Tel Aviv shooting poses first test for hard-right defense minister

Avigdor Lieberman's response could signal whether Israel will tip toward a more heavy-handed approach to security or leave avenues open for mitigating the violence through other means.

Abir Sultan/AP
Israel's controversial new defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman of the hard-right Yisrael Beytenu party, took up his post May 30.

Wednesday’s shooting in the heart of Tel Aviv could hardly have been better designed to provoke Israel’s controversial new defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

Two Palestinians, who were in Israel illegally, struck within a quarter mile of the sprawling Defense Ministry complex, killing four Israelis and wounding 16 in the most lethal attack since the current wave of Palestinian violence began last fall. The shooting presents the first major test for Mr. Lieberman, who took office May 30.  

“The question is, will Lieberman listen to the security chiefs, who tell him to respond moderately, or will he respond based on his political instincts and past proclamations which means a much tougher response with more collective punishment?” asks Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

Mr. Lieberman, a prominent opposition figure in Israeli parliament before taking up his new post, had urged an “iron fist” response to attacks in which 32 Israelis have been killed since October. Some 207 Palestinians have also been killed, the vast majority of whom carried out attacks or were attempting to do so, according to Israeli officials.

This morning, when Lieberman visited the upscale shopping complex where last night's attacks took place, he hinted at a substantial response. “I have no intention of detailing the steps we will take, but it is certain I don't intend to suffice with words,” he said.

Still, whatever Lieberman's gut inclinations, observers say he has reasons – for the moment, at least – to avoid what could be seen as draconian steps, in part because he knows he is under intense scrutiny. The international community is seeking to gauge how much further right he may pull the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

How he responds could signal whether Israel will tip toward a much more heavy-handed approach to security or leave avenues open for mitigating the violence through other means. Both Mr. Netanyahu and Lieberman have made recent overtures toward reviving the Arab Peace Initiative, a blueprint for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, and voiced support for the two-state solution.

“I think [Lieberman] will put forth a very modest, very moderate profile of himself,” says former defense minister Moshe Arens, who was among the many who opposed Lieberman's appointment. “He'll be the example of moderation because he's trying to show everyone he's not as bad as was predicted.”

Israel's security cabinet convened yesterday to discuss how to respond to the attack. In an initial move, Israeli officials suspended 83,000 permits for West Bank residents to enter Israeli territory during Ramadan, and froze work permits for 204 relatives of the attackers, who hailed from the southern West Bank city of Yatta. Israel also sealed off Yatta, which is home to 120,000 Palestinians near Hebron.

The question now is how much further Lieberman and Netanyahu will go. Their options include imposing a general closure on the West Bank and wider restrictions on workers, steps the army has counseled against in the past on the grounds they would inflame tensions.

Hamas praises 'heroic attack'

Lieberman, an Israeli settler from the former Soviet Union who previously served as foreign minister, became defense minister as part of a deal with Netanyahu that brought his hard-right Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) party into the governing coalition. He vowed to carry out "responsible, reasonable policy."

But critics, pointing to his history of bellicose pronouncements, warned that it was a dangerous appointment. Concern was voiced – and not only on the left – that Lieberman would depart from the comparatively measured policies of his predecessor, Moshe Yaalon. In the view of Israeli security analysts, these policies – recommended by the army general staff and seen as avoiding punishment of the majority of Palestinians for the violence – helped ensure the conflict did not escalate.

Complicating the Israeli response to yesterday’s shooting is that there is no single address for striking back. The militant Hamas movement praised the attack as a “heroic operation” and said the assailants were part “of the resistance,” but not of Hamas specifically. Yatta's mayor, Musa Makhamrah, told the Monitor that the two assailants “had no affiliation. It seems they were independent.” The Hebron area has traditionally been a Hamas stronghold, however, and the attackers reportedly have cousins in Hamas, including one freed in the 2011 prisoner exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit.

So the assailants, while potentially influenced by Hamas, do not appear to have a direct affiliation with any faction. That “means that you are fighting ghosts, you don't have an easy target,” says Wadie Abu Nassar, director of the International Center for Consultations in Haifa. In his view, if there is a tougher Israeli response than previously, it would be because of the number of fatalities and its location, not because of Lieberman.

Reasons for restraint

But Mr. Abu Nassar says there are factors that could constrain the Israeli response: Washington is against an escalation, Israel would not want to aggravate its relations with Arab states, and banning the entry of tens of thousands of Palestinian workers to Israel would backfire. “Eighty thousand unemployed [Palestinians] would be a serious crisis, it will just aggravate things and if the Israeli response is too tough the [Palestinian Authority] could collapse,” he says.

Galia Golan, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, recalls that while in the opposition, Lieberman repeatedly called for the death penalty for assailants. “I don't think he will go in that direction now. He doesn't want to prove everyone right that he's extreme. It could happen in the future, but not now.”

She adds, however, that it was conceivable Lieberman would back deportations of relatives of assailants from the West Bank to Gaza.

And she warns that even if Lieberman acts with relative restraint in this instance, that is not necessarily indicative of where he will head in the future. “I don't think he would change so quickly because there's been so much static about the appointment,” she says.

Still, there were calls within the government for a protracted collective punishment of Yatta that sounded much like something Lieberman would have said before he took office last week. Transport Minister Yisrael Katz was quoted by Israel Radio as saying the city “should be closed for an extended period of time. They should not be able to go back to work [in Israel] for a long while.”

Mr. Makhamrah, the Yatta mayor, says this would ''increase the anger'' of residents toward Israel. Asked about the Tel Aviv attack, he says, "I'm against the killing of Palestinians and Israelis."

But he blames Israeli occupation for such violence. '"We have to end the occupation to end the cycle of violence," he says.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.