Whether With Netanyahu or Likud's Right Wing, Lieberman's Path Is Paved

Acquitted of fraud, Israel's Avigdor Lieberman has a chance to make a revolution. The question is who he takes with him.

Yoel Marcus
Yoel Marcus
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Yoel Marcus
Yoel Marcus

Soon after Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister for the first time, I had an off-the-record conversation with him in which he promised that his policies would surprise even Haaretz's editorial board. Near the end of the meeting he asked me "Have you met Yvet?" Yvet is the nickname of Avigdor Lieberman, then the director general of the Prime Minister's Office.

When Bibi brought me into Lieberman's room, Lieberman got up and shook my hand. We remained standing across from each other even after Netanyahu left. After a few minutes standing in embarrassed silence, we muttered a few polite words.

Even though I knew he had studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, his deep voice, black beard and my knowledge of his past as a bouncer were enough. I left his room while muttering politely. Because of this start, or to be more precise, because of my poor relationship with Bibi, I've never met Yvet again.

As time passed, Lieberman won special political status. After all, he was someone who represented Russian immigrants, supporters of a Greater Israel and proponents of the view that Arabs must be dealt with by force. He created questionable connections with Austrian businessman Martin Schlaff, whose name was linked to all sorts of investments and donations to the right wing. In the end, Lieberman became a legendary power on the right.

A veteran Knesset member described Lieberman as an all-powerful figure. He could fell the government with his modest 11 MKs. He could clip Bibi's wings. Twice he left the government and returned.

With his extreme views and blunt language he served as foreign minister - the least appropriate position for him - like a bull in a china shop when Israel's position was most fragile. Many people thought that in such a difficult period of international isolation it was preferable to have the Foreign Ministry without a minister than with a minister mired in dubious dealings.

For 17 years the State Prosecutor's Office has been jerking Lieberman around, first with accusations about business deals and transfers of millions in the name of his daughter or driver, but the investigators' efforts came to nothing. He and his people said the prosecution had set him up. Regardless, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein made a mistake when he took revenge on Lieberman with a minor case about the appointment of a minor official as a crony ambassador - someone had apparently done him a favor.

Lieberman's judgment day turned into judgment day for the State Prosecutor's Office. This isn't the first time the prosecution has taken it easy on someone, and it's not the first time it has gone after a politician. So this office needs a fundamental self-examination.

The unambiguous verdict opened the way for Lieberman's immediate return to the Foreign Ministry - if he wants to. Amid the shock after the verdict, opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich said Lieberman was corrupt anyway. How would she have responded if somebody had talked about her that way? Unlike Yacimovich, President Shimon Peres congratulated Lieberman and invited him to renew their weekly meetings. Not only Lieberman but also Peres believes the court, thank God.

Lieberman's return to the Foreign Ministry won't cause an earthquake, but it will strengthen - it appears - Netanyahu's uncompromising position. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will need to find time for Lieberman in his schedule of meetings. Yvet won't run against Bibi; at least not at this stage. He'll even boost him on the Iranian issue.

The question facing Lieberman will be Yisrael Beiteinu's future in the government. Will it stick with its partnership with Likud, or will it join forces with Likud's extreme wing? Actually, it really isn't important if Lieberman returns to the cabinet stronger than before as Bibi's partner. In beating the legal system once again with its own weapons, his path is now paved - perhaps even to becoming prime minister.

If only Haim Yavin were still a television anchorman, he could have repeated his historic opening line: "Gentlemen, a revolution."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Credit: Reuters

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