By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned on Wednesday November 14 in the wake of a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel. His resignation leaves unprecedented power in the hands of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is serving as foreign minister, and has important implications for Israel and the US at the crucial time in the Middle East. Lieberman presided over additional purchases of F-35 A Lightning IIs from Lockheed Martin, and has also urged the creation of a new missile force for Israel. The Israel Air Force was also looking to modernize its F-15 squadrons. Lieberman’s department will have wide ranging implications. He played a key role as Israel was modernizing its air force and ground forces. He also presided over important changes in the defense industry.
In December 2016 US Defense Secretary Ash Carter flew to Israel’s Nevatim Air Base to meet with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman as part of celebrations for the arrival of the first two F-35A Lightning II jets to Israel. “The U.S.-Israel defense relationship is stronger than it’s ever been, and America’s pledge to defend Israel’s security remains unwavering. Indeed, with the current turmoil in the region we’re more committed to Israel’s security today than ever before,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said.
Lieberman was keen on the F-35 purchases, visiting Lockheed Martin in June 2016 where he posed inside the cockpit of the fifth generation plane. In August 2017 when Israel finalized a deal to buy 17, on top of the initial 33, he praised it. “17 additional F-35 fighter jets is a significant and strategic addition of strength to the air force.” Carter’s 2016 visit came after the unprecedented $38 billion Memorandum of Understanding was signed in September that year. The MOU will last through 2028 and includes $500 million a year for missile defense cooperation. Lieberman brought a large team with him on his first trip as defense minister to the US in June 2016 to shore up the defense deal. Of key importance to Lieberman was not only the missile defense programs, Iron Dome, Arrow 3 and David’s Sling, but also off-shore procurement (OSP) which enabled 26.3% of the aid to be spent on weapons systems developed in Israel. The OSP will be phased out, dropping from $815 million a year to $450 million by 2025 and then to zero.
Under Lieberman’s tenure Israel also secured $47.5 million in support for US-Israel anti-tunnel cooperation in FY 2018, as well as support for anti-drone cooperation. Israel acknowledged that its F-35s flew their first combat mission in May 2016, striking “two different fronts.” Along with Netanyahu and the air force commanders, the defense minister supported a complex and increasingly frequent number of air strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, including around 200 strikes since Lieberman became minister in 2016.
The Iranian threat and allegations that Iran was supporting missile production facilities in Syria and Lebanon, along with transferring precision ordinance to Hezbollah, led Lieberman to push for increased defense spending. This was a difficult change because Israel was supposed to be undergoing budgetary streamlining under a five year agreement called the Gideon Plan. Yet regional threats changed these financial assumptions.
As the Syrian regime consolidated victory in southern Syria in 2017-2018 and it became clear Iran might shift focus from propping up the Syrian government to entrenching and potentially threatening Israel, Lieberman sought more budgetary support, seeking and addition several billion dollars in the budget to meet Israel’s challenges. “The 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,” he said in May 2018. Since that interview Russia has supplied S-300 systems to Syria after the downing of a Russian IL-20 in September and Israel has faced 33 weeks of protests in Gaza. On November 12th Hamas fired 460 rockets at Israel and Jerusalem struck 160 targets in Gaza.
Lieberman was minister as the Israeli defense industry reached peak exports of $9.2 billion in 2017. He said the industry supports 80,000 workers in Israel. Lieberman says that he sought to encourage exports while reducing competition between companies abroad that led to them putting “spokes” in eachothers deals. “I met with the heads of the defense industries and game them a clear message about it,” he told Globes. He also praised the sale of IMI to Elbit systems but sought to make sure no monopoly would be created. “In the end we’ll be left here with three large defense companies, Elbit Systems, and government companies Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael.”
With the current US administration Lieberman had frequent contact with Defense Secretary James Mattis, and the two discussed the maintenance of Israel’s qualitative military edge in Munich in February 2017 and they spoke in April of this year about the Iranian threat. They also spoke in October after the US and Israel held a defense policy advisory group meeting at the Pentagon. At that meeting the US and Israel discussed missile defense, counter-UAVs, counter terror, regional security and interoperability planning, a Pentagon statement said.
Lieberman was a supporter of “thinking out of the box” in the region and was critical of the current state system structure, arguing that sectarianism would continue to lead to violence in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. He also argued in 2016 that “without a substantial ground force with the capability, will and mandate to directly engage with the enemy, campaigns cannot be decisively won,” a view that may have been part of his decision to resign after yet another ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza.
As part of upgrading the ground forces for the kind of war Lieberman envisioned, the Defense Ministry approved new eight-wheeled Eitan armored personnel carriers which are supposed to be rolled out in the next two years to replacing other APCs, such as the aging M113s. “We can now state that within a decade, the IDF ground forces will undergo dramatic upgrading of its capabilities,” Lieberman said in March, announcing the approval of the Eitan.
Prior to resigning the defense minister was also overseeing the possible purchase of new F-15 squadrons as Israel’s existing F-15 aircraft are now decades old. The new deal was thought to involve Boeing’s upgraded F-15s and a new fleet of helicopters, either Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook or Sikorsky-Lockheed Martin CH-53 K. The massive deal could include V-22 Ospreys as well and might total $11 billion. This deal was discussed over the summer and fall, but was not finalized and Lieberman’s departure may postpone these discussions if Netanyahu’s coalition government collapses and elections take place.
Lieberman also wanted Israel to develop a new “missile corps” for the army. With $145 million in financing precision guided surface-to-surface missiles that could reach 150 km. How this strategic missile arm of the ground forces would look is still unclear and without Lieberman at the helm it may fade away with internal opposition from other parts of the defense establishment.
The overall implications of Lieberman’s departure are difficult to judge. Because Israel’s defense industry is so important to the country and its defense spending makes it the 15th largest spender globally, the programs Lieberman presided over are far more important then one person. The same is true of the US-Israel relationship and cooperation. Lieberman was not well known in the US when he was appointed and there were concerns about his managing of the relationship. But his work on the MOU and with Mattis illustrated his skill. If his departure triggers elections some of the long-term deals he was working on and other issues, such as demand for an increased budget and desire for a strategic missile corps may be put on hold. The Israeli defense industry is also at a key juncture with Elbit’s acquisition of IMI that took place this month.
In Israel there will be push to replace Lieberman with current Education Minister Naftali Bennet, leader of the Jewish Home Party. If a smooth transition takes place then the changes at the helm of the ministry may be less complex. Bennet, like Lieberman is hawkish on Gaza, so it seems unlikely he will come into the post if Netanyahu wants to continue the ceasefire. Because Netanyahu plays such a day-to-day role on Israel’s policies, serving as foreign minister as well as prime minister, Israel’s overall policies regarding the region won’t change. Netanyahu views Iran as the central threat and has worked to shore up relations with the Gulf to counter Iran. Elections likely won’t change those assumptions. Any replacement for Lieberman will view the US relationship as Israel’s key strategic alliance, and continue the close cooperation on missile defense, as well as the new investments in anti-tunnel defense and countering UAVs. The larger question mark may be over whether Israel goes through with more F-35 or F-15 purchases.