Is Israel Trading Bogie for a Bogeyman? Not So Fast

By Avi Issacharoff

Times of Israel

May 19, 2016

The news that Avigdor Liberman would replace Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon as the new defense minister was met in Ramallah with unbelieving dismay and stupefaction.

Ya’alon, who had been a partner to Arab states and the Palestinian Authority on untold operations and moves, would be giving up his seat and going home in favor of a man known mostly for brow-beating Arabs.

But while his loss may be deeply felt, pragmatism may end up saving the day.

Ya’alon is seen by Arab states as a true strategic partner for keeping the peace in the region.

He’s particularly popular with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi, who has met with him at least once and spoken with him on the phone multiple times. Ya’alon also secretly visited Amman, far from the spotlights and the cameras.

Quietly, Jerusalem has built a system of strategic and defense ties with these Arab states, and it’s Ya’alon who should get the credit on the Israeli side.

With the Palestinians it’s a bit different. Ya’alon was far from being a favorite among the PA’s leadership. He was regarded as an enemy of the PA, and it was no secret. Nonetheless, even Ramallah understood that it could at least rely on the stability of Ya’alon’s policies.

The current (and likely outgoing) defense minister was one of the main architects of Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories, notably its efforts to stop the spread of violence. Ya’alon and the defense system as a whole have acted the last eight months as a firefighter in the territories, rushing to stamp out flare-ups, and they were largely successful.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Gen. Yoav Mordechai, ended up winning out: Ya’alon and those behind him made sure that Israel did everything possible to differentiate between lone-wolf attackers and the population as a whole.

Thus, even on days when three or four attacks took place, Israel didn’t look to hurt the PA, and the security forces held back from taking action against innocent civilians, letting workers continue to enter Israel.

And even in the worst days of the last cycle of violence, security cooperation with the PA was maintained. Palestinian forces stopped terrorists and passed on critical intelligence about planning by groups to carry out attacks.

On the other hand, there’s no need to panic and start opening up the air raid shelters, as some in the Tel Aviv area muttered Wednesday as Liberman’s appointment hit the airwaves.

Liberman is indeed known for his more extreme and hawkish statements and positions, but he is also a pragmatic politician and opportunist. Despite his vow to assassinate Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh within 48 hours if the bodies of two Israeli soldiers were not returned from Gaza, for instance, he wouldn’t actually do it.

He’ll instead first try to give some stability to the defense establishment in a bid to prove he’s responsible and thoughtful, far from his image as a neighborhood thug on satirical sketch show “Eretz Nehederet.”

In other words, the things you can see from the 14th floor of the Defense Ministry are not the things you see at a party convention or the Saturday stump stops so beloved by politicians.

Even the Arab states and the Palestinians won’t rush to boycott the new defense minister.

The PA may see in Liberman an enemy for several reasons, including that he’s a settler, and he’s regarded as having ties to ousted Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan — a rival of PA President Mahmoud Abbas. But still, a survivalist instinct by the PA and its leader will force them to first take a long hard look at the minister before making any dramatic decisions.

Egypt too, as well as Jordan and even Saudi Arabia, understands that there are no small number of shared interests with Israel, and even Liberman will look to keep it that way.