Exactly a year ago this week, Avigdor Lieberman resigned as defense minister and plunged Israel into political limbo. The official reason for his resignation was the government’s policy over Gaza and what he described as Netanyahu’s capitulation toward Hamas.
Almost six months ago, he refused to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition despite endorsing him for prime minister weeks earlier in a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin. His reason that time was the refusal of Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners to pass a law that would increase conscription rates among yeshiva students.
On Wednesday afternoon, with 11 hours left of Benny Gantz’s mandate to form a government, Lieberman announced he would not be joining a minority government led by either the Kahol Lavan leader or Netanyahu. His reason now is that either government would be reliant on “anti-Zionist” ultra-Orthodox or Arab-Israeli parties and ultimately fail.
The real reason behind all of Lieberman’s actions in the past 12 months is that he has decided to end the Netanyahu era. It’s nothing personal. Lieberman has long despised his old boss for what he sees as a lack of ruthlessness and chronic hesitation. But he cooperated with him whenever it was in his political interest.
Lieberman is prepared to be the number two in Israel’s power hierarchy — but only as long as that gives him real power. In his 30 months serving as defense minister (traditionally the second-most powerful position in Israeli politics after prime minister), he reached the conclusion that there is no longer any power beneath Netanyahu. Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has consolidated any meaningful power within his tiny circle of sycophantic advisers, and cabinet ministers are merely extras in the Bibi show.
Lieberman knows he can’t ever win the premiership himself, so in order to have any real power he needs another premier who will be beholden to him. Nothing Netanyahu could offer him — and he basically said at Wednesday’s press conference that he was offered the job of vice prime minister — would be worth anything to him. So for the past year Lieberman has been on a mission to oust Netanyahu. So far, he has succeeded in preventing a new Netanyahu government but failed to remove him from office.
The only alternative to a Netanyahu government right now is a minority Gantz government supported from the outside by the predominantly Arab Joint List. And for Lieberman, who routinely calls Israeli-Arab lawmakers a “fifth column” who “want to destroy Israel from within,” that’s a bridge too far. So he is prepared to consign Israel to an unprecedented third election in the space of 12 months in the hope that Netanyahu’s declining support in the past two elections will continue — especially after the corruption indictments that are expected to be filed against him in the coming days.
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Who knows, maybe there will be a rebellion in Netanyahu’s Likud party during this time. Or after the next election, just enough Likudniks will have defected to either Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu or Kahol Lavan to make an alternative government possible without the Arabs, ultra-Orthodox parties and, most crucially, Netanyahu.
One of the most interesting things about Lieberman’s press conference is that while he repeated his usual slurs about Israeli-Arab politicians, he spent ten times as long trashing the ultra-Orthodox as being “more anti-Zionist” than in the past, even though this untrue. To tar an entire community, he mentioned — three times — this week’s visit to Israel of the Satmar Rebbe, the leader of an obscure and isolated anti-Zionist Hasidic sect.
One thing is clear: Lieberman is sticking to his strategy of trying to drive a wedge between the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox alliance that has kept Netanyahu in power for so long. Attacking the Haredim worked well for him in September’s election, though not quite well enough to send Netanyahu packing. Lieberman is now doubling down on that strategy.
Can anything still change in the next 21 days? For the first time ever, Israel will at midnight enter the period in which there is a free-for-all when any lawmaker can form a government if they get 60 other backers. But there’s absolutely no reason why Netanyahu, Gantz or Lieberman will change their minds now. And if, as expected, the attorney general delivers his verdict on the indictments in this time frame — and there’s no major reduction of the charges against Netanyahu — positions will only harden.
The chances of avoiding an unprecedented third election in a year are now vanishingly slim, and Lieberman has already launched his campaign.