Avigdor Lieberman, head of far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver statements to the media after signing a coalition deal to broaden the government's parliamentary majority, at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Awad(reuters_tickers)
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - In first remarks as Israel's designated defence minister, right-wing settler Avigdor Lieberman joked about his fiery reputation: "I have undergone surgery to lengthen my fuse."
In a more serious vein, the Soviet-born 57-year-old struck a conciliatory note, emphasising "a strong commitment, to the peace, to the final status agreement (with the Palestinians)."
After Wednesday's signing ceremony, military officers, diplomats and Palestinian leaders were left asking whether this combative figure would pursue a less confrontational line after he formally re-joins the cabinet next week.
Lieberman, who had a modest stint in Israel's armed forces, has in the past threatened to bomb Egypt's strategic Aswan dam and to assassinate Hamas leaders. He agitated Washington with his opposition to peace talks with Palestinians.
Youssef Al-Mahmoud, a spokesman for the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, said that by bringing in Lieberman, the Israeli government "is mixing extremism with craziness".
The former foreign minister also angered the Israeli top brass, whom he will oversee, by joining protests last month against the court-martial of a soldier who shot dead an incapacitated Palestinian assailant.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has brushed off any "crying and whining" at his pick for the second-most powerful cabinet post, part of a deal to broaden the religious-nationalist coalition government.
Netanyahu on Sunday had underlined his own leading role in national security was not about to change. "I've been looking out for Israel's security," he said. "I haven't done such a bad job in my years as premier, and that is how it will be now."
But the men have had a chequered relationship and the courting of Lieberman came as a surprise as he and Netanyahu have been sharply dismissive of one another.
Lieberman went from being chief of staff to Netanyahu in his first term as premier in the 1990s, to openly feuding with him while serving as his foreign minister in the last government, to mocking him from the opposition.
Lieberman had been critical of Netanyahu’s efforts to patch up relations with Turkey after a deadly 2010 Israeli raid on a Turkish–flagged ship that was protesting against Israel’s Gaza blockade and said the prime minister had lacked a clear strategy on the Iran nuclear issue.
SUPPLE AND PRAGMATIC
Some observers argue that, for all his bluster, Lieberman is a supple and pragmatic politician who will view the defence portfolio as a chance to cultivate national security credentials that, unlike the ex-generals who have filled the post, he lacks.
“Why the panic?” political commentator Yoel Marcus asked in the liberal Haaretz daily. "This is a democracy ... And as a rule, important (and unimportant) decisions aren’t made by one man. Calm down ... The defence minister is not omnipotent. In reality, he decides much less than most people think he does.”
An immigrant from Soviet Moldova, Lieberman served two years as an Israeli army conscript, with the rank of corporal.
Several former Israeli defence ministers have criticised Lieberman's appointment to the sensitive post.
The last "civilian" to become defence minister, ex-trade union boss Amir Peretz, managed the 2006 war with Hezbollah guerrillas that calmed the Israel-Lebanon border. He developed the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, over objections from a military more accustomed to taking the fight to enemy territory.
Now a centre-left opposition lawmaker, Peretz predicted no problem with Lieberman's professionalism, but rather, with his past pronouncements about the folly of peace-making and in favour of tougher Israeli crackdowns on Palestinian violence.
Palestinian officials said that with Lieberman, who lives in a settlement in the occupied West Bank, back in the cabinet as defence minister prospects for reviving statehood negotiations that collapsed in 2014 had grown dimmer.
The Defence Ministry runs civil affairs in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians live in friction with Jewish settlers.
"Without a doubt, the question of the 'command spirit' will arise, with some in the ranks wondering whether this defence minister has, effectively, revised military ethics, especially regarding open-fire regulations," Peretz told Reuters.
"The defence minister is, in a sense, the 'prime minister of Judea and Samaria'," Peretz said, using a biblical term for the West Bank. "It is a role that requires supreme sensitivity for humanitarian needs, which can have a big impact on statecraft."
"GO TO HELL"
Over the years, Lieberman has angered Israel's first Arab peace partner, Egypt. In 2008, he said then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could "go to hell" for never paying an official visit to Israel.
As foreign minister, Lieberman opposed Netanyahu's terms for salvaging troubled bilateral relations with Turkey and was mostly sidelined in Western capitals, which preferred to correspond directly with the premier on the delicate diplomacy.
Lieberman would be harder to circumvent as defence minister, given the depth of Israel-U.S. security ties. Those now face a big test as Netanyahu tries to coax the White House into raising U.S. defence grants to Israel, currently at $3 billion a year.
The Obama administration has publicly said it "looks forward to working" with whoever replaces Moshe Yaalon, the former Israeli military chief of staff who resigned as defence minister last week in protest at Netanyahu's cabinet reshuffle.
Privately, some U.S. officials sound less than happy about Lieberman's ascent. Not only do his past views on the Palestinians run counter to one of the administration's core policy pursuits, but he has for years worked to bring Israel closer to Russia.
Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables from 2009 noted "Moscow's impression that the Russian-speaking Lieberman is one of their own". They also said Russia saw him as "more pragmatic on the peace process than his typically harsh rhetoric suggests".
(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Millership)