Analysis

Netanyahu and Lieberman's Political Fight Just Got Out of Hand

The premier and the ex-defense minister lost control head-butting each other and found themselves in the danger zone

File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman tour the Gaza border, southern Israel, July 17, 2018.
Haim Hornstein

There is no point trying to predict what will happen before the deadline for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to present his government on Wednesday because it is impossible to divine the thoughts of Yisrael Beiteinu chairman MK Avigdor Lieberman. Yet one thing can be said even now with some degree of confidence; the military conscription law and the crisis with the ultra-Orthodox is not the main story, but rather a cover for much deeper and driven motivations.

If it’s about hunger for power, vengeance or just plain sadism in dragging Netanyahu’s frayed nerves publicly through the streets, Lieberman has achieved his goal, so a narrow (and terrible) right-wing government can be declared. It is possible that, as former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a Haaretz podcast, Lieberman, who broke the glass ceiling when he became defense minister, finds himself in a position of power greater than anything he ever held before, able to mold Israel’s political and civil agenda. Given the magnitude of the crisis, some in the political world imagine in their distress even some sort of coordination with Netanyahu to do God knows what.

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With all due respect to the pundits, things now seem more than a miscalculation leading to a cockfight. They both lost control head-butting each other – Lieberman in his strange obstinacy and Netanyahu in his unbridled counterattacks – and found themselves in the danger zone. It is important to remember that the early election came about in the wake of the indictments against Netanyahu, and the coalition negotiations are stuck now because of that same problem – Netanyahu would have preferred Kahol Lavan over Smotrich and the Kahanists, thus skipping easily over Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties. But there’s that matter of evading legal action. Netanyahu is already considering crushing the authority of President Reuven Rivlin, to whom he will have to return his mandate to form a government in dissolving the Knesset.

Netanyahu’s conduct ignores an arrangement that should prevail in normal democratic countries. He shows disregard for the people, who are like subjects in thrall to the leader’s private interests, sent to the ballot box any time his stars are misaligned. The truth is that some in Netanyahu’s inner orbit perfectly illustrate the obedient lackey. These are the Likud ministers and MKs, who are being humiliated right and left and whose leader considers them (at best) extras in his private show. Except for Gideon Sa’ar, who came out in a limited way against the immunity bill, everyone has fallen silent in light of the crazed rescue campaign of the boss (or they attack Lieberman after they were given permission to bark in his name).

It’s hard to believe that Likud will renounce Netanyahu, without whom the party can establish a unity government with Kahol Lavan in seconds. That’s not in the DNA of the movement that commands unity behind a leader as popular as Netanyahu (even if others equally despise him). That’s how deplorably weak they have become.