Analysis |

Lieberman Will Exploit Netanyahu’s 'Weaknesses’ to the Very End

The scuffle during Sunday's cabinet meeting between Netanyahu and his foreign minister highlighted the prime minister's growing isolation.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Lieberman and Netanyahu.
Lieberman and Netanyahu. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said all the right words on Sunday, when he spoke about the suspects in the horrific murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir:

“We do not distinguish between acts of terrorism … we will respond harshly to both … we will find those responsible,” and so on and so forth.

Well done. But either tomorrow or the next day, or perhaps further down the road, we will see whether the prime minister’s heart and mouth are in the same place: Will he order the demolition of suspects’ homes? Will he approve regulations allowing for the extended administrative detention for “our own”? Will he seek to have the “full power of the law” brought to bear on the Border Police members who were filmed brutally beating Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s American cousin as he lay on the ground?

Assuming that he would do all of these things, would the right-most wings of his coalition, or his party, allow him to do so while continuing to demonstrate restraint against the rockets from the Gaza Strip?

The scuffle during Sunday’s cabinet meeting between Netanyahu and his most senior coalition partner, Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, highlighted the prime minister’s increasing isolation within his own political camp and electoral base – which includes his own Likud party.

Apart from Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Netanyahu has no true allies among party leaders in the political establishment. What happened to his romance in his previous government with Ehud Barak? With Eli Yishai and with Yaakov Litzman?

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid support him on his current stance vis-a-vis Gaza, but they are very far from being considered allies. No need to say much about Naftali Bennett.

As for Netanyahu’s true coalition partner, any intimacy and trust between the two seems to have faded. On Sunday, it seems, their spark went out for good.

The perception among cabinet ministers is that Lieberman is just waiting for the chance to challenge Netanyahu, to poke him in the eye, or, as one minister put it, “stick it to him.”

Lieberman’s sideways glance at the right-wing electorate doesn’t need proof, or explanation. He lost the ideological right to Bennett long ago. What’s left for him now is to try and hold onto the support of the aggressive, warmongering right, which is not necessarily identical to the kippa-wearing settlers who found their political home in Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi.

Lieberman is engaged in this struggle at Netanyahu’s expense. He went with his party’s cabinet ministers to Sderot on Friday, where they sat at a café while Lieberman lambasted Netanyahu’s policies. It’s safe to assume that it wasn’t only Sderot resident Amir Peretz who went crazy over the weekend.

The angry exchanges Sunday between the prime minister and the foreign minister got their mutual resentment out into the open once and for all. The roots of that resentment can be seen in their opposite actions during Jerusalem’s most recent mayoral race, as well as Netanyahu’s sudden show of support for Reuvin Rivlin in the presidential race, despite promises made to Lieberman, and the list goes on. But this time, it goes slightly beyond just politics.

At Sunday's meeting, Lieberman told Netanyahu, “there will be ramifications to this argument,” and his statement attests to the plans he’s yet to hatch.

Lieberman has no intention of being quiet. Containment and restraint are Bibi’s business, not his. He identifies with the general public’s great anger directed at the cautious Netanyahu and at Hamas, which goes beyond those on the right.

The feeling within the political establishment is that Netanyahu is losing support every day he refrains from giving the order to “fire” at the Gaza Strip. And Lieberman, in his current situation, won’t hesitate for a second to snatch up Netanyahu’s lost support. To hell with their partnership.

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