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Avigdor Lieberman and the Implications of Israel's Cabinet Reshuffle

Deal making and backstabbing has become the norm in the brutal world of Israeli Knesset. Never in its history has any party governed in its own right – and often these coalitions are torn apart by internal politics and policy differences. The deal making was front and centre when Moshe Ya’alon resigned from his position of Defence Minister and was replaced by the controversial, populist Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party after a series of eleventh hour coalition negotiations. This created what many pundits have referred as the most right-wing government in Israeli history. The inclusion of Lieberman and his party within the cabinet has opened up a new sphere in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s domestic and international engagement - in such a dynamic and volatile time in Israel and the region, the implications of such a controversial inclusion will impact on many areas of domestic and foreign policy.

A Moldovan immigrant, seasoned diplomat and once a nightclub bouncer in Tel Aviv, Lieberman and Netanyahu suffer from a political and personal ‘mutual animosity’. Yisrael Beiteinu demanded a plethora of radical demands from Netanyahu in the 2015 election coalition negotiations that were dismissed, raising Lieberman’s ire towards Netanyahu. Lieberman’s rhetoric towards Arab people and governments, and shaky relationship with US diplomats has also hovered around his colourful political and personal life. Nonetheless, Lieberman now has control of one of the worlds most sophisticated – and secretive – armed forces and, as a second in command position to Netanyahu, holds an incredibly powerful position within the military and political framework of Israel.

Politically, the move to include Yisrael Beiteinu in Israel’s government is significant – it eliminates the last bastion of opposition on the large, organised Israeli right. Under a strategic pragmatist like Netanyahu, the diverse opinions of the right may be forced towards a more rational, palatable centrism. With international efforts to organise Palestinian statehood gaining traction and widespread pressure mounting on Netanyahu, this shift will play a major role in forming a comprehensive foreign policy. His political responses appear to have become more centred. For example, the shock reports in early June of both Bibi and Lieberman being open to discussing a 14-year-old Arab League Palestinian peace plan. However, recent terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv may also give a better indication of whether a pragmatic, or opportunistic, Lieberman defence ministry will exist.

The inclusion of Lieberman in the cabinet poses a number of significant challenges for Palestine. His party is not only secular but, in principle, advocates the two-state solution, however his past statements have been derogatory towards Arabs. He has often called for the bombing of Palestinian gas stations, banks and commercial centres, and led parliamentary efforts to ban Arab parties from running for office. He has also expressed direct scepticism of the Palestinian peace process. Obviously, his past singling-out of Arab Israelis strains his relationship with them and the Palestinian government who would easily point him out as a provocateur of aggressive expansionism into Palestinian territories. With an international community that is consistently condemning Israeli expansion of settlements in Palestinian territory and pushing for mediated settlements to the conflict, this is only going to serve to further heighten tensions between Israel and the world.

This regional tension is not only reflected in its most obvious transnational issue but also in one of its most complex: its relationship with Turkey. Lieberman has been critical of Turkey’s President Erdogan, once claiming that he leads a ‘radical Islamic regime’ that is working in tandem with Islamic State. Much of this criticism has stemmed from the heightened tensions after the Israeli boarding of a flotilla of Turkish ships delivering aid to the Gaza Strip in 2010, killing ten people. He has continuously opposed efforts for reconciliation and concession towards Turkey, placing him in a precarious diplomatic position. Reconciliation with one of Israel’s more important regional partners will become more significant as the threat of Islamic State broadens, and in such an important ministry as defence, the mending of this relationship will become even more important. And, as one of the handful of Arab states with working relations with Israel, the importance of keeping relations steady will become a centrepiece in any attempts to reach out to the Arab world: Lieberman will become an important cog in any attempts to deepen this relationship.

Lieberman now possesses incredible responsibility and power. Yet, his ascension into one of the most important positions in Middle East diplomacy puts Israel into a difficult space. Whether he will be brought into line by Netanyahu or continue to be outspoken to the point of ridicule is one issue, but equally as concerning is how his addition to the cabinet will impact on Israel’s increasingly important domestic and international relations.

Euan Moyle is a student at Macquarie University studying international studies.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: alex de carvalho (Flickr: Creative Commons).

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