Last week Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman dropped a bombshell. “If there isn’t a breakthrough in negotiations between Kahol Lavan and Likud by Yom Kippur, we’ll go into high gear in the work of forming a government and submit our own proposal to the two parties.”
This stopped other politicians in their tracks. What’s he trotting out this time? What rabbit will he be pulling out of his hat? Who does he think he is? After all, his party won all of eight seats in last month’s election, just a bit more than Labor-Gesher, so how does he get to decide what the next government will look like and who will be prime minister?
But Lieberman holds the balance of power in the Knesset. He’s the big winner in the election. He’s an unconventional and unpredictable politician, and that’s what gives him power. He’s a right-winger preventing the formation of a right-wing government, a resident of a West Bank settlement fighting the ultra-Orthodox, the right flank of religious-Zionism and the messianists.
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An ordinary politician would have already cashed in his election achievement for a plum appointment for himself and to fulfill a few campaign promises. After all, politics is the art of the possible – all the more so after Benjamin Netanyahu may have promised Lieberman half the kingdom – a rotating stint as prime minister and the fulfillment of much of his platform on the issue of religion and state. But if such an offer was made, Lieberman turned it down.
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Some people say he refused because he wants more, but that doesn’t make sense. The current political situation in which neither side can form a government is the best possible situation for Lieberman. His price will never go higher.
If that’s the case, what does he really want? He’s not guided by political accomplishments or even a post for himself. He wants something else entirely, something personal. He wants to get rid of the king. He wants Netanyahu to be removed from office, put on trial and sent to prison. Nothing less.
He harbors a deep hatred for Netanyahu, fueled by a massive desire for revenge. Lieberman is the only person in Israeli politics willing to have an eye gouged out if Netanyahu lost both of his. Actually, Lieberman would be willing to lose both eyes. Or to put it another way, he’d commit political suicide with an explosive belt if he was hugging Netanyahu at the time. It’s that intense.
The reasons for this are many. Netanyahu hasn’t kept a number of commitments to Lieberman and has also humiliated the Yisrael Beiteinu leader. The prime minister sought to undermine Lieberman when the latter was defense minister; at the time, Bibi emptied the defense minister’s role of any content.
Most importantly, Netanyahu was a key figure in the launching of a criminal investigation into senior members of Yisrael Beiteinu, which posed the risk that Lieberman himself would ultimately go to jail. That’s something Lieberman will never forgive.
Lieberman achieved what he did in last month’s election by taking a hard line on principles and speaking unequivocally. We in Israel apparently long for a new breed of politician who doesn’t shift direction right after an election.
The oppressed secular majority was looking for a leader to lift it from the gutter – and Lieberman has done that big time. Before the election he talked mostly about legislation on drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students into the army, but since the vote he has broadened his demands.
They now include repealing restrictions on the opening of convenience stores on the Sabbath, permitting public transportation on Shabbat, making it easier to convert to Judaism, crafting legislation on civil unions and requiring that ultra-Orthodox schools teach the core curriculum. These are reasonable demands for a democratic country.
Lieberman picked up new voters from the upper middle class in the greater Tel Aviv area, at the expense of both Likud and Kahol Lavan. In Tel Aviv his party’s support climbed more than three times; in the suburbs of Ra’anana and Givatayim these numbers jumped more than four times and five times respectively.
It’s true that Lieberman isn’t publicly ruling Netanyahu out. He’s also talking about a secular national unity government with the prime minister, but it’s a ploy. He knows that such a government is impossible. After all, Netanyahu is coming to the negotiations with the backing of 55 of the 120 Knesset members with the aim of scuttling any chance of a national unity government.
If anyone in the world understands Lieberman well it’s Netanyahu. They were in cahoots for a good number of years. So when Netanyahu hears the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur on Wednesday, his knees will be shaking not only because his fate is being sealed in heaven but also because of the blow Lieberman is preparing for him here down below.