Israel's Appointment of Extremist Defense Minister Triggers Alarm Around the World

Posted June 1, 2016

MP3 Interview with Philip Weiss, founder and co-editor of the online publication,, conducted by Scott Harris


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to appoint a hard right extremist politician as his nation's new defense minister, has alarmed those working for Middle East peace around the world. Avigdor Lieberman, the founder of the ultranationalist, Yisrael Beitenu party, was named to the post in order to add five new seats to Netanyahu's Likud party governing coalition, which previously held only a one-seat majority in the 120-seat Israeli parliament, or Knesset.

Lieberman is well-known for his racist and incendiary remarks made during his previous posts in government. Some of his most controversial comments include his advocating the beheading of Israeli Arabs, who he deems as disloyal to the state of Israel, the mass deportation of Arab-Israeli citizens, the drowning of Palestinian prisoners, and the bombing of Egypt’s Aswan Dam.

Lieberman replaces Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who, when he resigned, warned that Netanyahu's government had been taken over by "extremist and dangerous elements" and stated that he no longer had faith in the Israeli prime minister. The Palestinian Authority reacted to the appointment by saying, "The Israeli government sent a message to the world that Israel prefers extremism, dedication to the occupation and settlements over peace." Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Philip Weiss, founder and co-editor of the news website, who discusses the significance of Lieberman's appointment as defense minister and recent moves by Bernie Sander's presidential campaign to try to change the Democratic Party platform on the issues of Israel and Palestine.(Rush transcript.)

PHILIP WEISS: Well, it's a huge development in Israeli politics and arguably, this is sort of the most important political shift inside leadership culture ruling class of Israel in the last 20-25 years in which the last defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon quit, a pretty right-wing guy, saying that there were fascist trends in Israel and in a political class and was replaced by this even more right-wing figure, Avigdor Lieberman, who has threatened to blow up the Aswan Dam, who said that any Palestinian who attempts an act of terror should have his head cut off, that kind of stuff.

So he's a very crude and somewhat at times a fascistic leader, Lieberman, and you have this other segment of the Israeli political class saying that the currents there are reminiscent of Nazi Germany, one said. So it's kind of staggering that this is happening and you have also Israeli political observers speaking of this in apocalyptic tones and some suggesting that there could even be a coup in the country against Netanyahu.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Philip, what's been the response to Benjamin Netanyahu's appointment of Avigdor Lieberman to become Israel's defense minister? What kind of ripples have moved across the world because of this appointment?

PHILIP WEISS: On the one hand, there's been some horror over it. Lieberman was refused admission at the State Department last year. They didn't want him coming in because he was too polarizing a figure who had said things like the two-state solution, we want nothing, we're finished with that. The political class in the United States is obviously very upset about this, but they indicated that their special relationship between the countries will continue; they're still our closest ally and all the rest in the Middle East.

But among lovers, defenders of Israel, there has been a crisis. The crisis in the political class in Israel is reflected by a crisis in the Israel lobby in the United States. So these people who spend their lives defending Israel have been in a lot of pain lately. How do they justify this? How do they explain this to Americans and act if Israel is fine? And some of them have said that this is shocking and horrifying and we need to give the society a wake-up call, I guess. And others have said, no, everything's fine. Israel is a vibrant democracy, robust debate, this is what happens over there, people disagree, that kind of stuff. So, we are seeing a crisis. If you have any hope about this society reforming itself in a bloodless fashion, then you have to hope that the defense minister's resignation and the warnings about fascism could result in some real shift in the political choices of the leadership or a segment of the leadership of the Israeli society.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, running for the Democratic party nomination, had an opportunity to appoint five members to a Democratic party platform writing committee. He appointed some very well-known progressive activists that included Bill McKibben, the climate change activist, founder of; Native American activist Debra Parker; progressive caucus co-chair Rep. Keith Ellison, of Minnesota and James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Philip, tell us what the opportunities are and what you hear about the goals of Sanders' representatives on this important platform writing committee in terms of changes to the Democrats' approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict?

PHILIP WEISS: Sanders set a depth-charge on April 14 in New York when he told Hillary Clinton that Netanyahu was not always right. He has determined through these appointments to put some more even-handed policy toward Palestinians inside the Democratic platform. Will it be a fight? Will the Hillary Clinton people give in on this and then run away from the platform? Who knows? But from my narrow standpoint, you have Keith Ellison, a Muslim, Zogby and Cornel West who are going to insist on Palestinian human rights and that is just such a landmark and just such a wonderful moment and could suggest a real shift in American political culture because Sanders has not been defeated for taking this stand. The Democratic base has supported him and that's the key. Young liberals in Americans are increasingly sympathetic to Palestinians over Israelis.

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