Analysis: Is Israel ready for a Prime Minister Liberman?

The next coalition could be cobbled together by Herzog, Liberman, Kahlon, or Lapid. Anything's possible.

December 14, 2014 12:56
4 minute read.
Avigdor Liberman

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman addresses the media in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Benjamin Netanyahu’s attack on Avigdor Liberman on Saturday evening just hours after the foreign minister’s appearance at a town hall meeting in Tel Aviv showed the extent to which the prime minister’s nerves are frayed.

As the moderator of the meeting who interviewed Liberman that day, I can say that the foreign minister came across as moderate, calm, reserved and measured in his words, which were devoid of any hint of slander or score-settling. He elegantly sidestepped questions about Netanyahu’s conduct, instead letting it be known that he respects the prime minister and the work they have done together these past years. Liberman made brief mention of disagreements between the two men during Operation Protective Edge.

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So why did Netanyahu react so harshly on Saturday evening? Because Liberman articulated what everyone in the Israeli political establishment already knows – the days of “Right” against “Left” are long gone. The voting blocs have disintegrated. Their shelf life has expired. Now, everyone wants to be in the Center.

Any political alliance is possible. Any combination of parties is conceivable.

Liberman can run alongside Yair Lapid; Moshe Kahlon can form an alliance with Liberman. Everyone is talking to everyone. There is no peace treaty awaiting anyone’s signature anytime soon.

The peace plan recently put forward by Liberman (which is based on the principles he outlined more than a decade ago) are not that far from those talked about by Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog, which are quite similar to what Lapid believes – which isn’t that distant from Kahlon’s ideas. It should be noted that Kahlon gave Netanyahu his complete backing before the Bar-Ilan University speech in which the premier publicly supported the two-state solution.

What separates Liberman from Netanyahu? Liberman believes he could adequately manage the affairs of the state without losing the United States. Bibi has already lost America, because of his connections to Sheldon Adelson.

This won’t happen to Liberman.

Once, there were political blocs of Left versus Right. Now, we have personality-driven blocs. If Netanyahu doesn’t lead Likud to the most Knesset seats in this election and, as a result, is not tapped by the president to form the next coalition, the next government could be formed without him.

The next coalition could be cobbled together by Herzog, Liberman, Kahlon or Lapid (on condition that in the next few months there is a détente between him and the ultra-Orthodox).

Anything’s possible.

Netanyahu is on edge, and justifiably so. He knows very well that almost all of the political players on the scene can’t stand him. There’s nothing more to add about his relationship with Lapid. He chased Kahlon away from Likud after doing almost everything in his power to trip him up and get in his way simply because Kahlon was a minister who dared succeed at his job.

Liberman has less esteem for Netanyahu than anyone because Liberman knows Netanyahu better than anyone. What about Herzog and Livni? They’ll be happy to have Netanyahu in their government so long as he accepts a junior position.

During his town hall appearance at the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv on Saturday, Liberman endeared himself to the audience.

The 2014 edition of Liberman is much calmer and sanguine than the Russian Cossack we have come to know these past two decades. He received applause when he gave his usual speech about Israeli Arabs needing to choose which side they are loyal to. He came away surprised by the fact that these rounds of applause were heard from an audience in the heart of Tel Aviv, a place where few bothered to vote for him during the last election.

Liberman’s sales pitch is an interesting one. It seems as if he has grown enamored of his new-found role as the responsible adult. He has undergone a transformation from neighborhood bully who strikes fear into the heart of the Middle East while setting diplomatic fires in Europe and the United States, to the one who preaches moderation and claims a readiness to give up territory and negotiate with the entire Arab world, even while he hits hard at MKs Haneen Zoabi and Ahmed Tibi.

He talks about conquering Gaza and “going all the way” or not going in at all. He’s in favor of initiating and decision-making while opposed to foot-dragging and bleeding slowly. During the crisis in relations with the US, Liberman is the moderating factor.

The Americans have high hopes for him. As of today, officials in Washington speak reverentially of him. If they could, they would gladly trade him for Netanyahu, who has managed to drag ties with the White House down to an unprecedented low.

So why has Liberman thus far refused to declare himself a legitimate candidate for the premiership? Perhaps because he believes Israel is not ready for it.

Voters cast their ballots for Liberman out of protest. They want the neighborhood bully to teach the Arabs a lesson, but without Messianic fervor or inciting rabbis.

Liberman is sneaking up on the Prime Minister’s Office rather than taking it by storm. He will replace a large chunk of his party’s slate in an attempt to infuse new blood. He will try to win more than the 10 seats the polls are predicting, all in an attempt to become the most significant political player on the day after the elections.

How significant? We will only know once we cross that bridge.

One possible scenario is Liberman becoming prime minister in a rotation-style arrangement in place of Livni. By gradually slipping into the prime minister’s chair, Liberman can slowly condition the public to get accustomed to the idea of him gaining the highest office in the land. That’s not something that could be imposed on the Israeli public in one fell swoop.

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