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Q&A

Avigdor Liberman warned of a Hamas attack. Now, he says Israel is under same delusions about Hezbollah

Former defense minister, who presciently predicted the October massacre and resigned in 2018 over weak policies on Hamas, fears the same can happen again on the northern front

Amir Levy/Getty Images

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL - JUNE 27: Israeli Minister of Finance, Avigdor Lieberman speaks at the start of Yisrael Beiteinu's party meeting on June 27, 2022 in Jerusalem, Israel.

In April 2016, Avigdor Liberman, then and now an opposition lawmaker, sat on a stage in Beersheva and made one of the most memorable statements of his decades-long political career. 

“If I’m defense minister…I give [Hamas leader Ismail] Haniyeh 48 hours. Either return the bodies [of IDF soldiers] and the civilians [held in Gaza], or you’re dead. As far as I’m concerned, reserve a plot for yourself in the nearest cemetery,” Liberman said.

The next month, Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition and he became defense minister. Haniyeh survived and is enjoying the good life in Doha, Qatar.

However, on Dec. 21 of that year, Liberman sent an eerily prescient report to Netanyahu saying that Israel must initiate a surprise attack on Gaza, and that not doing so “is a severe mistake with far-reaching consequences that could be…even more so than the results of the Yom Kippur War in their influence on the Israeli Home Front, on the consciousness of Israeli citizens and on the image and standing of the State of Israel in the region.”

Nearly seven years ago, Liberman anticipated what would take place on Oct. 7 in the memo to Netanyahu: “Hamas plans to move the next conflict into Israel’s territory, with significant, well-trained forces (such as the Nukhba force) into Israeli territory while conquering an Israeli village (and perhaps several) in the Gaza envelope and taking hostages.”

“I gave this document to three people: the prime minister, [then-]IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and head of military intelligence Herzi Halevy,” Liberman told Jewish Insider this week. Eisenkot is now a member of Israel’s war cabinet and Halevy is chief of staff of the IDF.

“They were very skeptical,” he recounted. “They said it’s not serious. I demanded a discussion of the report in security cabinet meetings and got the same reaction. I was one person; the whole IDF said that Hamas is deterred and had no interest in an escalation.”

Even worse than not taking initiative, Liberman said, was that Israel allowed the constant transfer of aid money from Qatar to Gaza, which bolstered Hamas; that decision by Netanyahu and the cabinet was what spurred Liberman to resign from the Defense Ministry in November 2018.

At the time, he warned that a cease-fire with Hamas “cannot be interpreted in any way other than a capitulation to terrorism. This will severely harm our security in the long run. The response that we gave to the 500 rockets shot from Gaza was not enough, to say the least. The south should come first. Our weakness is being broadcast to other fronts.”

Speaking to JI in English from his party’s office in Modi’in, sitting behind a heavy wooden desk with a Premier League soccer game between Tottenham Hotspurs and Aston Villa playing on the TV mounted on the wall — he is a known sports fan and a particularly big supporter of Spurs — Liberman warned that Israel is repeating the mistakes it made with Hamas in the south, only with Hezbollah across the northern border.

Israel’s top security officials were “part of this misconception that it is possible to deal with Hamas, that they can contain everything and compromise, that [Hamas is] not a terrorist organization and they are responsible for over two million people,” Liberman said.

“We’re making the same mistake regarding Hezbollah, claiming that it’s a Lebanese [political party] that has responsibility for the daily life in Lebanon,” he added. “Hezbollah is not a Lebanese [party] and they don’t have any responsibility. They’re a terrorist movement.”

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Jewish Insider: Do you think Israel should initiate a new front in the north?

Avigdor Liberman: It’s a huge problem and I’m very disappointed that the same misconception is continuing in the north. They’re giving the same explanations regarding Hezbollah and no response to the Houthis. They’re trying to contain everything that is possible.

It’s clear that it’s only a matter of time. Hezbollah is waiting for us to be submerged in Gaza with a lot of forces. At the most convenient time for them, they will open the second front. We are leaving all of the initiative in the hands of Hezbollah.

We have a very strong position with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 from 2006. All members of the UNSC, including Russia and China, voted in favor of it, and the government of Lebanon also approved it. According to the resolution, there is no place for even one Hezbollah terrorist between the Litani River and our border. Today there are thousands. I think there should be a clear demand from our government to implement Resolution 1701.

I don’t see that [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah is ready to implement it. It’s impossible, from my point of view, to avoid this confrontation… It would be much better to clarify this position to all of our partners, including the U.S., U.K. and France.

Our priority as a normal country should be the security of our citizens. We have over 200,000 displaced people in Israel today. It’s crazy. The traditional vision of the IDF was to immediately move operations to our enemy’s territory, but today we created two buffer zones within Israel, one in the north and one in the south…It’s completely unacceptable.

JI: What do you think about the deal for Hamas to release Israeli hostages in exchange for a temporary pause in fighting and Palestinian prisoners?

AL: It’s very difficult. We are split between our minds and hearts. We want our boys and girls and their mothers back from Gaza, and we see how these animals from Hamas are playing this deal. But first of all, we are happy for every person, child, mother we can bring back to Israel, to their home. But still, we have more than 150 other hostages.

It’s completely unclear why it took more than a week [for the Israeli government to accept the deal]. Either make the decision immediately or place more pressure even if it takes four or five more days to release all of our hostages.

JI: Do you think there should have been a rescue operation?

AL: In the past our approach was to rescue, not to negotiate. I think that today we are discussing this issue too much and it shows that the real weakness in our society is the hostages. Hamas is using this. It’s clear psychological blackmail.

We’re dealing with blackmailers, people [for whom] this kind of behavior, the atrocities – it’s normal.

JI: What do you think the next steps should be?

AL: It’s crucial for us, if we want to stop the war as soon as possible, to place a lot of pressure…because for us to continue the war [much longer] is a mission impossible. We have an economy, we are under international pressure and I think it’s in our interest here to have the war be more intensive and to do everything to have a more intensive war but to end the war in a short period of time. 

We had the Six-Day War, and even [the] Yom Kippur War – after 19 days we were on the highway to Damascus and Cairo. Today, it’s over 50 days.

JI: You said that the economy cannot withstand a drawn-out war. As a former finance minister, what do you think the current one, Bezalel Smotrich, should do?

AL: We have a budget for 2024, but it’s nonsense to say it’s possible to move forward with what they approved in the Knesset. We’re in a completely different situation; it’s chaos.

I think [Smotrich] doesn’t understand the situation. He told the media that it’s like coronavirus, which we also successfully overcame. That’s stupid, because [the COVID-19 pandemic] was a worldwide phenomenon, where all countries were in the same boat… Today, it’s our local problem and we’re without any sympathy from other countries. Before COVID-19, the interest rate was almost zero and today we have a very high interest rate. We have hundreds of thousands of reservists who were able to work during [the pandemic]. They were the main labor force in our economy, people aged 23-45. I think it’s crazy to compare the situation to COVID-19.

The first thing we need to do is to give up all of our commitments regarding coalition money [the Israeli equivalent of pork-barrel funding]. We have to close all of the crazy ministries; today we have 37, half of which are completely unnecessary.

We need to start a program to create prosperity again. We should allocate funds differently, to the most important engines of our economy, high-tech and real estate, which completely collapsed.

JI: Why don’t you join the emergency government?

AL: I don’t recall anyone inviting me.

It’s not a big dream for me to be minister number 38. I’m ready to take responsibility and be part of the war cabinet, but if I’m not there, then why would I waste additional government money? I don’t want any coalition money, no budget, nothing. I don’t want a ministry – but at minimum, I would have to be part of the war cabinet.

Of course, it’s completely unacceptable for all of them – Netanyahu and [National Unity Party leader Benny] Gantz and Eisenkot and [Defense Minister Yoav] Gallant – because my approach and my vision are completely different from theirs.

JI: If you think Gantz and Eisenkot are part of the problem, then what political constellation would you support after the war?

AL: I’m not ready to discuss political issues after the war. First of all, what we hope for is victory. We should win this war and after that, everything is open, but it’s not the right time to draw conclusions and to look for people who are responsible for this tragedy. I think that today we should only concentrate on one issue – winning this war.

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