Here's Why Israel's New Defense Minister Is So Controversial : Parallels Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has named hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman his new defense minister, a move that has ignited a fierce debate inside Israel and beyond.
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Here's Why Israel's New Defense Minister Is So Controversial

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Here's Why Israel's New Defense Minister Is So Controversial

Here's Why Israel's New Defense Minister Is So Controversial

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There is a big shakeup underway in Israeli politics. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is adding to his coalition a party known for its hardline nationalistic rhetoric. The current government is already right-wing. Now it will become what Israeli media are calling the most right-wing in Israel's history. All that raises questions about the prospects for peace and Israel's relations with the United States. NPR's Emily Harris joins us now from Jerusalem. Good Morning.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Good Morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And the big deal here, I think, is that Netanyahu is giving the leader of this party the defense ministry, which is the most powerful post outside of prime minister.

HARRIS: That's right. And one of the criticisms that has been leveled against this choice to put Avigdor Lieberman in charge of the defense ministry is that he actually doesn't have much experience in security or defense. But the bigger thing that's been getting attention is his hardline views, especially concerning Palestinians and Arab-Israelis. Loyalty is his big issue.

He has said in the past that he wants Arab-Israelis citizens of Israel - that's about 20 percent of the population - to take a loyalty oath. He's said things such as, if Arab-Israelis are with us, great, and if, not, they should have their heads cut off. That was during elections last year. So he's taken very extreme views in his rhetoric. And then also, in terms of looking at peace with the Palestinians, he's put forth plans that certainly the Palestinians disagree with and the U.S. looks at with a very skeptical eye.

MONTAGNE: And yesterday, the State Department commented on Lieberman's appointment. Spokesman Mark Toner said that raised legitimate questions - I'm quoting there - about what direction Israel is headed in. What's that all about?

HARRIS: Let me give you a little background of what's happened in Israel since Netanyahu won reelection a year and about a half ago. He has a right-wing government now. And some of the things that have happened under this government is, for example, the justice minister has been pushing for ending government funding of artists that she sees as critical of Israel. There's been a lot of focus on human rights groups that get funding from outside of Israel, calling them traitors.

All of this - and adding Lieberman on top of that - worries a lot of Israelis, who are especially concerned about Israel perhaps becoming isolated in the eyes of the West. Although, many people also say that these views and Lieberman's views express what they really think but don't want to say. From the American perspective, this coming from the State Department, a big question is about the two-state solution. Will the Netanyahu government and this government, in particular, have any negotiation with the Palestinians?

There haven't been formal negotiations since 2014. Yesterday, Lieberman and Netanyahu, when they signed this deal, said that they both do support and will pursue peace. And ever since this idea of Lieberman taking the defense ministry has been floated, officials in the prime minister's office have taken the line that, you know, you need somebody tough to be able to really make progress in negotiations, so don't close the door on the possibility.

MONTAGNE: Well, is there anything to that, tough equals progress?

HARRIS: Well, everybody here says that's it's impossible to predict what happens in Middle East politics. And they point to Ariel Sharon, who was a very hardline guy but did do the pullout from Gaza. But Lieberman is different than some of the other hardliners in the government in that he is willing to give up the West Bank. He's willing to give up land.

He's put forth a proposal that would draw the borders so that most of the Israeli-Jewish settlements that are now in the West Bank would wind up in Israel. And a big chunk of the Arab-Israeli population would wind up in the new Palestinian state. They wouldn't have to move. The border would move around them. So he's on the record with a peace plan. He does live in a settlement, and so that colors his image, certainly in the eyes of Palestinians.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Emily Harris speaking to us from Jerusalem. Thanks very much.

HARRIS: Thanks, Renee.

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