Analysis

The Underhanded Netanyahu Move That Pushed Lieberman to Resign

This week Netanyahu underwent what leaders hate most: loss of control. With Lieberman out and Bennett breathing down his neck to wrest the defense portfolio, the PM is holding tight to his seat

Illustration:Bennett is sitting on one missile, Lieberman walks away with another as Netanayhu worriedly watches.
Amos Biderman

Over the past few months, Avigdor Lieberman has plied good friends with his woes as defense minister under Benjamin Netanyahu. The troubles multiplied, the distress and frustration intensified; the prime minister rejected all his recommendations and proposals about the Gaza Strip. The army treated him respectfully, even somewhat fondly, but didn’t really take him into account. Like you treat the kindly uncle or the nag who bombards you with advice and insights at Sabbath-eve meals.

Netanyahu stood aside and kept mum when Education Minister Naftali Bennett, his own irritating nemesis, insulted and humiliated Lieberman on a daily basis over policy for which the chief and exclusive responsibility devolves on the prime minister. Bibi took the credit for the successes and achievements, mainly in the north. He passed on the simmering situation in Gaza to the defense minister by simply excluding himself – physically and publicly – the hostility between the premier and Lieberman that when they were at odds over who would be the next Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lieberman was afraid that Netanyahu would fire him. The friction extended to almost every acute security issue that came up for discussion between them, but also to political issues, such as the fate of the legislation mandating the death penalty for terrorists, which Netanyahu put into deep freeze and forgot about, despite his written promise to Lieberman.

Lieberman’s Knesset resignation speech was sincere and frank, up to a point – as much as a politician is capable of. He described how he had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the system to adopt his plan for the Gaza problem. He related that he had to compromise time and again and to pass up on his positions, until the cup of poison overflowed and he could take no more. It’s important to him that his resignation be seen as having been prompted by conscience and ideology, as having national motives and not being motivated by extraneous considerations.

He didn’t talk about politics, poor showings in the polls, about heading an immigrants party that’s left with a shrinking base of aging Russian war veterans. He left that for the political commentators.

During his two-and-a-half years as defense minister, Lieberman’s party has plummeted in the public opinion surveys. It’s now showing the equivalent of an average of five Knesset seats in the polls. The security stardust that covered him by dint of the fact that he hobnobbed with generals appears not to have translated into an electoral big bang. The whole defense minister experience wasn’t good for him. He was caught between the rock of a bulldozing army and the hard place of an authoritative, controlling prime minister.

Even after its chairman landed the coveted defense portfolio his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, continued to hover on the brink of the electoral threshold. Politically, his situation was better when he roamed, bored, in the fields of the opposition, appeared at “Shabbat Culture” events around the country, and sniped wickedly at the prime minister and at his predecessor, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

The Defense Ministry, once considered an almost essential rung on the ladder leading to the prime ministership, threatened to topple him into a political open grave, albeit one replete with muscle and intoxicating emblems of power. With an election looming – possibly in March, possibly in May – Lieberman decided to jump off the ladder, in the hope of saving Yisrael Beiteinu from political extermination.

As far as can be judged at present, while we’re still in the eye of the storm, Lieberman did the right thing by getting out. As long as he was in the Defense Ministry, he couldn’t create the differentiation from Likud that will be so absolutely necessary in an election. His resignation at this time recalls the resignation of then-Finance Minister Netanyahu from the government of Ariel Sharon in August 2005, a week before the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu left just before the 11th hour, after voting several times in favor of the “disengagement.” Years later, he was still trying to dissociate himself from his support and his yes vote in the Knesset. The past eight months of taking no real action in the face of the incendiary kites and balloons and the rounds of rocket fire are a stain on Lieberman. He’ll try to make people forget the period by means of militant gung-ho declarations in the election campaign, the next battle.

For the second time in a decade, we find that Gaza defines one of the senior, longest-serving politicians in Israel, more than any ministerial post he’s held. In July 2014, after the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens and against the background of Israel’s reaction to rocket fire from Gaza, Lieberman pulled his party out of its merger with Likud. On Wednesday, two-and-a-half years after entering the coalition in a surprise move – with him it’s always a surprise, always filled with drama and theatrics – and serving as defense minister, he’s resigned again. And once again, it’s Gaza.

It’s said that Israel can leave the Gaza Strip, but the Gaza Strip will never leave Israel. It’s the same with Avigdor Lieberman – “Yvet,” to his friends – who even in the most influential position continues to be haunted by the curse of Gaza. At least he could take pleasure in the victory of his protege, Moshe Leon, in Jerusalem’s runoff mayoral election this week.

Avigdor Lieberman announces his resignation as defense minister.
Emil Salman

Dog day afternoon

Lieberman was on edge during Tuesday afternoon’s security cabinet meeting, at which a Gaza cease-fire was decided on. “We didn’t know why he was so restless, we thought it might be because of Leon,” one of the ministers said.

“We all heard what was at stake, what was liable to happen if we didn’t agree to a cease-fire,” a second minister said. “We had to make that decision, even though we weren’t comfortable with it. It’s true that Lieberman and Bennett had reservations, but it was clear that they accepted the decision. In the end, it was [Interior Minister] Arye Dery who said, “Okay, guys, we decided what we decided, but how do we go public with it?”

“We looked at one another,” the minister continued. “We knew that the blood out there was boiling, that our people in Ashkelon, in Sderot wanted us to lay into [Hamas].”

According to the minister, the prime minister or one of his aides called a journalist and told him that the security cabinet had voted unanimously in favor of ending the fighting. “He wanted to shed the responsibility from himself, it cost him in his health to push Lieberman, Bennett and [Justice Minister Ayelet] Shaked into the tent. But he told a half-truth. There was no vote. That’s what infuriated Yvet. That’s what broke him, according to two of his colleagues. Bennett also went wild. They both issued press communiques effectively stating that the prime minister was lying. In other times, with other prime ministers, that would have been inconceivable. Today it’s routine. No one got upset. Another day at the office. We’ve become accustomed.”

The ministers find it difficult to accept Netanyahu’s management style. “Let’s say he wanted to share responsibility with us, and to signal to the nation that the entire security cabinet made a tough decision. Unpopular. That’s his right. He could have invited a Government Press Office photographer into the room and made a leader-like declaration. Why throw Bennett and Lieberman under the bus when he’s aware of their political distress? Why does he have to jab them with a pin when he knows they’re bleeding?”

Why, indeed? That’s Netanyahu. His inherent recoil from war led him to make a decision that’s a two-edged sword in terms of his most loyal electoral base. Even the most loyal Bibi fanatics were asking on the social networks: What happened to Bibi? For that he deserves credit. But he’s not capable of going all the way with what he calls leadership. He has to mix it with a dollop of party hackwork, with a pinch of meanness. Maybe, and this is just dime-store psychology, he was just alarmed by himself and by the praises heaped on him by the left after the cease-fire.

His predecessors would have called a press conference after the security cabinet meeting about Gaza, and explained to the public the motivations behind the decision. But Netanyahu disappeared. He absolutely evaporated. He reemerged for the first time that night, when the partial results of the municipal runoff elections became known. He tweeted triple congratulations, to the mayors-elect in Eilat, Safed and Bat Yam (though in the latter he supported the other guy).

What all three have in common is that they’re identified with Netanyahu’s archrival, former education minister Gideon Sa’ar. Sa’ar gave them a lot of help in the campaign. Netanyahu is well aware of this, but it was important for him to mark the territory, to appropriate to himself their achievements. In the minor matter of the developments in the south – over which the whole country was up in arms, tires were burned at highway junctions, and shouts of “Bibi go home!” were voiced – not so much as a twitter. The muse fell silent.

Hours after Lieberman’s resignation, the prime minister began consultations with the leaders of the coalition parties “with the goal of stabilizing the coalition.” The person who wanted to move up the election more than once but was blocked by his political partners, now seems to be holding onto the premiership tooth and nail. He underwent what our leaders hate most: loss of control over the events. His loss extended to all the sectors: security (it’s clear to everyone that Hamas will decide when and under what conditions the next round will be launched); political (he’s in the hands of Naftali Bennett, heaven forbid); and legal (Case 4000 is on its way to the state prosecution and the attorney general).

The Likud’s MKs, who had already rehearsed the litany of revilements they would hurl at the resigning minister, were instructed by the Prime Minister’s Bureau not to overdo it against Lieberman. Netanyahu has his eyes on the next coalition. Without Yisrael Beiteinu he won’t have one.

Bibi is the mirror image of Yvet: The prime minister wants to distance himself as far as possible from the event. The anger being aimed at him by Likud’s most significant base of support, in Sderot and Ashkelon, is too potent to die down any time soon. It’s not foam on the water, it’s the foam of rage on the lips. It needs time to dry.

The majority opinion in the political arena is that the premier will have a hard time maintaining the coalition above water beyond the next three or four weeks. Even if he yields to Bennett’s ultimatum – the defense portfolio or an election now – a coalition of 61 MKs that’s dependent on a hooligan and borderline figure like MK Oren Hazan is unsustainable.

This is particularly true because the last thing Netanyahu wants is to be seen as having capitulated to the brutal pressure of the person he (and above all, she, the Missus) abominates. Psychologically, it’s easier for him to accede to Hamas dictates. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stay well away from the Balfour Street residence when the prime minister has to tell his wife that Bennett has been appointed defense minister. The Lady still hasn’t been able to calm down after Ayelet Shaked’s appointment as justice minister and as a permanent member of the security cabinet.

According to tradition, from the 2013 coalition negotiations through the talks that followed the 2015 election, Bennett is the last one to be invited to meet with the prime minister during a crisis/establishment of a coalition. It’s one of Netanyahu’s small pleasures. The education minister no longer allows himself to take offense. Thursday, Bennett was also the last one to be called for a consultation. As expected, he made it clear that from his point of view, there was nothing to discuss – he wasn’t interested in being foreign minister or anything else. Defense minister, and nothing but defense minister. As far as the head of Habayit Hayehudi is concerned, if Netanyahu says no to him, it will be because he is concerned that Bennett, despite all the forecasts and precedents, will fly where Lieberman crashed. For Bennett, this is not a caprice, and it’s not mere ambition, it’s the essence of the essential.

Habayit Hayehudi is ready to base its election campaign on the demand that Bennett be named defense minister in the next government and that Shaked retain the justice portfolio. To that end, the two will tell their supporters to shower them with votes: If we get 14 seats, what we want will materialize.

It’s in that light that we should treat the first public condition conveyed by Habayit Hayehudi to the media, even as the defense minister was still explaining his reasons for resigning from the Knesset, as the first shot in the campaign.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Waiting in the wings

Early in the week coalition leaders were whispering that Netanyahu was no longer talking about a March 2019 election but rather about May – after Independence Day and after the echoes of the attorney general’s decisions in the three cases for which the premier is under investigation (which are expected in the first quarter of the new year) die down.

An alert Hamas member at a checkpoint in Khan Yunis who was suspicious of a vehicle, forced an Israel Defense Forces soldier to open fire. That set off a violent and extensive chain reaction that led this week to the firing of some 500 rockets at Israeli communities, the resignation of the defense minister and, very probably, an early election. That’s a strategic Hamasnik in the full sense of the word.

On Thursday, Netanyahu met with leaders of the coalition parties. Either he really wanted to consult with them or the ritual was just for the record. As far as is known, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) is pushing for dissolution of the Knesset and a March election.

Interior Minister Dery (Shas), formerly against advancing the election, is now inclined to be in favor. The achievements of Shas in the municipal elections in several places, and above all, the jewel in the crown – Moshe Leon’s election in Jerusalem – has breathed new life into Dery and the Shas grass roots. Dery showed that he still has it.

The political-parliamentary game that precedes every decision about an election is the reserve of the right-wing coalition. The opposition plays no part in it. After the Knesset is dissolved and a date is set, it will be the turn of the center-left camp to provide the political dramas. A great many politicians, official and others who are in their infancy or their dotage, will have to make some decisions.

Three former IDF chiefs of staff – Benny Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Ehud Barak (possibly also Gabi Ashkenazi, though that’s unlikely) – are on the starting line. Gantz is working to establish a new party. Rightly so. Without political clout, he’ll be ground into the dust by whoever guarantees him a place on an existing slate – be it Yair Lapid, Kahlon or Netanyahu. Ya’alon lacks independent political weight, but his co-option to a group that will challenge Netanyahu’s rule is important. He brings experience, a fine record and integrity.

Barak is the most aggressive and effective opposition voice against Netanyahu. He wants to be part of any such group. He believes that the center-left bloc will be hopeless without the creation of one slate that is cobbled together from several existing parties and leading figures: Barak himself, and also Gantz, Ya’alon, Dan Meridor – plus, of course, Tzipi Livni, Avi Gabbay and Yair Lapid. Any alternative option that doesn’t involve unification of the ranks will be suicidal.

In every election campaign, Barak says, the center-left camp tends to cannibalize itself. In this case, Lapid will be strengthened only if he takes seats from Zionist Union; Avi Gabbay will recover only if he gets back voters who defected to Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. It’s a sure recipe for the rise of the right to power. When all of them are together, there is no infighting, no cannibalizing. There is one common goal: to topple the existing government.

Only one small decision is needed: Who No. 1 on the list is going to be. Who our candidate for prime minister will be. Easy.