Analysis

Netanyahu's Dilemma: Surrender to His Arch-nemesis or Be Forcefully Dragged Into Elections

Lieberman thought Gaza will save him, but his party's electoral hopes are already dashed. According to political assessments, Netanyahu will have a hard time keeping his coalition together longer than the next two or three weeks, a month tops

Bennett and Netanyahu, May 2017
Lior Mizrahi

In recent months Avigdor Lieberman has been confiding to friends about his troubles as Benjamin Netanyahu's defense minister, troubles that had been piling up as the prime minister rejected all his recommendations and proposals for Gaza.

Netanyahu stood by and watched as Naftali Bennett, his annoying nemesis, attacked, insulted and disparaged Lieberman over a policy for which the prime minister was primarily responsible. The successes and achievements, mostly in the north, Netanyahu claimed for himself, while he dumped the hot and hopeless Gaza file on the defense minister by simply absenting himself physically and administratively.

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When they clashed over who would be the next military chief (Lieberman insisted and got Aviv Kochavi, when Netanyahu wanted Eyal Zamir, his former military secretary), the defense minister was afraid the prime minister would fire him. The friction and disagreements spread to almost every security issue they discussed, but also to political issues such as the bill on the death penalty for terrorists that Netanyahu froze despite his promise.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman delivers a statement at the Knesset, November 14, 2018.
AP/Ariel Schalit

Lieberman’s resignation speech to the Knesset was quite candid as he described how he tried and failed to implement his positions, especially on Gaza. For the second time in the past decade, Gaza has ended up defining Lieberman, one of Israel’s top politicians. On the eve of the 2014 Gaza War, with then-Foreign Minister Lieberman calling Israeli reaction to the rocket attacks from Gaza weak and insufficient, he pulled his party out of its merger with Likud. Now, two-and-a-half years after entering the coalition and winning one of the most desirable jobs in Israeli politics, he’s resigning over Gaza, again.

>> Defense minister resigns, firing first salvo of Israeli elections. The timing couldn't be worse for Netanyahu ■ Farewell to Avigdor Lieberman, a cartoon defense minister ■ Analysis: Populism and empty threats: Lieberman earned the public's disdain

But Gaza is just the hook. Since Lieberman has taken over as defense minister, his party has been losing ground in the polls and he hasn’t gotten any electoral dividends. He was in better shape when he was in the opposition, sniping at the prime minister and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. The office was considered a political magnate that automatically gained electoral seats and was almost a mandatory jumping board on the way to the premiership threatened to become Lieberman's political grave.

Understanding that elections will take place soon, perhaps in March or May, Lieberman decided to throw himself off the deck to try to save Yisrael Beiteinu from electoral death.

It’s doubtful this will happen. He may have missed the boat. He apparently believes that the sooner the elections happen, the better he will be able to manipulate his resignation and his waves of criticism into a reasonable showing at the polls.

It was reported that Netanyahu has begun consultations with the coalition heads to stabilize the government. The man who periodically wanted to advance the elections and was blocked from doing so by his partners now seems to be fighting tooth and nail to hold on to his post. Netanyahu is the mirror image of Lieberman: The prime minister wants to keep as much distance from this development as possible. The voters’ anger in some of Likud’s firmest bastions of support, like Sderot and Ashkelon, is fierce and won’t fade so quickly. He of course also doesn't want to appear as someone who has lost control and whose hand was forced into calling early elections.

According to all political assessments, Netanyahu will have a hard time keeping his coalition together longer than the next two or three weeks, a month tops - meaning elections in March 2019. The ultimatum by Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudi party – the defense portfolio for Bennett or immediate elections – is only one reason. The last thing Netanyahu wants is to yield to the ultimatum of someone he detests. Given the political situation of recent defense ministers – from Shaul Mofaz through Amir Peretz and up to Ya’alon – appointing Bennett may prove to be the most effective form of revenge.