Analysis |

Lieberman Eyes Netanyahu's Seat, Keeping All Options on the Table

At the moment, Lieberman's ultimate goal – to merge his Yisrael Beiteinu party with Likud in order to pave his way to the premiership - is encountering serious obstacles. But there are three ways he could achieve it.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Avigdor Lieberman’s speech this week at the annual gathering of Israeli ambassadors made headlines mainly because of what it contained: a warm embrace of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for his indefatigable efforts to bring the sides together, and also the foreign minister’s declaration of his readiness to demarcate Israel’s border in the final-status agreement “near Route 6,” with Arab locales in the Triangle and in Wadi Ara becoming part of a future Palestinian state.

But what was not contained in Lieberman’s speech? A rejection of the term “1967 lines”; opposition to the evacuation of settlements; and insistence on the indivisibility of Jerusalem and on an ongoing Israeli presence in the Jordan Rift Valley. It’s not surprising, then, that President Shimon Peres termed Lieberman the “responsible adult” after meeting with him privately. Peres views the population-exchange initiative as totally off the wall, but other things he apparently heard from Lieberman prompted the president to effuse about him to the country’s top diplomats.

Along the way, the president also enjoyed annoying the prime minister as part of the ongoing cold war between the two. Because if Lieberman is the new responsible adult, and Peres is, as everyone knows, the responsible adult par excellence – where does that leave Benjamin Netanyahu? Indeed, the next day Netanyahu told the Likud Knesset faction that the only way to prevent Israel’s transformation into a binational state is the division of the country. In the same breath, however, the premier declared that he will oppose evacuation of settlements that are not in the big blocs but are “important to the Jewish people,” such as Hebron and Beit El. Let’s see him reach an agreement that leaves Hebron and Beit El in Israeli hands.

Lieberman’s map has been known for more than a decade. He wrote about it in a book titled “My Truth.” Yet his flirtation with the Americans was music to the ears of Israel’s ambassadors worldwide, who did not have an easy time under the foreign minister in the past four years. The relatively moderate model and conciliatory face that Lieberman presented the world this week prove, and not for the first time, that the man is blessed with extraordinary conceptual elasticity. If his flexibility of thought were to be translated into the physical realm, he could easily turn into a sort of rubber doll, stuff himself whole into a medium-sized suitcase and close the zipper from the inside.

Just over a year ago, in November 2012, while serving as foreign minister in the previous government, and before being forced to resign temporarily because of the investigations against him, Lieberman announced that the time had come for Israel to serve divorce papers on Washington and to look for new friends in the international community. “I advocate a diversified, multidirectional policy,” he said at that time. “The ties with the United States are growing looser, so we need to look for new allies.”

Lieberman’s multidirectional diversification thrust came to a quick end. Already at the ceremony during which he resumed the foreign affairs portfolio, after being acquitted in his trial, he implicitly recommended that Netanyahu should lower his tone in the squabble with U.S. President Obama over the Iranian nuclear project. Since then, the foreign minister has stuck to this line unswervingly. The man who sought succor in China, India and Russia is now the most ardent advocate of Israel-U.S. relations. His warm relations with Kerry extend to the entire American administration. The mind-set switch is mutual: If at the beginning of last year the Americans were still placing their bets on Yair Lapid, they now realize that he will not become prime minister, certainly not in the next election. The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv not only reads public opinion surveys, it also conducts them. Its staff know that a politician whom 4 percent of the public would like to see as prime minister is not about to foment a revolution anytime soon.

The Americans are apparently counting on Lieberman to lead his faction of 11 MKs in support of the agreement, or in the first stage, the framework paper that Kerry plans to submit to the sides. Lieberman effectively promised his support when he told the ambassadors this week that Israel “will not get a better offer than Kerry’s.”

Oh, yes, he did make one unequivocal remark: He announced that he will not agree to the return of one refugee to Israel. Not one! That’s his red line. Except that it’s an imaginary red line. This is a well-known tactic: When you want to divert attention from things you don’t say, you create an artificial drama around things you do say. After all, Lieberman knows full well that no party in the coalition supports the right of return, not even symbolically. Resistance to even the thought of the return of refugees is deeply embedded in the Israeli consensus. In these circumstances, there was nothing heroic about Lieberman’s pompous declaration.

Even Tzipi Livni, the left-winger in the bunch, takes an extreme stance on this issue – no less than Naftali Bennett. For her, rejection of the right of return is a religion. People in Ariel Sharon’s circle relate that he used to complain to confidants about Livni’s relentless pursuit of this issue. “What does she want from me with the right of return? She sometimes sounds like there’s a family of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon standing on her doorstep and asking to come inside,” he would say with his well-known sarcasm.

The third way

Lieberman’s leftward tilt embodies some interesting political elements. At the moment, the map isn’t clear to him. His ultimate goal – to merge his Yisrael Beiteinu party with Likud in order to pave his way to the premiership – is encountering serious obstacles. Going it alone in the next election is a possibility, but not an especially appealing one. His standing among the public has been weakened. His party sustained a series of defeats in the recent municipal elections, meaning a loss of power and influence over activists who get the voters out on election day.

He has two ways to achieve an integration with Likud. The first, which he prefers, is to effect a merger with ironclad promises of future representation for his people, based on the present balance of forces between the two entities. But that path is blocked: The Likud convention will never approve it.

The second way is to recruit nonstop. Informed sources in Likud say that Lieberman is capable of recruiting at least 20,000 new members to their party. Maybe even 30,000. That tremendous power would allow him to decide on the composition of the faction and afterward to become the party leader. But that would be a Pyrrhic victory, because the more people he recruits, the greater will be the hostility of Likud’s rank-and-file to the hostile takeover attempt. They will go to the central committee, cancel the primaries and restore power to that committee – a body in which Lieberman has next to no support.

What remains is the third way: a long-term alliance with the prime minister. If Netanyahu surprises – not to say astonishes – the world, us and himself by reaching an agreement with the Palestinians that will cause a rift between him and most of Likud, he would be able to count on Lieberman’s 11 MKs to help execute a legal split in the party in the current Knesset. Yisrael Beiteinu could give the premier the necessary one-third to break away. In this imaginary but delightful scenario, Netanyahu and Lieberman, as heads of the new center bloc in Israel (!), then agree that Netanyahu will be the candidate for prime minister in the next election but that in midterm, say in 2018 or 2019, he will step down and Lieberman will step into his shoes.

Far-fetched as it sounds, that scenario is one of the hottest topics of discussion among Likud politicos these days. As with the declared Israeli policy toward Iran (by the way, whatever happened with Iran?), these people believe that all the options are on the table. And they’re edgy. Real edgy. Because they feel that something is going on over their head and behind their back.

Let them eat cream

For the past 10 months, the finance portfolio has been held by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. He represents something of an odd party, the great majority of whose voters situate themselves in what’s known as the “center-left” electoral living space. According to a poll by Molad that was published in Haaretz a few weeks ago, about 80 percent of the party’s voters are against granting financial benefits to the settlers. Eighty percent! We can take it that this impressive proportion reflects the view of those known as Israel’s “middle-class voters,” whom Lapid promised to look after uncompromisingly and for whose sake, he said, he entered politics.

Which leads us to a story told by Meretz leader MK Zahava Gal-On. Last April 22, in a Knesset debate about a month after the formation of the third Netanyahu government, Gal-On asked Lapid about reports that Israel’s new national-priorities map would no longer include cities such as Ashdod, Ashkelon and Kiryat Malakhi. Instead, isolated settlements had been added to this imported map, including Beit El, Ofra, Eshkolot and Neguhot, and even Rahelim and other illegal outposts which Netanyahu had “koshered” on the eve of the election.

“What will you do about this?” Gal-On asked Lapid from the rostrum. About two hours after the debate, Gal-On relates, she got a phone call from Lapid. “He told me he knew nothing about this and that he intended to reexamine the priorities map. ‘I won’t let it happen,’ he told me.”

A month later, when media reports stated that the government was about to approve the map, including the settlements, which in any event get benefits left and right (especially right) and center, Gal-On again asked Lapid about the map. “He promised again that he would not let it happen, that he would prevent it. He said it was on his desk and that he was delaying it,” Gal-On says. Two months later, on August 4, the government approved the map as described above. Lapid voted in favor.

Gal-On, who is now a member of the Knesset’s Finance Committee, which is chaired by MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi), has discovered that the big money from the treasury is still flowing to the settlements. An example: Although the budget for construction in the territories was set at 58 million shekels ($16.5 million), in the past four months the treasury has transferred about 617 million shekels, more than 10 times the amount stipulated, to the construction effort through the Finance Committee.

“Is Lapid confused? Does he think the middle class lives in the middle of the territories between Hebron and Jenin?” Gal-On asks.

Yesh Atid voters who don’t have the good fortune to live in the West Bank can always take consolation from the reduced price of cottage cheese and cream. Let them eat, get fat and say thank you. The finance minister’s bureau declined to respond.

Illustration by Amos Biderman.

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