Avigdor Lieberman is detested by the military he's supposed to lead.
In naming Avigdor Lieberman to the post of defense minister this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu erased virtually any chance of peace with the Palestinians and instead presented the world with a far right-wing government more extreme than any in his country's history.
Mr. Lieberman heads a small, ultra-nationalist religious party whose votes Mr. Netanyahu desperately needs in order to shore up his Likud bloc's shaky coalition in the Israeli Knesset. But he is detested by the Israeli military establishment he is now set to lead and is anathema to Palestinians who dream of having their own state. His appointment is likely to further strain U.S.-Israeli relations already frayed over the Iran nuclear deal and to deepen the polarization of Israel's domestic politics at a time when the Jewish state can ill afford either.
The appointment of such a divisive figure to what is widely considered the second most important office in Israel's government would present a problem for any American president and decades of official U.S. policy aimed at bringing about a two-state solution in which Jews and Palestinians live side by side in peace. The only possible exception to that long-standing consensus is Donald Trump, whose shoot-from-the-lip musings during the campaign suggested he would wash his hands of the U.S.-Israeli diplomatic and military relationship as he would America's defense commitments in Europe and Asia. Mr. Netanyahu often seems oblivious to the impact of his policies on American public opinion; if he hopes a Republican administration in Washington will automatically be more sympathetic to Israel, however, he should think again.
Yet Mr. Lieberman makes even Mr. Trump look like a paragon of circumspection. He's threatened to force Arab Israelis to take loyalty oaths and to behead those who refuse — a gruesome image that calls to mind the atrocities committed by ISIS. He's also said he would order Israeli forces to bomb the Aswan Dam and reconquer Gaza in the event of a war with Egypt, and he's denounced as traitors Israeli Jews who call for the government to withdraw from the West Bank.
Earlier this month he heaped praise on an Israeli soldier who shot a Palestinian detainee in the head after he had surrendered, to the dismay of Israeli defense officials who condemned the unprovoked shooting as unacceptable. But Mr. Lieberman made a point of leaping to the killer's defense.
That incident provoked a rift between the government and Israel's military establishment that led Mr. Netanyahu to sack his then-defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, and replace him with Mr. Lieberman — never mind that Mr. Lieberman's knowledge or experience with military matters is all but nonexistent.
Mr. Yaalon, a former army chief of staff, was committed to preserving the Israeli Army as a people's army. He's been described as a soldier's soldier who demanded Israel's armed forces uphold the highest standards of moral and ethical integrity despite having to operate in one of the world's most dangerous neighborhoods. Given his replacement's intemperate pronouncements, it's doubtful whether Mr. Lieberman shares that commitment, or whether Mr. Netanyahu's new cabinet can heal the breach exposed by Mr. Yaalon's departure.
Yet Mr. Lieberman will now be the top official in Israel's defense establishment, which undoubtedly will complicate the country's military and diplomatic relationships with the U.S. and Europe. Israel's position in Washington, in particular, won't be strengthened by a defense minister so obviously at odds with Israel's military leaders.
How that will play out in terms of U.S. military equipment sales to Israel and joint initiatives such as cyberwarfare and ballistic missile defense may depend largely on how well the long standing ties between the two countries can be maintained despite the Israeli government's radical tilt to the right. So far, the Obama administration has taken a pragmatic, let's-do-business approach. But that could change if Mr. Lieberman actually moved to implement the radical agenda he espouses. He's a dangerously loose cannon rolling around the deck of Israel's ship of state and he could just as easily sink it as save it.