete surrender to terror. So I had no choice and resigned. If I had remained in the job, I would not be able to look into the eyes of the families of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin nor at the residents of Sderot."
Mafia blackmail fee
At the press conference on Monday, Lieberman was careful not to attack Netanyahu personally. But as the time passed, the depth of the disagreement between “Mr. Security” Netanyahu and his defense minister became clear. "I tried to lead a clear line and an aggressive policy, but the cabinet did not accept my position," he says. "It is clear that if the prime minister had lent his support, the cabinet would have adopted it."
When asked whether he was disappointed in the prime minister, Lieberman responded: "I do not think it's a matter of disappointment, it's a matter of worldview, because in the past, he talked and even wrote that it (a harsh policy vis-à-vis Hamas) should be the way, but when it came crunch time, he always found a reason why not to.
“And I am aware of all his explanations,” Lieberman continued: “There are always hidden factors, intelligence, there's the north, and there's east and west… There's always a whole range of excuses. I too am privy to all the secret materials Netanyahu refers to; but they are mere excuses.”
Do you have an explanation as to why Netanyahu is not working to topple the Hamas government, as he promised?
Lieberman: “I am not a commentator and cannot provide explanations. The fact is that all the proposals that I have tried to convey over the past two and-a-half years were torpedoed and every time they try to rationalize. To remain in the position of defense minister means granting a stamp of approval to security policies which I oppose".
“The south has been suffering for seven months being on the receiving end of rockets and the government is trying to buy quiet. We obtain some quiet for the short term while damaging national security in the long run, a situation I cannot accept," he said.
I asked Lieberman if he is accusing Netanyahu of yielding to terror and expressing flimsiness in the face of Hamas. "Those are the facts," he replied. "You cannot manage a security strategy for the State of Israel by buying quiet; that just allows Hamas to strengthen its forces. Hamas is much better equipped, much more powerful in terms of manpower, missiles and rockets, much more than it had before the Operation Protective Edge."
Is Israel negotiating with Hamas?
"There are no direct negotiations, but it does not matter. We convey messages through the Egyptians, through the UN envoy and via all sorts of mechanisms. The essential matter is that we are not prepared to deal terror a decisive blow, but rather prefer to surrender to terror."
Is there a political solution to the Gaza Strip?
"There is no political solution, and anyone who talks about diplomatic solutions must understand that it does not depend only on Israel. Look at the map of the Middle East: do you see a political solution for Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen? We live in a tumultuous region and not in Scandinavia".
“It is going to take a long time for the Middle East to settle down; a political solution is hogwash. What political solution can we talk about with Hamas? Hamas has stated that as far as they are concerned, there is only one political solution: the destruction of the State of Israel. They are not willing to renounce any clause in their covenant to destroy the State of Israel. Why do they invest so heavily in rockets and tunnels and not in electricity and water infrastructure? Not even one dollar of the Hamas budget goes to medication and electricity. They invest $270 million in rockets.”
The understanding reached by Netanyahu is not a political solution?
"It's not a political solution, it's buying time, it's like paying protection fees to the mafia. As soon as the $15 million in cash crosses the Gaza border, there's no control over the money. Where does this money go? To the families of terrorists killed during the border riots.”
Talk instead of deeds
After Lieberman's resignation, Netanyahu's associates accused him of "running away from responsibility." The press conferences attacking the defense minister did not stop for a moment. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely described him as a "cynical politician" and said: "There is no citizen in the country who regrets his resignation." One Likud minister said: "Lieberman resigned because he was afraid to take responsibility for things that will happen in the future."
Lieberman replies that Netanyahu is the one running away from responsibility. "From my point of view, it would have been irresponsible to remain in the post of defense minister and implement the failed policy," he says. "The moment the prime minister made a decision to go towards a settlement, to transfer money to Hamas and to agree to a cease-fire — that is an escape from responsibility. Netanyahu did not give me backing when I tried to crush the terror, which is irresponsible. That means neglecting the residents of the south to Hamas’s threats,” he said.
According to Lieberman, Netanyahu accuses others as a way of concealing the huge gap that exists between his words and his actions. "The prime minister voted in favor of the disengagement, I had no hesitation and voted against it," he recalls. "The prime minister advanced the Shalit deal and supported it, I voted against the deal, and today it is clear and understandable how wrong it was. The prime minister carried out the reconciliation and apology to Turkey (over the Marmara incident), I voted against it; and we can now see the results of the apology and the reparation payments that we paid…"
“Of course the prime minister and his associates will now attack and defame me. I took that into consideration. I would not expect that after resigning my position in the face of capitulation to terror that the prime minister and his people would be proud of me. Look at my record, at how the prime minister voted versus how I voted," Lieberman added.
Your resignation was a gift to Hamas. They gave out sweets and candy.
"I told the truth, period. Unfortunately, sometimes the truth is unpleasant."
Did it not annoy you?
"You cannot talk in these terms; there are a lot of annoying things, that's not the point. I cannot act according to what Hamas will think."
Your former MK, Sharon Gal, called you "Rambo Toy, a complete nothing,” in public. Were you surprised?
"Whoever spits into the well from which he drank — I have only pity for him. Except for pity I did not feel anything, not even anger,” he responded.
He is not the only one. Minister of Education Naftali Bennett calls you "a failed defense minister."
"I have heard him in recent days, very nervous and very stressed. I wish him good health and longevity."
In recent months, Bennett and Lieberman have been waging a vicious war of words, with a lot of emotions and bad blood between them. Even before Lieberman's letter of resignation was ready, Bennett already issued his own ultimatum to Netanyahu: appointing him to the role of defense minister or the dismantling of the government and early elections.
Lieberman is amused by this. "They asked me if Naftali Bennett could serve as defense minister, I said that if you can save the education system from him in return for his appointment as defense minister, it's worth it. Look at what's going on in the education system. All the public colleges are striking, 30,000 students are not studying, and more than a thousand senior lecturers are striking. Bennett is the education minister, does he even care about it at all?"
What do you think of Bennett's ultimatum?
"He is only interested in lucrative positions and headlines, but that's already Netanyahu's problem, not mine."
Like the Sharon government
Lieberman already served as foreign minister and defense minister in the Netanyahu government. What role will he return in the next term? "Yisrael Beytenu will only join a right-wing government," he says, "even when we are no longer members of the coalition, we try not to issue personal attacks. We will decide solely on a policy basis and not persona ones. We are a secular right wing party. My goal is to get at least ten seats in the next Knesset. I believe that elections will be held in March.”
Will you recommend Netanyahu to form the next government?
"I always recommend a right-wing government and right-wing policies, and what should be ensured after the next elections is that it will be not only be a right-wing government, but a government that implements a right-wing policy. The current government declares that it is a right-wing government, but it does not implement it."
There is a paradox here. You criticize Netanyahu for his security and political policies, yet in the end you will return to the fold of his government.
"We cannot be members of a government that is not right-wing, nor have we been afraid to be in the opposition, which is why I joined the government of Ariel Sharon, who said that Netzarim (in Gush Katif) is just like Tel Aviv, and when he decided on the disengagement we did not hesitate and went to the opposition. This government reminds me of the Sharon government,” said Lieberman.
Do you want to be defense minister in the next government?
"I do not wish to divide the bearskin before it is hunted,” he responded. “First of all I want to win enough seats, and after we bring enough seats, we'll talk about government posts."
In light of the lack of backing you received as defense minister, did you consider resigning from political life?
"For me, politics is only an option and not an obsession. I have already left politics and returned. What I can tell you with certainty is that in the coming elections I will run as leader of the Yisrael Beytenu Party. Will I remain in politics afterwards? Only God knows,” he concluded.