Avigdor Lieberman has had it at last. Thirty-one years since he, as a new Likud member, volunteered to work for Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as his unofficial political aide, the once fanatically loyal “Evet” is trying to call time on his old boss’ career.
His reasons for doing so are complex. Lieberman, who previously escaped money-laundering and fraud charges by the skin of his teeth, is no defender of the rule of law or liberal democratic values. For him, it has always been about power.
According to Lieberman’s calculations, Netanyahu’s time in power is nearing its end. To preserve his own, he knows this is the moment to jump ship. And he’s doing so carefully, choosing a matter of principle — the military draft law that would obligate ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to join the military — as the issue on which to break with Netanyahu. This allows him to continuously claim his innocence, to keep saying he supports a right-wing government led by Netanyahu — just not a religious one in which Netanyahu is captive.
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This is typical of Lieberman, pretending he is the only one who can liberate Netanyahu and allow him to rule as a real right-winger. That was exactly what he said in November 1997 when, as director general of Netanyahu’s Prime Minister’s Office, he announced his resignation. He claimed to be resigning so he could, in Netanyahu’s service, put Likud in order without the constraints of civil service. Instead, Lieberman founded his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu.
Lieberman had correctly predicted then that Netanyahu would lose power in 1999 and prepared his own power base in advance. Netanyahu made his way back to office after a decade, and since 2009 Lieberman has maneuvered within Bibi’s orbit — at times as coalition partner, at others in opposition. In 2013, Yisrael Beiteinu even teamed up with Likud in an alliance that was expected to merge into a single party. How far away that seems now.
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Lieberman has the keenest political instincts in the Knesset. He has concluded that even if Netanyahu can cobble together a governing coalition, and perhaps even pass some form of immunity law or overriding clause, he is ultimately going down, with an indictment that will force him out of office and into court in 2020. With Netanyahu gone, there will be a free-for-all on the Israeli right, where no clear successor has yet to emerge.
Naftali Bennett tried to lay claim to the throne in the election, but his newly former party, Hayamin Hehadash, failed to cross the electoral threshold. Two weeks ago, Gideon Sa’ar made his first tentative claim to leadership when he spoke out against Netanyahu’s proposed immunity law. Now Lieberman is making his move and the coalition arithmetic is on his side.
Denied of Yisrael Beiteinu’s five votes, Netanyahu cannot form a coalition. With Wednesday his final deadline, there are now three scenarios.
The first scenario is a last-minute reconciliation with Lieberman, who will get whatever he demands. This seems extremely unlikely with everything that has been said by Netanyahu’s proxies in recent days. However, given their histories, it’s also not out of the question.
In this case, Netanyahu will have been exposed at his most vulnerable but still have his majority. With so much bad blood in the water, the fifth Netanyahu government will have an extremely short life expectancy.
The second scenario, which seems most likely, is that Netanyahu’s plan to dissolve the newly elected 21st Knesset, already in full motion, works. By law, if Netanyahu fails to form a coalition by Wednesday night, the president can restart consultations and confer on another lawmaker the opportunity to form a government; dissolving the Knesset and calling a new election is the only way to preempt this. Netanyahu is petrified by the prospect of someone else having the chance at the premiership, for the first time since Tzipi Livni in 2008. But he can’t just call an election. He needs a majority of the Knesset to vote to dissolve itself.
The third scenario is double-failure for Bibi. No majority for a government and no majority to dissolve the Knesset. What are the chances of this? Members of the right-wing and religious parties are still loath to challenge Netanyahu openly. Even Lieberman has said Yisrael Beiteinu will vote in favor of dissolving the Knesset. But the opposition will probably all vote against (though the Arab parties are wavering) and some coalition lawmakers may not be that eager to jeopardize the seats they just won. If an election isn’t immediately called and the mandate goes back to President Reuven Rivlin, all bets are off and new coalition permutations are suddenly conceivable.
Seven weeks ago, Netanyahu proclaimed his fifth election victory. By now it's clear that he hasn’t won. Perhaps no one has. But Lieberman has now blown the race wide open again.