Avigdor Lieberman has been a member of centrist and center-right coalitions in the past. As long as he felt he was on the way to achieving his goals, it never bothered him. The reason he gave on Monday for his decision not to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government – that coalition would not be “national” enough – is ridiculous. Unless Isaac Herzog joins at the last minute, Netanyahu's fourth government will be one of the most right-wing in Israel’s history. His decision is unsurprising nevertheless.
Those who saw and spoke with Lieberman last week remarked that he seemed listless, even depressed. Even getting Netanyahu to promise that he would hold the Foreign Ministry portfolio for him – an impressive achievement, given that Yisrael Beiteinu plummeted to just six Knesset seats – failed to buoy his spirits. As the first coalition agreements were signed and the pieces began to fall into place, a government without Lieberman all of a sudden seemed not just a possibility but altogether likely.
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Only two years ago, Lieberman appeared to be on the verge of achieving his ambition of becoming Netanyahu’s heir-apparent. At the helm of the third-largest party in the Knesset, he had allied himself with Likud in a joint list as Netanyahu’s number two; and with Ehud Barak gone, he was now the responsible adult in cabinet. But, almost as soon as the previous government was sworn in, things began going wrong. Likud members rebelled at the prospect of an official merger between the two parties; Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid monopolized the new government’s agenda; and then Netanyahu stopped taking him into his confidence.
Lieberman tried to prove his political omnipotence by fielding a hand-picked candidate for Jerusalem mayor, pushing him by proxies through the city’s Likud branch. Netanyahu, however, fought back, lending his tacit support to incumbent Nir Barkat and Lieberman’s man, Moshe Leon, failed to get elected. He planned revenge, refusing to allow Netanyahu to replace the fired Lapid and Tzipi Livni with his ultra-Orthodox allies, forcing early election. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, he plotted with Moshe Kahlon and his old ally Arye Dery to deny Netanyahu a coalition after the election. But following Likud’s surprising success in March, his co-plotters told him there was no choice but to go ahead with Bibi.
That was after the election result had gone very badly for Lieberman and his party, making two conclusions very clear. The large Russian-speaking community is now much less likely to vote for Yisrael Beiteinu just because Lieberman and some of his flunkies speak their language. And non-Russian right-wingers are no longer certain whether Lieberman is the strong leader they have been looking for to replace Bibi.
In the space of 18 months, he went from being the second-most powerful man in Israel to almost an irrelevancy.
Why did Lieberman fail so spectacularly?
For a start, he may have been the most intelligent and ruthless player in a cast of would-be heirs to Netanyahu, but the rule remains: Bibi is not going to anoint a successor. He never has and probably never will. Any politician who aspired to replace him has so far learnt that, to his or her detriment.
Secondly, he took his constituency for granted and suffered a massive abandonment by “his” Russian voters. Particularly the younger members of that community, who see themselves as full Israelis and fail to see why they should vote for a “sectorial” party.
Thirdly, even though he was promised to keep hold of the Foreign Ministry, it had become abundantly clear that there was no way he would be controlling Israel’s foreign policy. That is currently run by the Prime Minister’s Office and the security establishment in tandem. Under Lieberman, Israel’s professional diplomatic corps has been demoralized and sidelined. The last sphere of influence he retained – the relationship with the Kremlin – has lost a lot of its importance, with Vladimir Putin gradually becoming an international pariah and the patron of Iran and Syria. Last month it was announced that Israel, like other Western countries, would not be sending a minister to represent it at the May 9 parade in Moscow commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. This was a poignant reminder of how Lieberman as a foreign minister is now irrelevant to Israel’s international dealings. He certainly wouldn’t have been Netanyahu’s point-man in trying to rebuild trust with the international community in general and the White House in particular. That role is now waiting for Herzog and Lieberman was not prepared to be a place-holder until the Labor leader comes around.
Lieberman is out of the government and if he resigns now from the Knesset to concentrate on his private and allegedly murky business dealings abroad, no-one will be surprised. He did that once before when left out of the cabinet. But even if this is the end of his political career, his legacy is still around. It can be found in the unabashed racism now pervading the right-wing, in the contempt for the rule of law, for the Supreme Court and in the blatant opportunism which was the hallmark of his style of politics and which won’t be leaving any time soon.