Portugal Colonial - New Israeli defence minister's tough talk to be put to the test

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New Israeli defence minister's tough talk to be put to the test
New Israeli defence minister's tough talk to be put to the test

New Israeli defence minister's tough talk to be put to the test

Israel's newly named Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman has pledged harsh actions against Palestinians, but there are doubts over whether the hardliner will be able to translate his provocative political rhetoric into concrete action.

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Lieberman will be in charge not only of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, but also of the military bodies that rule Palestinian life in much of the territory.

The defence portfolio is widely seen as the second-most powerful in the government, overseeing an array of contracts, missions and activities in a country on a near-constant war footing.

But while Lieberman has issued numerous threats over the years, Israel's security establishment, which has served as a voice of moderation in recent months, may push back against actions it views as harmful to the country's interests.

"At the end of the day, we're bound to international law," a defence ministry official said.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was trepidation in the security establishment over the appointment of Lieberman, "who isn't one of us."

Lieberman, who has not yet been sworn in, is seen as an outsider by some in the military. Though he completed his mandatory military service, he was not a major figure there.

The official also noted that Lieberman's apparent aspirations to become prime minister could be a moderating factor.

"If he has pretensions to reach the top, he'll have to change," he said.

Lieberman sought to address concerns over his plans when appearing at a ceremony with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday to mark their coalition agreement, saying he was committed to "responsible, reasonable policy."

Netanyahu stressed he still planned to pursue peace with the Palestinians -- though negotiations have been at a standstill since April 2014.

There are already concerns internationally.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the new coalition raised "legitimate questions" about Israel's commitment to a two-state solution.

- Calls for death penalty -

Lieberman is detested by the Palestinians, while Israeli centrists and left-wing politicians say his appointment signals a dangerous drift toward the far-right -- even a step toward fascism for some.

His more controversial statements include one from last month directed at Ismail Haniya, Islamist movement Hamas's leader in the Gaza Strip.

Lieberman said he would give Haniya 48 hours to hand over two detained Israeli civilians and the bodies of soldiers killed in a 2014 war "or you're dead".

He has also sought the death penalty for Palestinian "terrorists."

Moshe Yaalon, his predecessor as defence minister who has also served as armed forces chief, resigned on Friday, forced out by Netanyahu as he engaged in talks to bring Lieberman and his ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party into the fold.

Yaalon did not go quietly, warning of a rising tide of extremism.

Lieberman, who has also served as foreign minister, lives in a settlement in the West Bank, though he is secular and has opposed policies supported by Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish establishment.

He also in theory does not oppose a Palestinian state.

That has left opinion divided on whether he will be a boon to Israel's settler movement.

"Counter-intuitively, I'm not sure the settlers will have an easier time now," said Hagit Ofran of settlement watchdog Peace Now.

"Yaalon was a good friend of the settlement movement, who advanced and approved things his predecessors didn't dare," she told AFP.

"I don't know if Lieberman feels as connected, despite himself being a settler."

Yossi Mekelberg of London-based think tank Chatham House's Middle East programme saw it differently.

"The message that the settlers will get is that we have our own man in the defence ministry, so we definitely can assert ourselves in the West Bank," he said.

- Putin mediator? -

Netanyahu has said that defence policies would ultimately remain under his control, and he would not seek to change them.

"In the end, the prime minister leads all the systems together with the defence minister, together with the chief of military staff," he said on Sunday after being asked how someone previously described as irresponsible by his own Likud party could be given the important position.

Lieberman himself sought a more moderate tone even before closing the deal with Netanyahu.

He had previously shown strong support for Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, charged with manslaughter for shooting dead a wounded Palestinian assailant as he lay prone on the ground without posing any apparent threat.

He even attended one of Azaria's military court appearances in support, putting him at odds with top military brass who strongly condemned the soldier's actions.

More recently, Lieberman said "we will respect every decision and ruling laid down by the military court."

Some point to at least one potential benefit for Western nations in Lieberman's appointment.

Born in the ex-Soviet republic of Moldova, Lieberman is seen has having solid relations with Russian officials.

"He can also serve as a contact man for the West with (President Vladimir) Putin," the defence official said. "He has good contacts there."

A.Aguiar--PC