Opinion

Lieberman, the Left’s New Messiah

Lieberman at a Yisrael Beiteinu party meeting at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, July 5, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

The latest polls likely don’t tell us what the next Knesset will really look like, but they do tell us one thing: Avigdor Lieberman can no longer be counted among Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “natural partners,” but rather as, Nehemia Shtrasler recently put it (Haaretz, July 9), as “the Kingslayer.” This places him in optimal position for extortion, and in our amnesiac times, that is more than enough to crown him as the center-left camp’s next messiah.

A guy like Lieberman is not about to waste such an opportunity. The man who for 30 years sat in coalitions together with Likud and ultra-Orthodox parties suddenly fears a state ruled by Jewish religious law; the man who, as defense minister, who threatened to withdraw funding from the Eli premilitary academy and then backed off, with his tail between his legs, is suddenly likening such religious-Zionist institutions to the Phalange. Give him some poll numbers and he’ll suddenly discover the occupation.

>> Read more: Not the Palestinians, the economy or even Netanyahu: Election will test Israel's Jewish character | Analysis ■ Lieberman the Kingslayer wants payback | Opinion 

Lieberman may have decided that the Netanyahu era is over and that he will be the one to give the final twist of the knife. That would be a fitting end to a Shakespeare play, but what we’ve got here is an Israeli tragedy — that is, a farce. It’s not inconceivable that at the last moment, he’ll take the Knesset seats he’s gained from the leftist anyone-but-Bibi and anything-but-Shas voters, recommend Netanyahu for prime minister and enter his government with greater bargaining power.

Lieberman succeeded in doing what Netanyahu is now trying to do – to avoid facing the law. He did so with the help of a different feeble attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, who dragged out making a decision on his case for years. But Netanyahu’s cases don’t involve things like witnesses who died under mysterious circumstances, police intelligence and an ambassador in Belarus who gave him intelligence about the case being built against him.

“One witness disappeared, another committed suicide – apparently with two gunshots, over his mother’s grave. There were all kinds of very peculiar incidents in this case. The whole time we felt there was someone one step ahead of us,” Avia Alef, the prosecutor who oversaw the state’s case against Lieberman, told Haaretz reporters Gidi Weitz and Revital Hovel. She said they feared electronic surveillance and had indications that they were being followed.

Lieberman is also the one who perfected the incitement methods against Arab Israelis. He built himself up on the “No loyalty, no citizenship” slogan and on the idea of transferring Arab Israeli citizens to the Palestinian Authority, and Israeli politics is still trying to adjust to the high electoral threshold – his previous attempt to eliminate the Arab parties.

Lieberman was the previous decade’s Bezalel Smotrich. Since then, a new racist demagogue had been popping up every day it seems. It’s hard to stand out when this is the case, so it makes perfect sense that Lieberman has chosen to shift to a less competitive market. His new voters have stopped being overly bothered by his racism and the putrid cloud of corruption that hangs over him. Our threshold for getting worked up has changed, as has what passes for normal. It’s hard to fear Lieberman when we’ve grown accustomed to Kahanists. It’s hard to remember those affairs in light of all the affairs we have today.

Another Netanyahu term is apparently all that stands between us and the final Erdoganization of Israeli democracy. Trump shows Netanyahu nearly the same affection that he shows for Kim Jong Un, and with a blank check from the White House, the extreme right is unabashedly calling for the annexation of the territories.

These are good reasons to grasp at any straw. Shtrasler is right that “the time has come for us to stop being the followers of the Gur rebbe and the pawns of Bezalel Smotrich.” And it’s clear why a character like Lieberman could appeal to some.

But Lieberman was and remains one of the shadiest and contemptible individuals in Israeli politics, and his belated legitimization only goes to show just how low we have sunk, and how the standards we set for leadership here are completely in tatters.