Analysis

Israel's ex-Defense Minister Lieberman Could Now Topple Netanyahu

The political man of the hour is Avidgor Lieberman: Only he can force an alternative leader on Likud, push for a unity government and bring about new elections

Netanyahu and Lieberman in June 2018.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Six weeks after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s impressive achievement at the ballot box, he looks like someone whose victory had dried up like weeds at harvest time.

Even if he manages at the last minute to establish his fifth government, and it is sworn in at the Knesset next week, the prime minister has lost many points along the way. The political magician, the leader who completely controlled the public and media agenda in Israel, has not yet been able to cobble together an agreement among his “natural partners” in a right-wing coalition. His threats of new elections show weakness and frustration, not the impressive control and maneuvering we have grown used to over the past decade.

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Signs of Netanyahu’s weakness are multiplying. Gideon Sa’ar stood up as the prime minister’s rival in Likud and has taken first place in the battle for succession against Intelligence Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who are still afraid of Netanyahu.

The Permits Committee is still refusing to grant Netanyahu permission for donors to fund his legal fees. Senior figures in the judicial system have spoken out against the plans for immunity and High Court-override legislation of Netanyahu, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and MK Bezalel Smotrich (Union of Right-Wing Parties). The Kahol Lavan party is taking to the street in protest.

Most importantly, the heads of the coalition parties are not blinking, not giving up on their demands, and are so far not getting excited over threats of a narrow government and dissolution of the newly minted Knesset. None of these shows of resistance were seen in the previous term, when Netanyahu ruled the political world unchallenged, even when he made tactical concessions to his then-rival Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

The reason for the weakness is clear: the indictments hanging over the premier, which dictate his political moves. The link Netanyahu has made between rescuing himself from trial and promoting the ideological demands of the right wing – crushing the High Court of Justice and annexing the settlements – has been perceived in the eyes of his “natural partners” as a manifestation of distress, which allows them to up the ante of their demands. When the leader of the Gerrer Hasidim, Smotrich, MK Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) and even Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (who crashed and burned in the election) look at the prime minister, they see a poker player with a weak hand who just can’t leave the table and desperately puts up the keys to his house in the hope of being saved. Now is the time to milk him.

The political man of the hour isn’t Netanyahu; it’s Lieberman, the mover and the shaker whose word is law. The five seats his party garnered are more important right now than the huge number of Likud seats. And so Lieberman will face the toughest choice of his life this week: Will he bring an end to Netanayhu’s rule or line up with him and enter the coalition in exchange for some public lip service (“bringing down Hamas,” “death sentence for terrorists,” “improved military draft law in the future”).

Only he can force an alternative leader on Likud, push for a unity government with Kahol Lavan and bring about new elections, or accept a mandate from the president himself to form a government – being apparently the only one who can bring together the edges of the new Knesset. In Europe there are quite a few precedents of governments led by small parties, which acted as a fulcrum. One can guess that Lieberman is familiar with these options.

What will Lieberman do? Will he choose to break toward the center and, for the first time in his life, win the sympathy of the “old elites” if he gets rid of the hated Netanyahu for them? The temptation is great, but it also entails a risk if Lieberman is dreaming of returning to Likud and running for chairman, because there they will excoriate him as a traitor who thwarted the ultimate right-wing government, the government of the override and the annexation. On the other hand, if he goes for unity, he will be swallowed up in the coalition and once again risk becoming irrelevant, as in the last government, when he spent two and a half years doing nothing in the Defense Ministry. He can still threaten Netanyahu from within, but most of the time he will have to obey him.

Lieberman gambled correctly when he resigned as defense minister, sparked early elections and managed to pass the voter threshold at the helm of Yisrael Beiteinu despite the unflattering polls. But the gamble this time is much greater: To toss “King Bibi” out of his seat, and hope that the dice will fall for Lieberman as a candidate to replace him, and appear to be a person who stands by statesmanlike principles and not one seeking advancement and revenge. No simple thing, even for an experienced political fox like Lieberman. But at the same time, who expected Netanyahu’s impressive win at the ballot box to evaporate after a few weeks in coalition negotiations?