Love him or loathe him, Avigdor Lieberman is the man of the hour and, at this rate, the leading candidate for man of the year as well. All by himself, with no allies and against all odds, Lieberman blocked Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid for a new right-wing government, precipitated a new election, reinvented himself as a fearless warrior against religious coercion and messianic nationalism, reshuffled the petrified divisions between left and right, and gave hope, out of nowhere, for a political upheaval in the September 17 election.
Lieberman’s insistence on the draft law, which seeks to regulate the recruitment of ultra-Orthodox Jews to the army, as a condition for entering Netanyahu’s coalition was viewed by most observers as a tactical ploy: He wouldn’t dare derail a right-wing government, they said. When this projection was proven wrong, the same prognosticators said that Lieberman may be garnering kudos from the left, but his right-wing constituency will punish him in the polls. For now, at least, these predictions are well off the mark too.
Lieberman’s willingness to defy conventions, stare down Netanyahu without blinking, and abandon his assured and comfy spot in the next cabinet solidified his image as a strong-willed leader who fears no one and takes no prisoners. His extreme makeover as a knight in shining armor against religious coercion, despite his past collaboration with ultra-Orthodox parties, fills the void left by Yair Lapid, whose alliance with Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan has compelled him to tone down his anti-religious rhetoric.
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And recent obnoxious statements by Education Minister Rafi Peretz on “conversion therapy” for members of the LGBTQ community, which infuriated Israelis across the political spectrum, proved that Lieberman is also endowed with the characteristic Napoleon cherished most in his generals: Pure luck.
According to the latest polls, Lieberman is not only set to increase and possibly double the size of his Yisrael Beiteinu party in the next Knesset — without him there is no government, period, neither left nor right. In his reactions to Peretz’s statements, Lieberman vowed to personally prevent the establishment of another coalition between Netanyahu and fanatics, whether religious or ultra-nationalist. He will insist on a broad unity government that includes both Likud and Kahol Lavan. If he leaves his ambitions unchecked, he may even demand the prime ministership for himself.
Lieberman, of course, can’t escape his past. He has a long record of arguably racist statements against Arabs, along with criminal X-files, which were investigated extensively but mysteriously failed to yield indictments. Many on the left view Lieberman as an untouchable abomination; they are prodding their allies on the center-left to condemn and boycott him from here to eternity. They personify the expression “cutting off one’s nose in order to spite one’s face.”
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Because with all due ill-respect to Lieberman’s problematic past, there is a nagging reality to contend with. It is in Lieberman’s hands whether Netanyahu’s ethnocentric, antidemocratic rampage continues unabated; whether religious and nationalist zealots expand their control of state institutions and public discourse; whether the sane center-left will gain a foothold in the next government and, in an extreme case of a Likud meltdown, if the full and sweet dream of Netanyahu’s opponents comes true and the next government won’t include either him or his party.
Those who maintain that all of the above don’t merit the ideological flexibility needed to collaborate with Lieberman apparently prefer catastrophe, as long as their consciences stay squeaky clean.
Lieberman’s past should not be concealed, but a blanket boycott on the former defense minister is akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In this regard, the center-left can learn from their hated rivals on the right, for whom the end of seizing power justifies all available means.
To paraphrase Peretz, when confronted with the need to merge his Habayit Hayehudi party with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit: “When our house is burning, I don’t interrogate someone who is helping to put out the fire.”