December 10, 2019

Last Stop: Defense Minister

Photo by Ammar Awad / Reuters

Consider the following few names: Moshe Yaalon, Shaul Mofaz, Amir Peretz, Yizhak Mordechai. Do you remember any of these names? All were Israel’s Defense Ministers in the last two decades, all believed that the position will make them contenders for the Prime Minister’s position, all were disappointed. Yaalon is looking for a party to join, Mofaz ended his political career with two seats in the Knesset, Peretz is a midlevel opposition leader, Mordechai was convicted of sexual misconduct and disappeared from the political scene.

In short: Defense Minister is no stepping stone, it is a last stop. Ask Ehud Barak – who had his last political hurrah at Defense (unless tweeting angrily is counted as political career). Or Binyamin Ben Eliezer, bless his soul. He was Defense Minister under Ariel Sharon.

Enter Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned last week from this coveted position, and prompted a political crisis (at the time of writing, the coalition is still holding). What happened to Lieberman? The usual thing. He wanted to become Defense Minister, probably believing that such position will raise his profile and make him a viable candidate to be a future PM. He ended his term injured: Marginalized by a powerful PM, ineffective as a minister, ridiculed by Israelis who still remember his unkept promise to kill Hamas leaders within 24 hours of getting the job. Lieberman resigned when he realized that as minister, he does not call the shots – but is nevertheless criticized for Israel’s true or imaginary failures.

The position of Defense Minister has high profile. Many of Israel’s most important leaders served in this position. David Ben Gurion was both Prime Minister and Defense Minister. Levi Eshkol copied him, until a week before the Six Days War. Moshe Dayan got the glory for 1967, and the shame after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Shimon Peres was Defense Minister, Yitzhak Rabin was Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon was Defense Minister, Barak – when he was elected as Prime Minister, kept Defense to himself.

“Defense ministers ended up damaging their political career rather than boosting it.”

But in the last decade and a half Defense Ministers are rarely more than a Sancho-Panza to someone else. Ben Eliezer and Mofaz served under Sharon’s long shadow. Yaalon and Lieberman under a strong Netanyahu. They ended up damaging their political career rather thanboosting it. Prime Ministers, fearing competition, used them and got rid of them (Barak, Yaalon), or made them look small (Lieberman), or were too dominant to leave them much room for maneuver (Mofaz). They needed these Ministers as fillers, not as policy makers. To complement this tricky position, the public was rarely satisfied with or wowed by the performance of Defense Ministers.

This development is worthy of discussion as it explains not just the erosion of Defense Ministers’ political clout, but also why Israeli military men no longer have the same political appeal, and no longer dominate the political arena. To be blunt: Defense Ministers were popular, and generals were precious political commodity, when wars were simpler to explain, understand, and win. Rabin and Dayan were the demigods of 1967. Then Dayan stayed, and was burnt by 1973. The Six Days War was easy to explain – great victory. The Yom Kippur War was easy, if inconvenient, to understand – a surprise blow.

As wars become more complicated, the job of Defense Minister gradually lost its glamour. Ben Eliezer and Mofaz had to battle a long and exhausting Intifada with hundreds of civilian casualties. Peretz was partially blamed for the inconclusive Second Lebanon War. And then, there is Gaza. The public wants the Gaza problem solved. The public wants the firing of rockets from Gaza to stop. But it is not that simple to satisfy such demand. Barak was Defense Minister when Israel attacked Gaza in 2008 and 2012. Yaalon was Defense Minister during Protective Edge in 2014. All rounds had sour endings. All rounds were just rounds – a pause on the way to the next round. Netanyahu learned his lesson: Better avoid a round that puts you back where you started. Lieberman felt that he was paying the political price for Netanyahu’s decision.

So he was left with few choices. To have the title of Defense without the authority to defend. To have the job that is supposed to bolster your image of boldness, but makes you seem weak and irrelevant. That’s a bad political deal. How bad? A senior Israeli politician told me last week that under such circumstances it might be better for a politician to be Finance Minister – a traditional cemetery of aspiring politicians. Even Finance Minister. Imagine that.