Lieberman's Victory Over Bibi: Politics Get Personal

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems likely that Yisrael Beiteinu's leader had planned from the start not to join the coalition, but cunningly preferred to wait until the 11th hour.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Lieberman announcing his party won't take part in Netanyahu's coalition, May 5, 2015.
Lieberman announcing his party won't take part in Netanyahu's coalition, May 5, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman has made two dramatic moves in his political career: joining Ehud Olmert’s government in 2006, whose end would have otherwise been at hand following the Second Lebanon War, and yesterday’s refusal to join the coalition Benjamin Netanyahu is forming. Nine years ago, he saved Olmert from being ousted. Now he is seeking to destroy Olmert’s successor politically. Or if not destroy, then at least severely damage. The surest way to do so is to stay on the sidelines with his shrunken party and leave Netanyahu and his finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, to sweat in an anorexic coalition with no margin for safety, in which every bastard is a king.

With one cool statement in the Knesset yesterday, Lieberman managed to upset the political and parliamentary apple cart and ruin the prime minister’s euphoria. From the emperor who won the election against all odds, Netanyahu has now become a doormat on which every anonymous junior MK will trample.

It won’t collapse tomorrow or the next day, but in our current system of government, it’s clear that a coalition of 61 MKs will have trouble functioning for long. Let’s see it pass the far-reaching reforms promised by Kahlon. It certainly won’t serve out its term – which it seemed almost certain to do before Lieberman, with a big grin, dropped his bombshell yesterday.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems likely that he had planned from the start not to join the coalition, but cunningly preferred to wait until the 11th hour, two days before the deadline for Netanyahu to form a government.

Lieberman thereby achieved two goals. First, he put severe pressure on Netanyahu, making him vulnerable to extortion by Shas leader Arye Dery and Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, with whom coalition agreements haven’t yet been signed. Second, he thwarted the chance of forming an alternative government with Zionist Union, because there’s no more time. It’s either a 61-member coalition or new elections without Netanyahu.

Lieberman’s reasons sound logical from his perspective. His demands (to wipe out Hamas, build in the settlement blocs and Jerusalem, restrict the cabinet to 18 ministers, retain criminal sanctions on draft-dodging yeshiva students, for starters) were rejected out of hand. Moreover, the coalition agreements leave a broad doorway through which Zionist Union could join the government later on, and there’s no doubt about whose head would be first on the chopping block if that happened.

What was in this coalition for him? After all, he would have entered it as excess baggage. True, he would have retained the coveted role of foreign minister, but in a weak position, with no cards to play and no influence over foreign policy – something he had his fill of in the previous two governments. The new bosses are Kahlon, Deri and United Torah Judaism chairman Yaakov Litzman. Their views will be the decisive ones.

What Lieberman didn’t tell reporters, however, is that he’s finally had it with Netanyahu. That’s the impression people who have spoken with him recently have gotten. Still, none of them expected their falling out to have such a surprising result. After all, Kahlon and Bennett also aren’t enamored of the prime minister.

Essentially, Netanyahu and Lieberman parted ways during last summer’s war in Gaza. The rift is deep and wide. It stretched further in December 2014, when Lieberman refused to let Netanyahu reshuffle the cabinet by bringing in Shas and UTJ in place of Yesh Atid. And during the campaign, their enmity became plain for all to see.

Theoretically, the fact that Lieberman is vacating the Foreign Ministry should make it easier to form a unity government with Zionist Union – a possibility, however, that hasn’t once begun to take shape in the 40 days since the election. After all, Kahlon said he sees a 61-MK government as strictly temporary. But in reality, that is liable to prove an almost impossible goal.

This is not because Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog isn’t interested. On the contrary, he covets the Foreign Ministry, which is perfect for him. And at yesterday’s faction meeting, when some MKs proposed passing an official decision that they won’t join Netanyahu’s government, Herzog demurred. He favors keeping all options open.

The problem is that Netanyahu would have trouble booting Habayit Hayehudi out of the coalition in favor of Zionist Union, because Habayit Hayehudi represents religious Zionist voters, who are part of Netanyahu’s own electoral base. What would he tell the religious Zionists who flocked to Likud en masse on Election Day because he needed them? And who would believe him?



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