For one of the few times in the history of his party, Yisrael Beitenu, Avigdor Lieberman is going into the Opposition. He has turned down Bibi Netanyahu’s offer of the foreign ministry to retreat to the back benches. He claims that the Likud-led government will lack principle and refuse to destroy Hamas, among other charges.
If you know anything about Israeli politics, you know that political parties do NOT forfeit such political plums when they’re in their grasp. I’m certain there is another reason for his refusal, though I’m not certain what it is.
Whatever the reason, the former Moldovan bar bouncer has left his former mentor and patron in a quandary. Without his party the ruling coalition will only have 61 seats, a precarious majority. Bibi will have to recruit another party to replace Yisrael Beitenu. But post-election negotiations are a cross between a mating frenzy and piranha attack. If a negotiating partner smells blood in the water, agreements tend to evaporate, demands go sky high and everything in thrown into a tumult. Which may be precisely what Lieberman wants.
The problem is, Bibi has almost no time left to make new deals. His negotiating window was already extended once by Pres. Rivlin. This could mean Netanyahu will lead an exceedingly precarious government which could fall at the slightest breeze wafted by any of the coalition members.
Other reasons Lieberman may’ve balked: he is a devout secularist and has spoken out against including religious parties in previous coalitions. This one is certain to have at least two Orthodox parties (one Ashkenazi and the other Mizrahi). Perhaps Lieberman was refused a grant of immunity for his MKs and party members enveloped in a major corruption scandal. Or the chemistry between Bibi and Yvet had simply become too poisoned.
This theory may be borne out in this searing, slashing attack released by the prime minister’s office and reported by Voice of Israel radio:
A senior Likud source responds to foreign minister Lieberman’s attack on Prime Minister Netanyahu saying that the chair of Yisrael Beitenu is the last person to be teaching lessons about opportunism, since he is the greatest of opportunists…That’s why he’s now sabotaging the current political process in favor of a leftist government led by Herzog.
The source accused Lieberman of serving foreign interests both inside Israel and abroad [a reference to his ‘close ties’ to Russia] in contrast to his promise to his supporters that he would support the creation of a “national” [i.e. nationalist] government.
This is a fascinating charge against Lieberman that never seems to go away. A few years ago I reported on an anonymous flyer disseminated in Jerusalem explicitly charging him with being a Russian asset. Haaretz has also reported the Shin Bet refused to give Lieberman full briefings on matters related to Russia for fear that he would relay them to his contacts there.
There’s also innuendo appearing to claim that Russia wants a leftist governing coalition and the Lieberman is doing that country’s bidding in withdrawing support for Netanyahu. The only other way to describe this is that it accuses Lieberman of doing the bidding of the U.S. in conniving to bring a Labor government to power. But the notion that Lieberman’s in the pocket of the Obama administration seems far-fetched. But note that didn’t stop Netanyahu on Election Day from claiming the Labor Party had collaborated with “foreign money” to bring Communists and Arabs to power to the country.
The level of paranoia in this statement is characteristic of Bibi’s governing style. It’s almost Shakespearean in proportions (think Lady Macbeth). The only difference is that presumably Bibi won’t conspire to murder his rivals as she did.
The next question is who is rewarded with the foreign ministry. It doesn’t appear there are any parties needing to be wooed with a juicy plum. So the portfolio could go to a Likud loyalist.
At any rate, Lieberman is out and it changes the dynamics of Israeli politics going forward. As I’ve written here, the biggest losers in the election were Lieberman, Yair Lapid, and Naftali Bennet, whose party representations fell by half or more. The biggest winner was Moshe Kahlon, founder of the new party, Kulanu. Kahlon has a powerful mandate for economic reform in response to the calls for social justice from the Tel Aviv Occupy movement known as J14.
Personally, I don’t believe Kahlon can or will engineer such major reforms. The prerogatives of Israel’s 18 oligarchal families are too entrenched. Netanyahu always maneuvers to frustrate the agendas of his internal rivals. Plus, Israel is a society designed for stasis, nor revolutionary change.
But if Kahlon dies manage to succeed, he is Bibi’s logical successor for leadership of the Likud when he retires from politics. Kahlon projects a softer, more pragmatic image than Bibi, at least on social and economic issues. This could mean a Likud that moderates its tone (rather than substance) somewhat.
Here is Yossi Verter’s analysis of the current political predicament in Haaretz (Hebrew).