For Lieberman, Jerusalem's Mayoral Race Has Become a High-stakes Political Test

Avigdor Lieberman is so obsessed with Jerusalem’s mayoral race that he has invented his own candidate, hitched his wagon to the Haredim, and defied his pal the prime minister. Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu is in a great mood.

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It’s not the peace process, not the release of Palestinian prisoners, not the legislation referred to as the “governability law,” not the question of drafting Arabs into the Israeli army, and it’s not even Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the irritating, anti-Semitic prime minister of Turkey. No, what is really bothering and preoccupying Avigdor Lieberman these days − in addition to the overriding concern over the impending verdict in his trial − is the contest for the mayor of Jerusalem and the peon he is backing for that post: Moshe Leon, an accountant and a resident of Givatayim.

Lieberman is so deeply immersed in the campaign of his old friend that even people in the close circle of the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman are asking whether something has gone fundamentally awry with his priorities. This week, for example, he lost it slightly when, in an interview with Radio Jerusalem, he savaged the freebie newspaper Israel Hayom in the wake of its report that a former mayor of the city, Uri Lupolianski ‏(United Torah Judaism‏), who is on trial on corruption charges in the Holyland residential project, intends to run again for mayor. Israel Hayom is not just a private media channel for the prime minister and the defender of the sullied honor of Sara Netanyahu: The paper is ardently backing the incumbent Jerusalem mayor, Nir Barkat, with the same religious fervor with which another mass-circulation paper, Yedioth Ahronoth, is displaying its support of Leon.

“If you take into account that the story was published in the ‘Pravda’ paper Israel Hayom, then it’s obvious that it’s a Barkat campaign ploy,” Lieberman sneered. “It represents only interests ... It is a personally oriented paper, not an ideological one.”

To begin with, it’s refreshing to see Lieberman objecting to media outlets that lean toward one person or another. As everyone knows, this is a very rare phenomenon in the Russian-language press in Israel. Indeed, Lieberman was always in favor of pure ideology and against personalizing things. Of course, it depends on what the ideology is and who the persona is.

Factually, it’s hard to argue with the truth of his remarks. Israel Hayom is everything that people say about it, and more. The paper’s ties with Barkat were further tightened after the mayor recently bequeathed honorary-citizen-of-Jerusalem status to casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the freebie’s publisher, and his wife, Miriam. Previously, that honor was bestowed on presidents and prime ministers, among them Chaim Weizmann, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Zalman Shazar and David Ben-Gurion, as well as to the founder of Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Moshe Wallach, Israel Museum director James Snyder, and to great rabbis who would not know a poker chip if a stack of them landed on their head.

Politically, though, Lieberman’s remark is somewhat puzzling. When he likened Israel Hayom to the notorious mouthpiece of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, was he hinting at its relations with Barkat or those it has with the prime minister? In fact, the question is why Lieberman chose to blast the only media outlet in the country that is the apple of the eye of the residents of the walled house at the corner of Balfour and Smolenskin streets in Jerusalem, and also incidentally take a jab at Bibi?

Perhaps the former foreign minister feels that his candidate’s campaign is not taking off, so he’s angry. Maybe he’s angry at Netanyahu, whose refusal to back the person who was the director general of his office toward the end of his first term as prime minister ‏(Moshe Leon succeeded Lieberman as director general of the Prime Minister’s Office in November 1997‏) is sending a critical message to Leon and at the same time offering tacit support for Barkat − who will be eternally remembered in the city’s annals for dedicating the interchange named for Benzion Netanyahu, the premier’s late father, on the Menachem Begin highway in the city.

Leon’s candidacy is the exclusive invention of Lieberman. He was the one who came up with the peculiar idea, took the initiative and has been pushing for the candidate ever since. He is also the one who is cobbling together the coalitions and deals for Leon. Together with their mutual friend, Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri, he is scurrying among the relevant Hasidic courts, and wheeling and dealing with all the rabbis, religious court judges and yeshiva heads in an indefatigable effort to muster the needed votes.

A Leon failure will be a total Lieberman failure. No one will remember Leon a minute after the results are announced on the night of October 22. ‏(Even now, many in Jerusalem don’t know precisely who he is.‏) Lieberman, though, can expect to come under heavy fire if such a scenario unfolds. On the other hand, a win over an incumbent and quite popular mayor will be recorded exclusively to the credit of the No. 2 figure on the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list, and the current chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. If that happens, we will no longer sing “Jerusalem of Gold” on Independence Day and Jerusalem Day, but “Jerusalem of Yvet” ‏(Lieberman’s nickname‏).

Crack in the alliance

Many politicos are wondering why Lieberman is so obsessed with the Jerusalem mayoral contest. If we ignore a few unsettled accounts between him and Barkat, we have to look for the answer in places that are very far from the city’s sewage system.

Unlike his colleagues in the prestigious club of party leaders − Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Shelly Yacimovich − Lieberman is not a politician whose base of support is public opinion. He’s a man of the bureaucratic apparatus, manipulations and backroom deals. That’s how his party is structured; that’s how it musters votes. Whereas Prime Minister Netanyahu, for example, takes no interest in the municipal elections, based on the view that any connection between Likud’s situation at the national and local levels is purely coincidental, his partner on the Knesset list espouses the opposite approach: Lieberman’s aim is to gain control of as many local governments as possible and distribute jobs to as many party activists as possible, so that in the next Knesset election they will be only too happy to direct voters to the polling stations with the right instructions.

Lieberman’s party is currently represented in many local authorities: on municipal councils, as deputy mayors, and here and there even as council head or mayor, such as in the small community of Bnei Ayish. But he still hasn’t hit the big time. His ambition has always been to rule in one of the big cities. But left-leaning, liberal, tolerant Tel Aviv will never fall into his hands. Haifa was and remains Mapainik ‏(referring to Labor’s forerunner‏). In Be’er Sheva, the game seems to be over before it has begun. So he set his sights on Jerusalem, based on cold political calculations:

A‏) Jerusalem is the only city where one bank of voters, from the ultra-Orthodox community, is capable of tipping the scales, certainly if help is forthcoming from national-religious voters. ‏(Naftali Bennett, of Habayit Hayehudi, is under tremendous pressure from both sides, Barkat and Leon, to support one of them, and to call on his constituency to cast their ballot for him. So far, Bennett has been silent.‏) The result is that Lieberman, the great anti-Haredi figure, is forging an alliance not only with Shas but also with the most extreme sects among the Ashkenazi Haredim in an effort to oust Barkat.

B‏) Against the backdrop of the growing rift between Netanyahu and the Haredim, Lieberman is exploiting the opportunity to strengthen his ties with the latter. Observing their fury at the prime minister and the finance minister, he is channeling it smartly into serving his own political purposes, in an ad-hoc conjuncture. That is the oldest political tactic around, but it could well be that it is not yet obsolete.

Lieberman’s behavior in the realms of politics is like that of an independent voter When it’s convenient, he is with Likud, in the Knesset and with the government; when it serves his interest, he is against Likud in the local governments. Take Tiberias, for example. The deputy mayor there, Yossi Ben-David, is from Likud, but Lieberman corralled him into Yisrael Beiteinu. Now Ben-David is running against a former Likud MK, Zion Pinyan.

Ultimately, though, everything is dwarfed by the battle for Jerusalem. The chances of failure are high. The gain, should the opposite occur, will be huge. As we saw this week, the struggle for Jerusalem is exacting a certain price in Lieberman’s relations with Netanyahu. They had a good year beginning last November, when they forged an alliance and decided to unite their party lists in the Knesset election. Now, the alliance has started to crack. But it’s still too soon to say whether a crack that appears in the first act will cause the whole structure to collapse in the last one.

Riding high

Benjamin Netanyahu is a type of advanced human radar. His expertise lies in spotting the growing clout of potential political rivals. His antennae are attuned 24/7 toward those who might prove a challenge to him. He discerns real and imaginary, large and small dangers from afar. In the past few months, since the end of the election campaign and the formation of his third government, Netanyahu’s radar has been locked on two major targets: Yair Lapid, the big surprise of the last election, and former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi. He saw them as the biggest threats to the stability of his government and to his prospects of being reelected in 2017 ‏(or beforehand‏).

It’s no secret that Lapid is openly and declaredly out to succeed Netanyahu, as early as the next election. It’s also no secret that Ashkenazi, who is considered the hope of the left in some circles, seeks to be elected head of the Labor Party and to restore its glory as the ruling party under a popular general, a party with a political-security calling card − but that is socially oriented, too.

No wonder, then, that, according to some in his inner circle, Netanyahu is in a very good mood these days. In fact, he feels like he’s “on top of the world,” as one of them put it. Lapid is nose-diving in the polls; his party would lose Knesset seats if an election were held today. According to a poll in Haaretz a few weeks ago, only 7 percent of the public thinks he is suited to be prime minister ‏(compared to 56 percent for the incumbent‏), and the quicksand known as the treasury is sucking him deep into the abyss. In Netanyahu’s perception, Lapid is no longer a threat except to himself and his immediate surroundings.

There is no need to elaborate in the case of Ashkenazi. The “Harpaz affair” ‏(involving an alleged attempt by army officers to intervene in the choice of the chief of staff‏), which was supposed to have ended months ago and remove that monkey from Ashkenazi’s back, took a dramatic turn last week: Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein decided to launch a criminal investigation into the affair. In years to come, Ashkenazi is likely to be occupied from morning to night with interrogations and legal consultations.

Netanyahu’s horizon, which not long ago was clouded, is clearing apace.

Pressure points

1. Sources in Habayit Hayehudi maintain that the sublime fraternal alliance between Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, which has long since become a fraught cliche, has been showing signs of buckling lately. Something in the mythological connection between the two is no longer working. The background to this, according to these sources, lies in a certain clash between Lapid’s position as finance minister and Bennett’s role as the leader of a party that represents the religious-Zionist movement. Sounds obscure? That’s as clear as it gets, for now.

Apropos Lapid: He is expressing much frustration in private conversations with members of his inner circle. He can’t understand why, when Netanyahu, as finance minister, slashed the child allowances in 2003, the media hailed and acclaimed him − whereas in 2013, when he, Lapid, does the same thing, the media portray him as an enemy of the people. So much so that the Channel 2 evening newscast on Monday of this week led with a lethal item about how the direct result of the cuts will be to deliver a severe blow to tens of thousands of children and to intensify poverty.

The view in Lapid’s circle is that this intolerant approach is due to the fact that journalists are bitter by nature and find it hard to accept that one of their own became a senior politician and minister overnight. This writer suggests that the minister and his aides look for the reason elsewhere, closer to home.

2. If anyone had told the political correspondents a few months ago that Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom would become Netanyahu’s darling, while Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz would be pilloried as a recalcitrant, rebellious son and deprived of a title ‏(minister of national infrastructure‏) that would offhandedly be conferred on Shalom − as was announced earlier this week − the reaction would have ranged between total ridicule and absolute disbelief. The enmity between Shalom and Netanyahu has been a feature of local politics since the end of the 1990s, whereas the close relations between Katz and the Likud leader are famous far and wide.

However, as this column noted in some detail three weeks ago, something very basic has been shattered in the relations between Netanyahu and Katz due to a lengthy series of incidents and issues, most of them personal or party-related. The last word, as of now, belongs to Netanyahu, and it will be uttered this Sunday, when the cabinet will be asked to approve the transfer of the ministerial title. But we should keep our eyes open: Katz usually finds a way to strike back.

3. Let’s end on a more positive note: The former Knesset Speaker, MK Reuven Rivlin ‏(Likud‏), is in the midst of a lengthy tour of Europe and Mexico. The main question he is asked everywhere he visits is how serious Netanyahu is about the peace process and what his intentions are. Rivlin, who was dumped abruptly as Speaker by Netanyahu and has been dueling with him since, is providing a surprising reply, under the circumstances: “My impression is that Netanyahu is very serious. This is the first time that the prime minister is really behaving like a statesman and not engaging in empty maneuvers. In the past, he entered these kinds of processes out of a desire to manipulate, to gain time or to achieve political goals. This time,” Rivlin is telling his interlocutors, “my impression is that he intends to conduct serious diplomatic negotiations, and it doesn’t matter what the reasons are: in order to repulse international pressure, or out of a recognition that there is no avoiding the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.”

IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman