The recent political reshuffling in Israel’s governing coalition will put the unbridled nationalist Avigdor Lieberman in charge of the defense ministry and seal the creation of the most overtly right-wing government in Israeli history. It is an accurate reflection of how far to the right Israel’s political consensus has shifted and where the dividing lines in society now lie.
The moment Lieberman’s appointment was announced and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon found himself out of a job, the latter suddenly appeared to be moderate, reasonable—practically a lefty in comparison. Remember, Ya’alon is the military careerist who oversaw the IDF’s last two Gaza operations, which caused massive Palestinian civilian deaths and destruction; he is the man who called US Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive” and “messianic” for trying to gets Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a two-state solution; and who called Peace Now a “virus” back in 2009 and recently accused Breaking the Silence of treason and espionage. He is, to put it mildly, no dove.
But what separates him from Netanyahu and Lieberman is how he responded to the IDF soldier’s execution of a wounded, prone Palestinian assailant in Hebron at the end of March. While Ya’alon immediately called the soldier a “transgressor” who should be brought to justice and assured that he was a rotten apple in an otherwise moral, just army, Netanyahu and Lieberman backed the soldier, the former implicitly and the latter explicitly.
The Hebron execution, documented in full and exposed to the public thanks to the human rights group B’Tselem, exposed a divide between those who want to give the soldier a medal and those who want to see him and his commanders brought to justice. This incident is a credible marker of one of the biggest political divisions in Israel, which we are now seeing unfold in the corridors of Knesset: those who believe IDF soldiers should still be subject to some rule of law and normative ethics, that the IDF is or should strive to be the “most moral army in the world,” and those who believe that “security considerations” trump everything, especially when it concerns the Palestinians. A poll at the time found a majority of Israelis sympathized with the soldier, with 68 percent opposing the condemnation of the shooter, distinctly putting Ya’alon’s worldview in the minority. In 2016 Israel, Ya’alon, a career army officer and former chief of general staff who believes in the valor and “purity of arms” of the IDF, is now being portrayed as a moral, responsible centrist. Some have even joked in recent days that he has become the new opposition leader in Israel.