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The Man Who Saved Netanyahu

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Avigdor Lieberman after a meeting with Kahol Lavan's negotiation team, Ramat Gan, November 6, 2019.
Avigdor Lieberman after a meeting with Kahol Lavan's negotiation team, Ramat Gan, November 6, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demonstrated amazing survival skills. Three indictments, three election campaigns, no coalition and no budget, yet he is still at the country’s helm and isn’t going anywhere. There’s no doubt that the premier is a talented, experienced politician, but even the strongest, most sophisticated, most cunning leader needs someone to save him when he’s in distress – even Netanyahu, the “king,” the “magician.”

Fortunately for Netanyahu, he has someone like that at the heart of the political arena. His name is Avigdor Lieberman. That’s right, the same guy seen as his bitter rival, who dismantled his rightist-Haredi coalition more than a year ago and who prevented him from setting up a new government, is the one who is keeping the prime minister in his chair.

Lieberman could have replaced the tenants in the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street by supporting a coalition headed by Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz. But he refused, Gantz returned his mandate to form a government on November 20, and the chance for regime change disappeared.

Lieberman has been fascinating journalists for many years. They describe him as a “strongman” with nerves of steel, a wily politician who reads Netanyahu like an MRI machine and knows how to pressure him where it hurts. What hasn’t been said about him? That he’s unpredictable, that only he knows what he’s aiming for, that he has some incredible political intelligence between his ears. His enemies in the media also use superlatives, only in the negative. They portray him as an exceedingly corrupt man who managed to evade trial and who serves unknown alien interests.

All these descriptions are exaggerated. Lieberman is a talented politician who on his own steam achieved such high positions as foreign minister and defense minister, only to discover that those limousines were empty, because in a Netanyahu government there’s only one person who makes decisions: Netanyahu. You don’t need perfect maths to understand that Netanyahu favors the ultra-Orthodox, whose electoral power is twice that of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.

Lieberman was therefore justified in refusing to join the right-religious “bloc” as an ornament. One can’t threaten to bring down the government forever, and someone who starts as kingmaker can end up a pathetic footnote, as happened to Moshe Kahlon.

Lieberman bet correctly when he backed the dissolution of Knesset after the April election; he enlarged his faction in September and broadened his support from Ashdod and Carmiel to Ramat Hasharon and Herzliya. And then he got the chance of his life to replace Netanyahu with Gantz. But this tie-breaker would have obligated Lieberman to join the left-wing bloc, which includes the Joint List, a party that Lieberman had described as a fifth column of terror-supporting traitors.

Netanyahu zeroed in on this weak point, and his propaganda campaign focused on highlighting the expected link between Lieberman, Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi. At that moment Lieberman blinked, folded his cards and left Netanyahu in his seat until further notice.

One could praise Lieberman for keeping his word about only joining a unity government. Look at this, a trustworthy politician – as his former slogan said, “A promise is a promise.” Still, at the moment of truth it emerged that he wasn’t strong enough to bring down Netanyahu; that in the duel between them, Bibi drew first blood and won. Now all of Lieberman’s tweets and attacks on Netanyahu – that he’s concerned solely with himself and his immunity and couldn’t care less about the country – sound like the boy who lost a brawl and from a safe distance shouts back, “I’ll get you yet! My father’s a policeman!”

A pity.

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