Opinion

It All Comes Down to Lieberman

File photo: Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman at the launch of his party's 2019 election campaign, January 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

There hasn’t been a single unity government or an attempted union to which I haven't objected. In 1996 I thought Shimon Peres should stay out of what became Benjamin Netanyahu's first coalition government. In 1999 I opposed the idea of Ehud Barak inviting Likud to join his government. In 2011 I thought that it would be an enormous mistake for Peres and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to join Ariel Sharon’s government, as well. In 2009 I was against Tzipi Livni joining Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and in 2016 I wrote against an attempt by Isaac Herzog to join a Netanyahu-led government.

So this is the first time I’m supporting this idea.

After the last election I was one of those who said: Let the right govern without excuses; let’s see them do it. They aren’t going to annex the territories and they won’t cancel the Oslo Accords. Let them not have some miserable centrist politician serving as an excuse for their inability to implement their ideology. But while there was no annexation, it’s not certain that I was right. I was assuming that no government headed by Netanyahu would make progress on the diplomatic front, so there was no point in providing him with a fig leaf, as Barak did between 2009 and 2013 and Yair Lapid and Livni did in subsequent coalitions. I thought, how much damage could the right do?

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Aside from that, I argued, there has to be some value to a politician's commitment during a campaign not to invite a rival to join their government. One can present an alternative only while sitting in the opposition. The fact is that Likud has never been a part of any unity government that it didn’t head at one point or another.

This time it’s different, because the potential damage that the right can do is real and significant. Perhaps even annexation, but certainly immunity for Netanyahu, a Supreme Court override clause, or a court that no longer has judicial review over legislation; an effort to castrate the Public Broadcasting Corporation and laws that will undermine the media in general. The Betzalel Smotriches and the Yariv Levins have lots of other far-reaching ideas that bank on the fact that Netanyahu has long since dropped any pretense of maintaining any eye contact with the other camp, and there is no moderating voice in his likely coalition.

The public didn’t choose unity. And yes, there is value to promises made by Netanyahu and Benny Gantz-Lapid not to join each other's governments. The only unity government Gantz and Lapid should consider joining is one without Netanyahu’s “natural partners.” A government that would implement a civic agenda, avoid annexation and not offer Netanyahu immunity from prosecution. In essence, a government that serves only until the attorney general makes a decision on whether to indict the prime minister. Since Kahol Lavan would quit if Netanyahu were indicted, he could replace that party with his “natural partners.” It’s a risky, but plausible scenario.

Only Avigdor Lieberman can force the formation of such a government. Obviously Netanyahu will oppose this, as will the rest of Likud, but without Lieberman Netanyahu won't have a government. From Lieberman’s perspective it would be a smart political move. A civic-oriented unity government, without the ultra-Orthodox or the radical right, would provide him with justification for not taking the defense portfolio. He knows better than anyone that he doesn’t really have a way to defeat Hamas. Only in the context of a unity government can he argue that as a noble gesture he agreed to yield the portfolio to Gantz. Moreover, a unity government with a civic agenda would allow him to deliver on some of the promises he keeps making to his voters, like civil unions, a conversion law, and public transportation on Shabbat in the largely secular cities.

The chances of such a unity government being formed are slim. Lieberman has signaled from Vienna he’s not interested; he would prefer to extort a merger with Likud to help build his own political future. Nevertheless, such a unity option seems to me the only initiative that could slow (albeit not halt), the crazy appetite of the deep right.

I must admit that my support for this type of government stems not only from a fear of what the right might do, but from a feeling there is no near-term prospect for a center-left candidate to get elected. What would be the point, then, of building an alternative in the opposition?