Analysis

Poker-faced Lieberman Reshuffles the Political Deck, if Only for the Thrills

The wily kingmaker’s ultimatums stymie Gantz and Netanyahu – but could also inflame Jewish-Arab tensions

Avigdor Lieberman outside of a hotel hosting coalition talks between Kahol Lavan and Likud on November 6, 2019.
Moti Milrod

One thing was crystal clear from the moment Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Friday that Naftali Bennett would be given the coveted post of defense minister: It was only a matter of a short time before Avigdor Lieberman would rain on Bennett’s parade, steal back the limelight and delightedly torment Netanyahu once again.

Lieberman quashed the media buzz about how Netanyahu’s supposedly brilliant ploy of appointing Bennett retook control of the national agenda and shored up his right-wing bloc in order to prevent Benny Gantz from setting up a government. Twenty-four hours later, Lieberman went on TV and made Bennett seem irrelevant and Netanyahu look like a political novice by comparison.

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Lieberman’s dual ultimatum to Netanyahu and Gantz to swallow bitter political pills and thus enable the establishment of a broad-based “unity” government, or else face his parliamentary wrath, galvanized the political arena.  His demand that Netanyahu abandon his Fortress Bibi right-religious bloc, and that Gantz enrage his voters by agreeing to serve in a government headed by a Netanyahu ostensibly obligated to vacate his post if and when indicted, jolted the hitherto paralyzed efforts to set up a new government. Suddenly, and supposedly, it was a whole new ballgame.

As he has since his decision in April to bolt Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc and crown himself the new kingmaker of Israeli politics, Lieberman once again showed his incisive political instincts and proved his penchant for taking high-risk gambles. Like any polished professional, he maintained an inscrutable poker face and kept everyone – from Netanyahu and Gantz to pundits and mavens – guessing about his true intentions.

But given that Lieberman is viewed by the right as a traitor to the cause and in large swaths of the center left as a rabid racist temporarily wrapped in a moderate’s clothing, both sides assumed the worst. Netanyahu, who is convinced, with good reason, that Lieberman is out for his head, accused the former defense minister of conniving with the left and the Joint List to set up a “dangerous” government, as he put it.

The prime minister’s perpetual paranoia carried the day. Netanyahu is convinced that any hint of willingness on his part to dismantle his right-wing bloc could be exploited by Lieberman and Gantz to entice its jilted non-Likud parties to join them. Given that Netanyahu does not believe for a moment that Lieberman’s sudden conversion into an anti-religious fanatic is genuine, he has no doubt that his former protégé would then rush to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox members of his bloc for the chance to precipitate his fall.  So Netanyahu deployed his trusty weapon of inciting against Arabs instead.

It is a sign of the infinite irony of Israeli politics, of course, that an anti-Arab firebrand such as Lieberman finds himself accused by his former political mentor of collaborating with them. There is nothing funny, however, about Netanyahu’s escalating efforts to taint any political cooperation with the Joint List as tantamount to treason.

On the very day that he tried to disown any responsibility for fostering the atmosphere of hate that led to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Netanyahu was inflaming the right with visions of Lieberman conspiring with leftists and Arabs to sell Israel down the river.

Netanyahu’s efforts to undermine Lieberman by inciting against Arabs is disturbing enough even if nothing comes of the talk of a potential center-left minority coalition. It will turn uglier and more threatening if, as expected, Netanyahu and his followers fan the flames of division and ethnic strife in any upcoming election campaign.

And it is downright terrifying to think how an agitated right might react to a leftist government supported on the outside by the Joint List, before or after new elections. Carried to its logical conclusions, Netanyahu’s fire-alarm exhortations could ignite masses of his inflamed fans to break with democracy and resort to violence instead – for the sake of Israel’s future, of course.

Gantz and his colleagues were more circumspect in their reaction to Lieberman’s ultimatum, but no less apprehensive. Many of them privately suspect that Lieberman’s maneuvers are ultimately aimed at making the most of the high price that Netanyahu is allegedly willing to pay him to join his government and, more importantly, give the prime minister the immunity from prosecution for which he is yearning.

The center-left, needless to say, would be crushed: Lieberman will have snatched Gantz’s perceived victory in the recent September election and replaced it with a nightmarish radical-right coalition that could arguably be more extreme than its nationalist, ethnocentric, Bibi-worshipping predecessor.

There is a fundamental flaw in the center-left’s paranoia, however, even if one adopts its skeptical attitude to Lieberman’s pledge not to join a narrow religious-right coalition: Lieberman’s ultimatum is easier for Gantz to accept than it is for Netanyahu. Gantz has a reasonable chance of persuading his more reluctant colleagues, led by Yair Lapid, that accepting Lieberman’s demands will ultimately call Netanyahu’s bluff, drive a final wedge between the prime minister and his former protégé and pave the way for a temporary minority government that would see Netanyahu removed from both the Prime Minister’s Office and the political arena.

That scenario, for its part, is predicated on an assumption that most people find hard to accept: That Lieberman can be persuaded, under any circumstances, to allow the establishment of a minority government comprised of Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, Labor and the leftist Democratic Camp and supported by the Joint List from the outside. In his previous persona, at least, Lieberman would have swiftly condemned such a coalition as an anti-Zionist, terror-loving, treacherous leftist cabal.

The numbers suggest that after Netanyahu neutralized the real or perceived threat that Bennett and his three-member Hayamin Hehadash faction would defect to Gantz’s camp, and given the probability that only 10 of the Joint List’s 13 members would vote for such a government in the first place, Lieberman no longer enjoys the luxury of simply abstaining. Without his affirmative vote, which would break known records for flip-flopping, the prospective minority coalition’s 54 supporters would be outnumbered by Netanyahu’s bloc of 55.

Thus, despite the element of high drama that Lieberman has injected into the coalition deadlock, its resolution remains unclear and prospects for new elections remain high. If they were up to it, Netanyahu and Gantz could conclude a national unity coalition agreement within a day, with or without Lieberman, but the mutual distrust between them as well as their lack of confidence in Lieberman’s ultimate intentions seem too formidable to be overcome in the four weeks left before the Knesset automatically disperses itself and heads for a new ballot.

Many Lieberman watchers are convinced that he doesn’t know what his end game is, either. Lieberman, they say, enjoys playing the indispensable kingmaker. He revels in his newfound popularity in the media. He luxuriates in torturing Netanyahu on the right and in placating many of his former critics on the left.

Lieberman believes he can only gain from playing the role of principled anti-religious crusader, on the one hand, and of indispensable national matchmaker on the other. Lieberman plays the game ruthlessly for the thrill of it, whether he has cards in his hands or not, the cynics believe.

In this case, however, the mastermind may have outfoxed himself as well. His ultimatums could soon boomerang back at him. By issuing them, Lieberman may have cornered himself: If his efforts to bring together Gantz and Netanyahu fail, Lieberman will be under pressure to make good on his threat to join forces with whichever party rejected his demands.

By doing do, he will renege on his main campaign pledge not to join a narrow government, no matter what its stripes. He will have to decide between his perennial enemies, leftists and Arabs, or his newfound foes, Netanyahu and the religious right.

It the kind of conundrum that might terrify mere mortal politicians, but one that Lieberman probably finds so stimulating that he keeps on coming back for more. Unlike most politicians, but like many addicted gamblers, Lieberman has reached the stage where winning or losing is less important than the thrill of the game.