Opinion

For the Moment, Avigdor Lieberman Is the Unlikely Antihero Who Can Save Israel From Itself

He is no fan of the Supreme Court or rule of law — but his delight in tormenting Netanyahu could salvage them both

File photo: Then-Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is seen during his visit at an army drill in the Golan Heights, Israel, August 7, 2018.
Amir Cohen / Reuters

Since he entered public life almost three decades ago, Avigdor Lieberman has been cast, with some justification, as the super-villain of Israeli politics. He is often portrayed as extreme, outspoken, incendiary and corrupt, and he comes equipped with all the traits required for his sinister role: cunning, cynicism, ruthlessness and infinite patience. The center-left views Lieberman as an Israeli version of rabid nationalists such as France’s Marine Le Pen or Russia’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

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Lieberman’s complex and arguably symbiotic ties with Benjamin Netanyahu, in which love morphed into hate and admiration was supplanted by disdain, are worthy of a dark Russian novel. When Netanyahu was making his first steps in politics after his successful tenure as Israel’s UN ambassador in the 1980s, Lieberman served as his aide, valet and even personal driver. He was rewarded with plum appointments, first in Likud and then the Prime Minister’s Office, which he converted into a springboard for his independent political career.

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Lieberman was Netanyahu’s right-hand man, his go-to fixer. He nurtured Netanyahu’s friends and eliminated his enemies. He became intimately aware of Netanyahu’s talents, but also — more than any man alive — of his faults and frailties. He knows exactly what makes Netanyahu tick.

Once the results of the April 9 election became known, it was clear that Lieberman was going to provide the center-left with a dose of cold comfort and schadenfreude that might sweeten its stinging defeat ever so slightly. The conventional wisdom held — and still holds — that Lieberman would delight Netanyahu’s opponents by tormenting the prime minister and keeping him in suspense until the very last minute, at which point he would relent and give his benefactor-rival the majority he needs to form a new government.

The past 48 hours, however, have sparked new doubts: Perhaps Lieberman is serious this time, commentators said. Lieberman sounded resolute in his Knesset briefing on Monday, they hedged, but he is also in constant contact with Netanyahu. Lieberman keeps his cards so close to his chest, skeptics might say, that sometimes even he can’t make them out.

As befits an enigmatic politician who is always suspected of harboring ulterior motives, Lieberman’s conduct demands an explanation and elicits speculation. He wants to depose Netanyahu, Likud officials said. He has a secret alliance with Yair Lapid, they insinuated. He wants to be seen as a valiant fighter against the ultra-Orthodox and an unflinching protector of secular rights, analysts noted, in order to curry favor with his Russian-born constituency. He has come to the conclusion that with Netanyahu around, he will always be a pawn, but at 60 Lieberman still dreams of being anointed king.

The last thing one can suspect Lieberman of is harboring any sympathy for the Supreme Court, the rule of law or the protection of minority rights, but history is laughing at his expense. Whatever his motives, the future of Israel now depends on Lieberman’s next moves. He can ensure Netanyahu’s continued rule, as expected, or he can bring about his removal from politics and thus save Israeli democracy from self-destruction. In one feel swoop, he can change from villain to hero.

Irony itself would have a fit: The immigrant from Moldova, who will always be seen by many Israelis as an outsider, and who started in Israel as an airport porter and barroom bouncer; the politician who inspires fear and loathing, and is often described as Israel’s Stalin or Rasputin.

The rabble-rouser who has championed the wholesale transfer of Palestinians from Israeli sovereignty, routinely describes Arab lawmakers as bent on Israel’s destruction, portrays leftist NGOs as supporters of terror and demands an oath of loyalty as a prerequisite for citizenship and civil rights — he, of all people, could emerge as a one-man “defensive shield” of liberal democracy, as the antihero who saved Israel from itself. The Joker, if you will, becomes Batman.

In all of his august positions, including foreign and defense minister, Lieberman has failed to leave a significant mark on Israeli history. Now he faces a moment, at least theoretically, in which he can earn a prominent and rightful place in the national pantheon and in the history of Zionism. Lieberman would be the first to admit that, under such circumstances, nothing could be more absurd.