Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s decision to reunite with his former protege Avigdor Lieberman is a gamble of epic proportions, a “big bang” of Israeli right wing politics that Netanyahu hopes will ensure his reelection - but which could very well blow up in his face and achieve the opposite outcome.
According to press reports, Netanyahu is relying on public opinion polls that promise his joint list with Lieberman between 40-45 Knesset seats, within the same range as the 42 seats currently held by the Likud and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu combined. Such a result would ensure that the Likud-Beiteinu list, as it is now called, will be the biggest in the next Knesset and that Netanyahu will be the certain candidate to form the next coalition.
But Netanyahu should know better than most that political polling of hypothetical situations is notoriously unreliable, because it fails to take into account the influence of the new entities on the other actors in the arena. By desperately seeking a master stroke that would counter Likud’s slide in the polls, Netanyahu may have forgotten what sociologist Robert K Merton described as the “imperious immediacy of interest” from which the law of unintended consequence ensues.
Because positioning the controversial Lieberman as Netanyahu’s number two and heir apparent is likely to spark a chain reaction that will reverberate throughout the Israeli body politic, from the far right to the far left and everything in between. First and foremost it will galvanize despondent center-left voters, hitherto resigned to their bloc’s inevitable defeat in the upcoming elections, and increase pressures on former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and/or former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to return to politics in order to rally and unite the troops and lead the charge against the Lieberman-led right.
Around the world, meanwhile, the news of the integration with Lieberman will elicit dismay and create new headaches for those charged with preserving Israel’s image. Justified or not, Lieberman’s reputation in most world capitals is that of a radical right-wing firebrand with dangerous anti-democratic tendencies; Netanyahu’s embrace is sure to confirm widespread apprehensions about the prime minister’s own intentions and the country’s general direction.
But it is within Israeli politics that truly tectonic shifts might occur: Will traditional North African voters, hitherto the bedrock of Likud support, remain loyal to the Netanyahu-Lieberman combo – or will they cry “the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming” and flock to Shas and to its old-new icon, Aryeh Deri? Will Lieberman’s 15 mandates of ex-Soviet Israelis follow him unquestioningly into the new Likud, will they seek an alternative olim-based party - or will some of them now consider the avid courtship of Yair Lapid and other centrists? And what about the bloc of so-called “Feiglinim”, the right-wing settlers in the Likud who had been poised for a power grab in the upcoming Likud primaries and who have now been outflanked by Lieberman? Will they stay or will they go further to the right? And what about the Israeli Arab voters – will the new prominence of Lieberman, who has espoused the “transfer” of some territories, along with their populations, improve their mediocre voting percentages of Israel’s largest minority?
More significantly, perhaps – how will the last vestiges of the old Likud guard, who still swear by the rule of law and adhere to what is known as “Jabotinskyite majesty” - people such as Michael Eitan, Dan Meridor and even Benny Begin – how will they react to having someone like Lieberman, whom they have all castigated at one time or another, catapulted to the top? Perhaps they will join forces and add legitimacy to the new Olmert or Livni led center? And when, pray tell, when will the Attorney General Weinstein finally make good on his promise to announce whether he intends to indict Lieberman on charges of corruption – and what effect will such an announcement have if it comes before the elections, as Weinstein has reportedly pledged?
Finally, with Lieberman involved, one must always consider a Machiavellian subplot: Lieberman, after all, wants to be prime minister. He knows it, Netanyahu knows it, and they both know that each other knows it. Netanyahu may have embraced Lieberman in order to neutralize the possibility that the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu might decide to bolt the right and join a centrist coalition after the upcoming elections. Lieberman’s reasoning, in such a scenario, was supposed to be that once Netanyahu is firmly ensconced in the opposition, it would be easier for Lieberman to make his move and take over as leader of the right wing.
But what if Lieberman, a political animal with uncanny instincts, knows full well that Netanyahu is making a fatal mistake? In such a scenario, Netanyahu will lose the elections and probably leave politics, and Lieberman will be there, conveniently anointed and superbly placed, on time and exactly as planned.
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