Analysis

Lieberman Is Laying a Trap for Netanyahu

The prime minister has handed his rivals a gift they could never have dreamed of

Illustration: Netanyahu blows Lieberman head like a balloon; Netanyahu and Barak exchange fire.
Amos Biderman

Two months before the election and (nearly) two months since the democratic nightmare started embittering our lives, it’s possible to sum up and say that, overall, Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy is working – only in reverse.

When the campaign got underway, in early July, the prime minister set forth a critical, lifesaving aim at his staff meetings: to lower Avigdor Lieberman, who is out to destroy him, to somewhere below the electoral threshold. All the polls have been showing that no existing party is gaining strength except for one, which will shortly double its representation in the Knesset: Yisrael Beiteinu. With five seats in the outgoing parliament, it is now ensconced at a level of nine or 10 seats, according to the surveys.

Likud’s primary efforts during the past 50 days – to portray Lieberman as a leftist and to gnaw away at his electoral base – is for now yielding fruits only in the garden of the “leftist” from the settlement of Nokdim.

>> Read more: By boycotting Lieberman, the purist left cuts off its nose to spite its face | Opinion ■ Barak, reacting to Epstein reports, looked almost desperate - for good reason | Analysis ■ It's not Peretz, it's Netanyahu | Opinion

There’s no knowing what the next eight weeks will bring, but one thing that’s clear is that Lieberman is stable and solid, and it is quite likely that Balfour Street’s nightmare vision will be realized following the election, with Yisrael Beiteinu and its leader being the deciding factor in the formation of the next coalition. His campaign is simple and effective: Yes to a Jewish state, no to a state of halakha (traditional Jewish law).

Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, the leaders of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, have – unintentionally – become Lieberman’s main campaign assets, and are worth their weight in gold. The revelation of coalition agreements that were signed with various parties (according to political correspondent Michael Shemesh of the Kan public broadcasting network) on the day the last short-lived Knesset was disbanded – according to which the Chief Rabbinate would be given veto power over infrastructure work on Shabbat – may itself be worth a seat for Lieberman.

Netanyahu’s frequent incursions into the Russian public’s living space, such as in Ashkelon, and the video clips in which he explains that Lieberman never did anything for the Russian-speaking community, are an insult to the intelligence of these voters, and a boomerang. They reflect obsessiveness and impulsiveness, certainly not judiciousness and common sense. The effective way to deal with the problem is to ignore it. In the meantime, the premier is only empowering and inflating his adversary. After the election, he’ll find Lieberman in a critical position, and eager for cruel revenge.

On Monday, Netanyahu convened a campaign meeting at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv. He devoted a lot of time to the subject of “Evet” (Lieberman’s nickname). We need to launch an assault on the Russian community, he urged the MKs and ministers. We have to move Knesset seats from Yisrael Beiteinu to Likud. Not a word was said about Kahol Lavan. In the last election, Netanyahu had maintained that it was essential to win back two seats from the soft right that had shifted to the leader of that party, Benny Gantz, because “every seat like that is actually worth two seats – they lose one and we gain one.” This time, zilch. Only Lieberman and more Lieberman. Some Likudniks present concluded that Bibi is not focused and sharp the way he has always been in the past at critical junctures like this. He seemed to be spinning a scenario that’s fundamentally based on hope and wishful thinking.

Internal polls presented at the meeting showed Likud winning 33 seats, tops. The coveted “bloc” isn’t rising to the lucky number, the wellspring of life: 61. The coffers, alas, are full of holes and running low. Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party is out of the equation. Its four seats have scattered every which way, and not a shred of them remains in Likud. Lieberman, as we have seen, is on the rise. The Union of Right-Wing Parties teeters on the edge of the electoral threshold (which requires 3.25 percent of the valid votes cast, meaning four seats). And “Rabbi Rafi” Peretz has succeeded in scaring off secular right-wing voters as well as moderate, enlightened, respectable Orthodox voters, who are disgusted by him and by Smotrich.

Hayamin Hehadash, headed by Naftali Bennett, looks solid at five seats. It’s benefiting from the sweeping revulsion evoked by the Peretz-Smotrich slate, and from the collapse of Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party. But the folks at Balfour Street in Jerusalem are aware that this time, Bennett, if he enters the Knesset, will not dance to their tune. He is not committing to recommending Netanyahu to President Reuven Rivlin as the person who should form the next government; he is also not promising to vote in favor of immunity for Netanyahu if he’s indicted. Bennett will consider and examine his moves as he goes along, according to his worldview, his values and norms.

Benjamin Netanyahu.
AFP

Netanyahu is discovering, and will continue to see, that the people he kicked around as he climbed the ladder are waiting for him with a machete in hand and a new song in their heart as he is on his way down.

Whips and scorpions

Netanyahu grasped the seriousness of his situation among the Russian-speaking electorate on the day the Knesset disbanded and set the date for a new election, in September. Instead of pouncing – sweating, panting and crying “Leftist! Leftist!” – on Lieberman, he should have made a smart move, such as by appointing Zeev Elkin, a veteran immigrant and an experienced political fox, as justice minister, or at least as immigrant absorption minister in place of Yoav Gallant, whose face and name mean less than nothing to the relevant voters.

But no. He chose to promote MK Amir Ohana. “Chose” is a broad term that would collapse in the face of a polygraph. Netanyahu was ordered to do that by his elder son, who manages him with whips and scorpions.

Let’s proceed in the march of folly. Netanyahu has a problem with the religious-Zionist movement. His firing of former ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, and the rash coalition talks he held with former Labor leader Avi Gabbay – before being caught with pants down – stirred unease among certain segments of the national-religious camp. Netanyahu thought that he could overcome all this by appointing Peretz and Smotrich to ministerial posts. He was wrong. The chief beneficiary from all the Rabbi Peretz episodes is Bennett.

Why didn’t Netanyahu appoint Likud’s Tzipi Hotovely, the darling of the national-religious public, as education minister in the current transitional government? Or as communications minister? In previous campaigns he dragged her with him to every yeshiva, pre-army preparatory course and settlement. His polls must have shown that she was more popular among that public than he was.

But no. He appointed David Amsalem, indentured servant and mouthpiece, as the successor to sad clown Ayoub Kara in the Communications Ministry. Amsalem is damaged goods. In the last campaign he was kept out of sight like the Passover seder afikoman that a particularly stingy grandfather hides. This time, needlessly and in total conflict with his and Likud’s vested interest, Netanyahu moved him up to the front ranks.

By the way, Amsalem wasn’t invited to the meeting at Likud headquarters on Monday. His advice has apparently turned out to be useless at present. Present were cabinet ministers Ohana, Gallant, Eli Cohen (a refugee from Kulanu), Yuval Steinitz, Ofir Akunis, together with deputy minister Hotovely and MKs Avi Dichter and David Bitan. And a bunch of advisers and pollsters.

They talked about positive commandments and negative commandments. A halakhic state is the most harmful subject for us, Netanyahu warned. Don’t go near it. Ohana, AKA “the minister of justice,” volunteered his good services: “If it’s necessary to attack the Supreme Court, I’m good at that,” he boasted. Netanyahu shrugged off his remark with a contemptuous gesture. That’s the last thing we need, he scolded him. “We” being the suspect who will become the accused and who may be in need of the Supreme Court’s succor speedily, in our time. To rile Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and her colleagues would be pure idiocy.

Netanyahu spoke about the importance of creating a bloc – about his desire to see two parties to the right of Likud: the hardali (Zionist ultra-Orthodox) Union of Right-Wing Parties and the liberal Hayamin Hehadash, under Bennett and possibly also Shaked. In such a situation, he explained, votes won’t go to waste, no Knesset seat will fall between the cracks. Most of the participants took issue with him. It would be better to have one party to our right, Steinitz and others maintained.

Bitan and Hotovely wondered why the premier was not focusing on increasing Likud’s size.

“We need to get up to 37 seats,” Bitan observed.

“I don’t need 37,” Netanyahu said. “I’ll be able to form a government with 34, 35, if the two parties to our right get into the Knesset.”

The participants were dubious. It didn’t figure, they thought: There are no such numbers. Besides which, everyone agrees that Bennett will make trouble. Some of those present wondered whether Netanyahu has a secret contingency plan – some sort of unconventional rabbit that he’ll pull out of the core of the reactor that will make the earth tremble. Otherwise, where’s the confidence coming from? Has he forgotten what happened six weeks ago?

But Bibi is insistent: the bloc, the bloc, and two parties to our right. Moreover, he added, Itamar Ben-Gvir – from the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party – is an essential element. He must return to Peretz and Smotrich. Bibi’s staff presented a poll showing that Otzma Yehudit would get only 2.5 seats if the election were held today. That’s 100,000 votes down the drain if Ben-Gvir doesn’t go back to the ticket he left so angrily and with a sense of affront.

Avigdor Lieberman.
Emil Salman

Don’t be surprised, someone said to me this week, if we discover one day that the prime minister invites Ben-Gvir to meet with him. After all, what’s the difference between him and Smotrich and Peretz? Just nuances. You have to admit that Ben-Gvir looks more connected to reality than Rabbi Rafi Peretz. It’s all relative in Israeli politics.

Lieberman's plot

This week I asked Avigdor Lieberman about his plans for September 18, assuming that his party indeed sweeps a good amount of Knesset seats and the Likud-rightist-Haredi bloc needs him to cross the 61-seat threshold.

Until we're summoned to the president's office, he said, I will try to get the two largest parties to agree to establish a broad government that includes me but excludes the ultra-Orthodox parties and the radical right. If I succeed, I will recommend that the president task the leader of the biggest party with forming the government. If I fail, I won't recommend anyone for the job. If just one of them agrees, I will recommend him.

Those are the options, according to Lieberman. The devil, or more likely god, is in those few key words: Until we're summoned to the president's office. Netanyahu, who has already established a few governments, is readings this and realizing what sneaky Lieberman is plotting, and is gulping in terror.

Lieberman expects Netanyahu to divorce his natural partners even before they're summoned to the president's office, and to leave his fate in the hands of Kahol Lavan and Yisrael Beiteinu. A month or two after the government is established, he could be indicted. It's clear to all that within this arrangement, there's no way he will be allowed to stay prime minister.

Netanyahu will never accept Lieberman's terms. It would be like cutting off his limbs. It would be easier for Gantz, whose future is brighter, to do. If this becomes the case, will Lieberman recommend Gantz, thus crowning him prime minister? The potential implications are so dramatic and unprecedented, that it's better they remain uncertainties.  

New York stories

We need to resurrect Ehud Barak, some of the participants at Monday’s Likud campaign meeting said. He’s the only one who stirs up emotions in our voters. The only thing Gantz stirs up is a desire to stretch out on the beach with a slice of watermelon and a beer.

Netanyahu heard them and smiled a meaningful smile. The next day, the British tabloid Daily Mail published an exclusive report featuring some paparazzi photos from January 2016 of Barak entering the mansion of billionaire, sex offender and pedophile Jeffrey Epstein in New York, his face covered with something between a hat and a scarf (because it was cold, Barak later explained). According to The Mail, a number of young girls, whose photographs also appeared in the report, arrived at the mansion that same day. The Mail, in its well-known style, noted that Barak is a “married politician.” The hint was not exactly subtle.

Ehud Barak.
Tomer Appelbaum

Barak and Epstein have been business associates and friends for many years. It’s no credit to the former prime minister of Israel that these are his friends, but it also doesn’t make him a partner to Epstein’s repulsive deeds. The New York Jewish celeb is also connected to the Wexner Foundation, which paid Barak $2.3 million for a study he ostensibly carried out for it, but which was never published. Questions about the details of the payment from Wexner and the ties with Epstein are a burden for Democratic Israel, Barak’s new party, making it an unwanted partner at the highly anticipated wedding between Labor and Meretz.

Barak arrived Wednesday at a trendy Tel Aviv club for a previously scheduled “festive” party gathering. But it was neither a celebration nor a joyful feast. It was a self-victimizing and almost desperate event, aimed at thwarting the firestorm that’s threatening to destroy Barak’s effort – clearly his last – to return to the center of the political stage.

As someone who’s known Barak for many years, I would say it’s a safe bet that he would not have taken the risk of participating in an orgy with 20-year-olds. Certainly not in an era when everything appears on Instagram in the blink of an eye. The Mail’s publication of the pictures at this time takes us back to March, to the fabricated stories about Benny Gantz and a supposed complainant who accused him of sexually harassing her in high school, and the lascivious videos that were allegedly on his cellphone, which was hacked by an unknown attacker. Yes, the well-greased machine is still working; the fingerprints are just as clear today, too.

Why is Ehud Barak being picked on? After all, he’s the leader of a party that on a good day gets five seats in the polls and poses no risk to Likud or to the right-wing bloc. One answer was suggested at the Likud strategy meeting: Netanyahu knows that what drives his base is mainly hatred and fear. He’s choosing to slam Barak with all his might to insult him, to squeeze him into a corner and to prevent him, for egotistical reasons, from pulling out before the finish line – the way Tzipi Livni did last time, or the way Barak himself did with his Independence party on the eve of the 2013 election.

Netanyahu’s close circle believes that a humiliated Barak whose honor has been trampled and whose prestige lies bleeding in the town square will not quit. He will continue to the bitter end and will go down like Bennett, taking with him 3 to 3.5 seats from the center-left, in the form of wasted votes.

Barak’s circle prefers a different, more complimentary, explanation. I am the only one, the only one, who is unnerving Bibi in this election, Barak is saying in private conversations. Accordingly, Netanyahu’s trying to draw a moral comparison, which is also totally screwed up, between me (Barak) and the serious suspicions in which he is entangled up to his neck. The story is Epstein? What about Shlomo Filber? Ari Harow? Nir Hefetz? – referring to state’s witnesses who were once Bibi’s true confidants and close loyalists.

Barak has no illusions. He understands how badly these stories hurt him, at his base. The left, he admits, has different criteria from the right. Its leaders are judged rigorously. And that makes his situation today complicated. His feeling is that with us, you don’t need a final judgment to draw conclusions; with us, every tiny aesthetic scratch causes problems. With them, when there are unbearably serious suspicions against people like Bibi or Bitan, they blossom like flowers.

Naturally, Barak has beefs with the media, which is, he claims, helping Netanyahu and his mouthpieces draw that moral comparison between him and the prime minister. The one is a suspect, the other is a suspect, and the details be damned.

At Barak’s Wednesday event, he called on – almost implored – Meretz and Labor to drop everything, to sit with him and begin talking turkey about creating one slate. Without pettiness, he says. I am ready to be No. 1, 2, 3, 7 or 17 on a joint slate. In my view, I am the most effective, experienced and effective, but I am not insisting on being No. 1. We need to get together now and work out the details. If it all ends up with just Labor and Meretz together, that will be a niche party that won’t change anything. Together, the three of us, we can get 18, 20, maybe 22 seats. Kahol Lavan will decrease to 25. But the bloc will grow.

And if that doesn’t happen – and it probably won’t – Barak is promising to see things through until the end. Yes, it’s ego, too, now. And what happened to the campaign he ran in the last election, on behalf of unity of ranks in the camp?

Rafi Peretz.
אוהד צויגנברג

I will explain to the public why there was no unity, who is to blame for the lack of unity, and the public will understand, he says. The public is smart, Barak thinks. And it’s fine with me to be in the next Knesset with five, six seats.

Poster boy

A month after the appointment of the poster boy of the religious-Zionist movement, Rafi Peretz, as education minister, we can safely say this: At best, he’s a passing curiosity who won’t last as a politician; at worst he’s a black stain on the image of the Israeli government, a valuable asset for BDS and for whoever wants to disparage Israel anywhere in the world. A senior minister, a member of the security cabinet, who implicitly supports apartheid in the territories is truly ripe fruit that’s fallen into the hands of Israel’s haters.

And this is the case not only in the global village – the same holds for the local village on the shores of the Mediterranean. Within less than 30 days, Peretz managed to squander any public credit that accompanied him as he took office. He was much lauded at the time: brigadier general, helicopter pilot, IDF chief rabbi, and the person who led students in his pre-army course out of the Gaza Strip during the 2005 withdrawal, without resistance. Applause. Two speeches and one interview later, everyone saw him for who he really is: an extremist hardali who is ignorant, homophobic and above all not too smart, to put it mildly.

His hairsplitting on the issue of sexual conversion therapy proves that he is simply not serious, not a thinker. In a Channel 12 television interview, when asked his opinion about such therapy, he assumed a look of respectfulness: “I think it’s possible, that it’s possible,” he answered. “I am deeply acquainted with the subject of education, and I’ve actually done it in the past.” Later in the interview, in a segment broadcast two days later, he admitted that actually, “I have no understanding of it.” Upon which holy hell broke loose and he had to execute a series of minor tactical retreats, until a still, small voice emanated from his office with the following message: “Conversion therapy is unacceptable and grievous, that is my position and it is unequivocal.”

I never suggested employing conversion therapy, he added, contrary to what he said on Channel 12. Either he lied then or he’s lying now; let the readers judge.

Peretz is the wrong man in the wrong job. The tourism minister or the agriculture minister or the infrastructure minister can perhaps think that the LGBTQ community is in need of reeducation. But it’s unacceptable for the education minister, who’s responsible for tens of thousands of students who are part of that community or will belong to it in the future, to say such a thing. He thoughtlessly described them as sick people, in need of treatment. With utter insensitivity he thrust parents who send their precious children to school every morning, into deep distress.

In the end, it’s not Peretz who is to blame. The person who appointed him is the one to blame. Netanyahu had to know who the guy is, whom he represents, where he’s coming from. Har Hamor Yeshiva in Jerusalem, with which Peretz is associated, is one of the most extreme such institutions in the country. The war being waged by its rabbis against LGBTQ people, single-sex families and universal values of tolerance, openness and liberalism is an essential part of their makeup.

Netanyahu pulled a rabbi out of an ultra-extreme faction and appointed him education minister with a new school year approaching, when the professional staff in that ministry was already up in arms, in a country where the divide between religious and secular was never wider. Is it any wonder the premier had to clean up after him?

With his own hands Netanyahu planted the calamitous seed in the most sensitive ministry in the government. With his own hands he handed his rivals in the upcoming election – most notably Bennett, Lieberman and Yair Lapid – a gift they could never have dreamed of.