Exit, and How Israel’s Chips May Fall
By Seth J. Frantzman
November 21, 2018
JERUSALEM — Israeli
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Nov. 14 resignation disrupted the
country’s politics at a sensitive time for regional security — and it could
serve as the catalyst for the delay of several defense deals.
resignation comes in the wake of a cease-fire with Hamas in the Gaza
Strip and after several high-profile visits by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu and his government ministers to Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Israel doesn’t have diplomatic relations with either state, but the Gulf
countries are key to countering Iran and constructing a strategic concept in the
region that dovetails with the current U.S. administration’s tough stance on
As for potential defense deals, any forthcoming
announcement for the purchase of F-15 fighter jets to upgrade Israel’s aging
fleet could be put off for the time being. The resignation could also impact a
deal for a new fleet of helicopters, likely Boeing’s CH-47 Chinooks or
Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallions. And Israel had revived the idea
of purchasing V-22 Ospreys. It’s now unclear how these potential deals, which
could total $11 billion, will fare.
It was expected Liberman’s exit could also accelerate
plans for early elections, but that fire seems to have been extinguished — at
least into the new year. The most immediate effect of his departure is that
Israel is without a dedicated defense minister; however, Netanyahu has taken on
that portfolio for the time being.
As the largest recipient of U.S. security assistance,
Israel receives $3.8 billion annually from America. Israel’s defense budget
was $19.6 billion in 2017, and it is the seventh-largest global arms exporter,
making stability at the helm of the Defense Ministry crucial to managing the
U.S.-Israel security relationship.
Former U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro, currently a fellow
at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, doesn’t
see the vast majority of defense cooperation being affected by the ministerial
change. “In terms of joint training, assistance, technology development and
intelligence sharing, there won’t be any disruption whatsoever by a new
defense minister or elections,” he said.
But it would be important for Israel that its new defense
minister build a rapport with the U.S. defense secretary. Netanyahu’s takeover
of Liberman’s post could make building a relationship with Pentagon head Jim
Mattis difficult, Shapiro notes, as Netanyahu directly deals with the U.S.
Maj. Gen. Gershon Hacohen, a 42-year veteran of the Israel
Defense Forces and currently at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies,
sees advantages to Netanyahu’s taking on another responsibility. “At the
moment of critical decision-making, the one with the main responsibility is the
prime minister and he must take the decision, and it is easier to do that when
you are combining both duties,” he said.
Should Netanyahu look to replace Liberman with someone
other than himself, he could choose a former general who shares his views on
regional security, such as Yoav Galant, Benny Gantz or Gabi Ashkenazi, according
to Brig. Gen. Avraham Benayahu, a former IDF spokesperson.
Liberman bristled at being corralled by Netanyahu and the
security establishment, according to accounts from the last months before his
“I think it was not easy for Liberman to realize at the
critical moment his opinion is not dominant amongst other opinions and not
accepted by the prime minister,” Hacohen said, adding that it’s important
for Netanyahu to make his expectations clear to the next defense minister.
“His views were different than the prime minister, he was
less concerned than [Netanyahu] with our new regional posture,” said Eran
Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. A
former deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs on
Israel’s National Security Council, Lerman believes Liberman’s views
contradicted Netanyahu’s vision and that of the security establishment,
including Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) head
Nadav Argaman and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen. “That is a pretty dramatic
situation for a defense minister to find himself.”
Lerman added that U.S.-Israel security cooperation —
which includes a wide range of programs such as missile defense, counter-UAVs
and anti-tunnel training — won’t be affected; although Liberman was quick to
grasp the learning curve necessary to manage the Defense Ministry and work with
the U.S., he was not a lynchpin of U.S.-Israel relations.
Israel’s largest defense companies — Rafael, Elbit and
Israel Aerospace Industries — have been close-lipped on Liberman’s
The Israeli defense industry is at a key juncture with
Elbit’s acquisition of IMI that took place this month. After increasing
exports by 40 percent in 2017 to $9.2 billion, the defense industry continues to
grow. IAI signed $1.3 billion in contracts in India in October.
Liberman was not shy about communicating with private
businesses. He claimed to have tamped down on companies sabotaging each
other’s foreign deals. “I met with the heads of the defense industries and
gave them a clear message about it,” he told business news outlet Globes this
The IDF is in the midst of a five-year plan, known as the
Gideon Doctrine, which is meant to enable long-term planning and modernization,
streamline the budgetary process, and avoid conflicts between the Defense and
Finance ministries. The plan envisions a strategy to confront nonstate actors
and strategic missile threats by using Israel’s advanced technological
Most of the programs associated with Gideon are expected to
continue, such as the rolling out of the new eight-wheel drive Eitan armored
“We can now state that within a decade, the IDF ground
forces will undergo dramatic upgrading of its capabilities,” Liberman said in
March. He had suggested Israel develop a new “missile corps,” but that pitch
may now be in jeopardy. Announced with fanfare in February and again in August,
his idea foresaw $145 million in financing precision-guided surface-to-surface
missiles that could reach 150 kilometers.
What is safe, experts agree, are Israel’s ongoing
programs with the U.S., including joint efforts on the Iron Dome, David’s
Sling and Arrow 3 air defense systems, as well as counter-drone cooperation.