Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman, who will mark two years in the post next month, has a set answer to the question of how he is doing. "It's heaven," he says. This answer did not change after an especially intense month in the Middle East, never a calm region. The Americans withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran; a million Palestinians threatened to march on Israel; dozens of people were killed in the Gaza Strip; the US embassy in Israel moved to Jerusalem; and the IDF has been attacking the Iranian Al Quds force, which is trying to establish itself in Syria. Apocalypse? Despite the circumstances, Liberman believes that, all in all, the situation is not bad.
"Globes": We have experienced an extraordinary series of military incidents in the north and south with highly explosive potential, and some impressive operational and intelligence achievements. Do you feel on a high?
Liberman: "You know what the Jewish sources say: There is no greater sin than arrogance. I suggest not going overboard about anything, because success is transient. These are not one-time events, and this situation will be with us for a long time. The Middle East is not about to change tomorrow morning; it's not going to become North America, Canada, or Scandinavia. We have many challenges ahead to cope with."
Is 2018 a year of war?
"We really hope not. No one here wants escalation and no one wants to go to war."
What is actually going on here after such a dramatic period?
"That's not the right question. In your place, I'd ask where we are living. Show me two countries in the Middle East living at peace with one another. This is a very violent region - everyone against everyone. We live in the most unstable region in the world, one that is currently undergoing tectonic changes. Everything we were used to has collapsed. Look at Syria - everything there has been twisted for years. We're managing to take care of ourselves - to be a prosperous European country. Just this week we had reasons to celebrate. We won the Eurovision song contest, and you know what's happening on the other side of the border - in the Golan Heights, and it's just as if someone sat with a ruler and drew it - one side green and the other gray."
Two days ago, they counted dozens of fatalities on the border in the Gaza Strip, while at the same time they were celebrating winning the Eurovision contest in Tel Aviv and moving the US embassy in Jerusalem. What do you have to say to people who are unnerved by this crazy situation?
"We did everything we could in the Gaza Strip. We returned to the 1967 border and removed all of the settlements - all of the Jews. We gave it to Mahmoud Abbas on a silver platter. We didn't bother them for two years: no blockade, nothing. Hamas came, seized power, and their slogans in the demonstrations in recent weeks were about returning to Jaffa, Haifa, and Safed and their yearning to destroy Israel.
"It's been almost 13 years since we left there, and what has happened now? Where did this crisis come from? Along comes Abbas, cuts all the budgets, and Hamas is unwilling to spend money from its budget on water, electricity, health, and education, but they spent $260 million in 2017 on their tunnel program and making missiles. All of this last terrorist parade of theirs cost $25 million. Then they shout that there's no drugs and insulin. Do you know how much insulin you can buy with $25 million? So what can we say to people who are going crazy about this situation? That the key lies first of all in our steadfastness. We can't constantly beat ourselves up and eat our hearts out. What else can we do? Not everything depends on us."
Are there exchanges of messages between Israel and Hamas?
"There are intermediaries, many of them self-appointed, who appear all the time with all sorts of proposals, none of them serious. We're very transparent in our demands: a solution to the problem of prisoners and MIAs; accepting the terms set by the Quartet; and rebuilding of the Gaza Strip in exchange for demilitarization."
Meanwhile, Israel has rejected calls by Hamas for a hudna (long term truce)
"What is a hudna? They don't recognize our right to exist and don't concede their right of return, but they want us to remove the blockade of the Gaza Strip - not in order to build a healthy economy in order to build their society. They want a commitment from us not to bother them for a decade, while they build up their forces and create Hezbollah-plus in the south. They will do now everything that Hezbollah did in 2006-2016, but twice as much. They have more advanced research and development than Hezbollah and greater industrial potential. They don't want demilitarization and to give up their weapons of resistance. Postponing the problem of the Gaza Strip for a decade could be very convenient for me, but then there will be another minister of defense here who will have to deal with a new Hezbollah in the south."
Is Israel planning to resume targeted killings in the Gaza Strip? Are Hamas leaders in the crosshairs again?
"I have no interest in escalation. We want calm, but if they leave us no choice, we'll do it. Unfortunately, they've adopted Lenin's doctrine that the worse things are, the better they are. In the past two weeks, they've burned and destroyed the Palestinian side of the goods crossing at Kerem Shalom, which is their only source of relief. Imagine what would have happened had the rabble that rioted there penetrated to Kibbutz Kerem Shalom - what they would have done to the people there. You don't need much imagination for that."
"The Europeans fled"
Wednesday morning, when the political crisis between Israel and Turkey further escalated with the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in protest at the killing of dozens of Palestinians on the Gaza border this week, Liberman's tone of voice shows that he is not perturbed by these developments. He never thought any differently about Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan; he knew that a rupture with the Turks was only a matter of time, as well as another round of preaching from Europe. "On the one hand, we see a major terrorist campaign and on the other a fit of hypocrisy. I haven't seen the people preaching morality at us solve a single conflict in the world. Has anyone settled the conflict with the Turks in Cyprus? The crises in Ukraine and Catalonia? There are enough unresolved conflicts in Europe, and there's a lot of hypocrisy there. These same Europeans offered guarantees for arrangements in the Gaza Strip following the disengagement. They were supposed to supervise the Rafah border crossing, but they ran away with their tails between their legs, and fled, leaving us by ourselves with the problem. They're always ready to talk a lot, but they're much less willing to do anything or make an effort towards a real solution. Meanwhile, they just preach morality at us."
We are once more in the midst of a diplomatic confrontation with Turkey
"As a security cabinet member, I opposed the reconciliation agreement with Erdogan from the beginning; it's recorded in the minutes. Unfortunately, everything single thing I said then about Erdogan has come true. I objected to the apology and damages paid to Turkey, and I knew that at the first opportunity, he would throw the reconciliation into the waste basket. Do you think he cares about the people in the Gaza Strip? He has elections coming up on June 24, and it's convenient for him to play on that. He makes a hullabaloo, humiliates our ambassador, and thinks it will get him reelected."
Did your fellow cabinet ministers who supported the reconciliation agreement make a mistake?
"I don't want to make comments about the cabinet. I thought then that it was a mistake, and I think now that it was a mistake. The escalation with Turkey didn't come from us. We didn't recall our ambassador from Ankara in protest against Erdogan's slaughter of the Kurds. We're just responding to him. You can't be a sucker all the time."
"They took money from the JNF? Then they can take money from the Israel Land Authority too"
While everyone is deeply engrossed in what is happening in Syria, where Iran is continuing its efforts to form another armed front against Israel, and with everyone listening closely to events in the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Tehran, and Sinai, within a couple of weeks another sector is likely to reach boiling point, and there is no reason to think that it will not catch fire and burn. A special team led by head of the National Security Council in the Prime Minister's Office Meir Ben Shabbat is scheduled to decide the ongoing dispute between the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Finance concerning Liberman's demand that billions more be allocated to the defense budget. The defense budget for 2018 is NIS 71.5 billion, including US military aid.
The team headed by Ben Shabbat was formed following Liberman's demand for NIS 4.8 billion for the defense budget to compensate for costs forced on the IDF by the changes that have taken place in the Middle East after an agreement was signed by Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon and then-Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon two years ago aimed at settling the defense budget for five years. Liberman believes that these changes are so important that the agreement on which the current budget was based is simply irrelevant.
He is now pinning his hopes on the National Security Council's decision and emphasizes that in the months that have passed since he asked for NIS 4.8 billion, the hole in the defense budget has almost doubled in size. Liberman's new budget demand is for no less than NIS 8.3 billion.
NIS 71.5 billion is not enough for all the security challenges facing Israel?
"Of this amount, NIS 32 billion is available to the IDF. Since the agreement with the Ministry of Finance was signed, this budget been cut again and again, to the tune of NIS 8.3 billion, following across-the-board cuts and because of expenditure not included in the multi-year Gideon plan. On the other hand, our defense needs have grown. In the agreement with the Ministry of Finance, there's a clause saying that we're entitled to request a budget supplement in the event of a major change, and such a major change is what has happened. There are Russians and Iranians in Syria, and the situation with the Palestinian Authority and with the Gaza Strip has become more and more complicated and our defense spending has increased."
Who decides what constitutes a major change entitling the Ministry of Defense to demand an increase in the defense budget?
"Not us. The agreement states that the National Security Council is the agency for making such a decision and it decided that a major change had indeed occurred. You know what? Despite all the security changes that have occurred since the agreement was signed, I'll waive the budget supplements. I just want the NIS 8.3 billion taken from us over the past two and a half years given back to us."
Hasn't the budget already been set until the end of 2019? Where will the money come from?
"There are always reserves. There are budget sources. I told the Ministry of Finance where it can find budget sources. I asked MK Oded Forer (Yisrael Beitenu) to ask the minister of finance a parliamentary question in the Knesset about how much money is in the account of the Israel Land Authority. Kahlon answered that there was NIS 10.4 billion. If they could take money before from the Jewish National Fund, then they can take it from the Israel Land Authority. You understand? They have NIS 10.4 billion cash. They have plenty of excuses when they don't want to give money."
What excuses are you hearing from the minister of finance?
"I suggest leaving this to the professional staff. The bottom line is that we have substantial needs, and there are ways of financing them."
In the budgetary situation you describe, are there the capabilities that the IDF and the Ministry of Defense are being deprived of because of budget constraints?
"There is no question about it - yes."
Some will say that this is another attempt by the Ministry of Defense to use scare tactics to get a few billion more.
"I raised this with the joint committee of the Knesset Finance Committee and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee when it discussed approval of the defense budget. I called on the MKs not to approve the defense budget in this format because it's inadequate."
And they approved it.
"Right, and without what should be in it, when it's absolutely clear that Israel's security is being harmed as a result. But Israel's security is not my private property. There's collective responsibility here."
So much money - fantastic amounts by any standard - and again we find ourselves again with the alarming problem of gaps in civilian protection on the home front. We've been through the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Committees arose, reports were written, decision-makers promised to draw conclusions, and a third of the population still has no proper reinforced shelters.
"I have held 54 meetings already on the shelters on the home front with the parties involved. Everything's ready in our plans. But every government ministry shares responsibility for this situation, however, and has to allocate money for it, but it's not being done."
"Because these things aren't connected to primaries, and because you can't make political capital out of such matters. When the inadequacy is discovered, everyone comes to the Ministry of Defense as if we were a bank and asks us for money. I explain that we're the integrating agency, not the bank for reinforcing the home front."
Where are the main gaps?
"If we invested NIS 37,000 per resident in the south on reinforced shelters in recent years, in the north it's NIS 930, which is nothing in comparison with the magnitude of the threat there. Furthermore, it's on the Syrian-African Rift and is exposed to earthquake risks. This matter must be decided quickly according to plans that have already been drawn up. It amounts to a billion shekels a year. All that remains is to decide."
"The defense industries are wonderfully creative"
Together with those home front gaps, a need for billions more in the IDF's budget, enemies armed to the teeth taking up strong positions on Israel's borders and a general public mood that war is looming, Liberman does have some good news to report. Israel's defense exports totaled $9.2 billion in 2017, an all-time record. "This is wonderful creativity, he says. "The defense industries employ 80,000 workers directly and indirectly."
Yes, but there are many ugly phenomena in the margins of this wonderful creativity: fierce competition for arms deals worldwide, damage to Israel's image, and much embarrassment.
"For sure, but we've completely gotten rid of these problems in the past two years. One of the first orders I gave to the Ministry of Defense director general when I came here was to take export licenses away from Israeli companies that put spokes in each other's wheels in competition for overseas deals. I met with the heads of the defense industries and gave them a clear message about it. I think they understand better now, although there's always room for improvement. We've made a dramatic change in this department."
Was it necessary to intervene in crises that arose because of this competition?
"In my previous job as minister of foreign affairs, I had to put out fires in several cases, because those cases led to internal crises within foreign countries and caused unacceptable situations. We won't get into details or mention names of countries. Did you hear last year about any Israeli company that damaged another company because of competition? I didn't. The defense companies understood our approach to this matter."
The state is selling IMI to Elbit Systems, and we assume that you hear the voices of concern about Elbit Systems becoming too strong in a way that will affect the Ministry of Defense's ability to bargain in arms procurement deals with the company.
"On this issue, I must hand it to the Ministry of Finance, and especially Accountant General Rony Hizkiyahu, who did excellent work, including making sure that competition would be maintained and that no monopoly would have everyone by the throat. In the end, we'll be left here with three large defense companies: Elbit Systems, and government companies Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael. As far as relations are concerned, it seems to me that there is a good atmosphere between the companies and everyone understands that they don't have to conquer the whole world. Pretty good work was done in order to ensure that Elbit Systems won't be a monopoly and things were closed well."
How are the plans for moving the IDF to the south going?
"The investment in this amounts to over NIS 20 billion. These measures demonstrate to what degree the Ministry of Defense is the biggest social and economic engine in the countries. You can see the plans of the training base complex and the intelligence and computer center: 50 local companies in the Negev are doing the work. 600 people living in Dimona, Yeruham, and Arad are employed at the training complex at the Negev Junction. We're now closing down IMI in Ramat Hasharon and moving its activity to Ramat Beka. We'll free up land in areas where demand is the highest. We've already been vacating land in Tzrifin, Glilot, Ramat Gan, Tel Hashomer, and other places for 10 years. We're providing the state with land for construction of 60,000 housing units, including business and commercial centers."
"I don't like talking about myself"
It's clear that since becoming minister of defense, something has happened to Avigdor Liberman, and it is not merely his obvious liking for his current job. It may be statesmanship that suddenly, without warning, affects every new minister coming to the 14th floor of the Ministry of Defense's headquarters. Some say it is holy awe that comes from dealing with Israel's security and the awesome responsibility that comes with the classified briefings and secrets presented to him by the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, the Israel Security Agency, and the Mossad. "I don't think that I've changed," he tells us.
Life does not look different from the 14th floor of Ministry of Defense headquarters?
"Here you deal every day with life and death decisions. Any normal person realizes the dimensions of the responsibility. It's not like sitting in the opposition."
In retrospect, are you sorry about things you said when you were in opposition?
"No. Everything's the same."
Including the threat to kill Ismail Haniyeh within 48 hours?
"It's Ismail Haniyeh as a symbol. Look, we're doing good work here - doing what has to be done. I don't like talking about myself, but I've been in the job two years already - anyone can look at what I've done."
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on May 21, 2018
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