Israeli politics too often involves things that are hidden from the public, and that’s certainly true with regard to the bewilderingly complex relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his former aide, Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman.
Israelis are used to the political subtext — the winks, the hypocrisy and the doublespeak. Therefore, despite the barrage of official explanations, it was clear to everyone Wednesday night that the real reason for this exceptional political drama couldn’t be the conscription law. The issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox has dogged Israel for decades. If that issue were personified, even it wouldn’t believe it had suddenly been chosen as the excuse for this plot twist.
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Similarly, it was clear to everyone that the 2015 election wasn’t really caused by “subversive” behavior of former ministers Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid that made the government ungovernable, as the ruling Likud party claimed. Nevertheless, that was the reason given to the public, in the absence of any clear evidence to the contrary.
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“Frequent elections aren’t a good thing, but a government that lacks governability, one that has ministers working against it from the inside, is much worse,” Netanyahu claimed at a press conference at the time. “We need to hold snap elections and set up a broad, united, strong government.”
People who said the real reason for that election was the fact that a bill against Sheldon Adelson’s freebie daily Israel Hayom was progressing in the Knesset were accused of exaggerating, indulging in fantasies and even spreading conspiracies.
But, wonder of wonders, Netanyahu himself ultimately admitted that this was the real reason for the move, in response to the police investigation into his attempt to make a deal with a rival daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, by which Yedioth would give Netanyahu favorable coverage in exchange for legislation to harm Israel Hayom. Thus, “Netanyahu is the one who blocked the law to shut down Israel Hayom when he dissolved the Knesset and went to elections” suddenly became the suspect’s official testimony as to why early elections were called.
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A few hours before the midnight deadline for forming a government Wednesday, Likud spokesman Jonathan Urich tweeted, “It’s not conscription and it’s not ‘principles.’ Lieberman wants to destroy Netanyahu. The rest is spin.”
There are many people in the political system who agree. In their view, this is an act of personal vengeance — or, in the more utilitarian version of the theory, it is Lieberman’s attempt to strengthen his position in the race for prime minister after the Netanyahu era ends.
But Lieberman has also insisted that he won’t join any government not headed by Netanyahu. And in light of that refusal, this explanation also seems unsatisfactory.
The Channel 12 commentator Amit Segal likes to claim that politicians’ conduct in Jerusalem is more similar to the Israeli comedy “Polishuk” than it is to the American drama “House of Cards.” That’s sometimes a correct assessment, but not always. For example, it’s not at all true when it comes to Lieberman. You can say a lot of negative things about him (the list is long), but he’s definitely not stupid. Nor is he emotional.
All the commentators who are sure they know the answers to this political drama, both from within the Knesset and outside it, should be sure of one thing only: that they don’t. There is an enormous amount of self-interest, conspiracy and dark intrigues flowing between Netanyahu and Lieberman. Only those two know why Israel is being dragged into another election whirlpool. And neither of them has a clean record when it comes to transparency.