On Eve of Verdict, Lieberman Puts on His Poker Face

Former foreign minister signals moderation to judges.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

“I would like to deal with more prosaic matters,” MK Avigdor Lieberman said at the meeting of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu right after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finished lambasting Iran. And indeed, the suspended foreign minister was true to his word: He raised a series of issues that are quite prosaic - the need for a weekly political forum to be headed by the prime minister, where the heads of the coalition parties will iron out disputes and disagreements; a recommendation that the inner cabinet discuss the Shamgar report on the freeing of Palestinian prisoners; and something more about the archaeological park in Jerusalem.

The message Lieberman sought to convey to the members of their joint faction and the viewers of the Knesset TV channel was multi-layered. 1. It’s business as usual; 2. There is a responsible adult in the room working to create a system that will stop the bickering between Likud and Habayit Hayehudi over legislation, and between Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid and Hatnuah; 3. With all due respect to political correspondents seeking drama and crisis, Lieberman seeks calm. He does not want to dismantle the coalition, but to strengthen it, to embrace it.

There was a secondary message, directed, perhaps, at MK Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), who, it will be recalled, backtracked at the last minute from his promise to get tens of thousands of Gerer Hasids to the polls to support Moshe Leon, Lieberman’s candidate for mayor of Jerusalem: Litzman, know that as long as I’m in the picture, this government will maintain its current composition and you will continue to cool your heels in the opposition.

Playing hand he was dealt

The soft, peace-loving words of the man in whose hands the fate of Israel’s government lies were almost certainly also intended for the three judges of the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, who will decide his case tomorrow. The verdict has obviously already been written, but if Lieberman is convicted, the sentence will be handed down only in another month at the soonest. Before arguments regarding sentencing are made, Lieberman wants to show that he is a moderate, level-headed and conciliatory politician who has the good of the state in the forefront of his mind. If he is acquitted and returns to the deserted foreign minister’s office, he will want to go back to the status of the senior, veteran statesman who unites and does not divide, as he did during coalition negotiations alongside Netanyahu.

If for the moment we set aside the stomach ache that Lieberman suffers over his partnership with Netanyahu (because of his stand with regard to the mayoral race in Jerusalem, for example), we must conclude that his interest, certainly if he is acquitted and even if he is convicted and retires from political life, is not necessarily to shorten the term of this Knesset. Because the public does not reward politicians who bring down governments because of personal whims; because his public status is weaker than ever (the polls are not smiling on him either from a personal or a party standpoint), and he has endured a number of failures in municipal elections, not only in Jerusalem; and because he will be out of the arena, his faction will continue to be part of the coalition and he will still have control through his four ministers over important portfolios.

In the end, and this is no great revelation, Lieberman is a politician who knows how to play the hand he has been dealt. He did so on the eve of the last elections when he joined Netanyahu and ensured himself the position of foreign minister. Tomorrow morning in the courtroom, the cards will be reshuffled and a new chapter will begin in Israeli politics.

Avigdor Lieberman.Credit: Emil Salman

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