Analysis: Bibi's Gamble

Netanyahu’s double play in appointing an extremist defense minister may mobilize and unify the center, left, and soft-right against him.

June 4, 2016 06:41
PM Netanyahu

PM Netanyahu. (photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/POOL)

ON THE face of it, in choosing Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman over the Zionist Union’s Yitzhak Herzog as his new coalition partner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has strengthened his position as leader of a uniformly right-wing government with enough seats in the Knesset to carry out its hardline ideology.

But his sharp turn to the right, just when it seemed he was about to form a more moderate peace-seeking coalition with Herzog, could rebound.

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The governing pendulum has swung so sharply to the right on a host of issues, including war and peace, racist trends in Israeli society, the rule of law and Israel’s international standing, that concerned citizens across the political spectrum will be desperate to oust the current Netanyahu-Liberman regime.

The tough-talking Liberman’s appointment as defense minister, which has sent shock waves across Israeli society, could prove to be a catalyst for the emergence of a strong, unified challenge from the left, the center and the soft right. And in this new, highly focused political orientation, the man Netanyahu ousted as defense minister to make way for Liberman, the highly regarded Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon, could be a key player.

The current coalitionary tango started with Herzog in early March.

For close to a year, he had been working for a major regional peacemaking breakthrough. Early on he enlisted the help of the international Quartet’s (US, EU, UN and Russia) special Middle East envoy Tony Blair. Together they were able to get moderate Sunni Arab leaders and the Palestinian Authority (PA) on board.

In parallel the French planned an international summit with strong regional representation. Crucially, the US came in on both initiatives, which, if they gained traction, could ultimately be unified.

According to Herzog, a new generation of young Arab leaders was ready to provide an umbrella for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and to commit to full normalization with Israel if it were achieved.

Netanyahu was in the loop. But it was clear that with his narrow 61-member right-tending coalition he would not be able to explore the new peace vista. With the Zionist Union as a coalition partner it would be a very different story.

By early March both Herzog and Netanyahu were ready to cut a national unity coalition deal – Herzog to explore the peace prospects from an official government position, Netanyahu to put an end to Likud backbenchers holding him to ransom by exploiting his knife-edge Knesset majority of two. Besides the diplomatic flexibility, the 24-Knesset member Zionist Union or even just a substantial part of its Labor wing in the coalition would nullify the troublemakers and make for far more stable government.

For Netanyahu, Herzog’s eagerness to join the government was a godsend. Not only would they be able to maneuver on the diplomatic front, they would also be able to push through a batch of important new legislation, much of it currently stuck in the pipeline, partly because of coalition indiscipline.

TO HERZOG, Netanyahu insisted that he was determined to advance the two-state solution with the Palestinians. To his close Likud confidants, he said he needed Herzog to help contain the coming diplomatic tsunami – the French initiative in the summer, UN moves in September and a possible late peace bid from US President Barack Obama free from political constraints after the US presidential election in November.

In mid-May, in an attempt to help seal the deal and create a new framework for peace talks, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made an extraordinary appeal to the Israeli people urging unity and emphasizing the new possibilities for a wide-ranging Middle Eastern peace.

Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel had opened an important new chapter in Middle Eastern history, he declared.

But the current chances for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, if taken, would open an even greater one. Egypt, he said, was prepared to play a role in a process that would give the Palestinians hope for statehood and the Israelis a sense of security.

Both Netanyahu and Herzog welcomed al-Sisi’s statement.

And a day later US Secretary of State John Kerry, on a previously scheduled visit to Cairo, discussed America’s role in the new regional approach.

By then Netanyahu and Herzog were on the verge of closure on a coalition deal. According to Herzog, it would include immediate resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians, an Israeli initiative for a regional peace conference, a renewed commitment from Netanyahu to the two-state solution, and, to underline Israel’s seriousness, a veto to Herzog on building in the territories.

Zionist Union/Labor would also get five ministries, including foreign affairs for Herzog with defense to come in a year, authority to redraft the controversial natural gas framework, a veto on perceived antidemocratic legislation and input on a new socioeconomic plan.

But then seemingly without warning Netanyahu turned his back on Herzog. He told him he couldn’t give a commitment to the two-state solution in writing, because if he did he would lose the support of Naftali Bennett’s far right settler Bayit Yehudi party.

Before Herzog had had time to blink, the prime minister was deep in coalition negotiations with Liberman, from the opposite side of the political spectrum. If a coalition agreement with Herzog would have signaled Israeli readiness for major peace moves, the deal with the hard-line Yisrael Beytenu leader suggested militancy and rejectionism.

IT WAS a slap in the face for all the wouldbe peacemakers; al-Sisi was said to be livid, the Americans and the French aghast, and the Palestinians threatened to renew their efforts to internationalize the conflict by appealing to institutions like the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Rather than countering the diplomatic tsunami Netanyahu fears, bringing Liberman in is likely to make it more effective.

Indeed, the Netanyahu-Liberman alliance could prove to be a watershed moment in Israel’s international isolation.

So why did Netanyahu do it? For one, he was under tremendous pressure from Likud hard-liners who were against the alliance with Herzog all along because of its diplomatic implications. Netanyahu also believes it will be easier to retain crucial right-wing support with Liberman relatively compliant in the coalition, rather than constantly sniping at him from outside. He also reportedly extracted a promise from Liberman to support him as prime minister after the next election.

More importantly, Netanyahu, at bottom, is opposed to the two-state solution and probably feels relieved at not having to go along with Herzog’s diplomatic initiative, which, if successful, could have put him on the spot.

But Netanyahu’s readiness to form coalitions with either end of the political spectrum, and pursue diametrically opposed policies, smacks of rampant opportunism. The message to the public that he is ready to do anything to stay in power, never mind the implications for the country, could come back to haunt him.

As for Liberman, his game is to build himself up as the more credible leader of the Israeli right and to succeed Netanyahu. He will use the defense portfolio to establish himself as a potential national leader and to belittle Netanyahu wherever possible.

Liberman’s views do not bode well for a peaceful future or for Israeli democracy. He once threatened bombing Egypt’s Aswan dam; he has proposed reconquering Gaza and toppling Hamas; he says Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh should be given 48 hours to return the bodies of Israeli soldiers held in Gaza or face assassination; he recently appeared in court in solidarity with Israeli soldier Elor Azaria who shot a prone and already incapacitated Palestinian terrorist dead – contrary to the views of outgoing defense minister Ya’alon and the IDF top brass who saw the shooting as a gross and immoral violation of IDF rules of engagement.

This raises the question of what impact Liberman as defense minister may have on the rules of engagement, and whether this crucial moral and professional issue could lead to an open clash with the general staff.

Liberman takes a strongly anti-Arab line and has pushed for discriminatory laws against the Arab minority in Israel. He also insists that peace with the Palestinians will not be possible for at least a generation.

As foreign minister (2009-2012 and 2013- 2015), he was persona non grata in Egypt, and did not handle ties with the US.

How will his appointment affect relations with Egypt and the rest of the Arab world? Who will deal with the US on the huge military aid package Israel seeks for the 10-year period from 2018-2028? Liberman’s critics contend that he is unqualified for the defense portfolio, whereas former chief of staff Ya’alon, the man he replaces, was considered one of Israel’s best-ever defense ministers.

Indeed, not so long ago, Netanyahu’s own people mocked Liberman’s demand for the defense ministry dismissing him as a soldier who had never led so much as a squad, adding that the only experience he had of bullet balls shrieking past his ears was in playing tennis. He was not even qualified to be a military pundit, they sneered.

Liberman’s public comments on Netanyahu were equally derogatory. The prime minister, he said, was a liar, a cheat and a scoundrel, who deserved a Nobel Prize for political charlatanism.

On top of it all, serious corruption charges against Liberman were controversially dropped by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who argued that he did not have enough hard evidence to win a conviction in court, despite his own damning detailed 52-page catalogue of Liberman’s alleged wrongdoing.

Unless Liberman surprises with the pragmatism he has shown himself capable of, the battle inside the government for pole position on the radical right could spur competition with Netanyahu and Bennett, leading Israel into bad decisions and dark places.

On the other side of the new coalition equation, Herzog finds himself under pressure to resign as party leader or at least to call an early leadership primary. He succeeded in creating a new opening for peace, but ultimately was made to look ridiculous, with hugely damaging consequences to public perceptions of his leadership and of the party he leads.

Party rivals argue that he was either desperate or naïve to believe he could get anywhere with Netanyahu. Either way, they say, for the good of the party and the effort to oust the radical right-wing government he must go. Prominent among those out to replace him are former party leaders Shelly Yachimovich and Amir Peretz, and relative newcomer, hi-tech multi-millionaire Erel Margalit. Once the primary date is set, others may come forward.

Herzog made the mistake of not confiding in party leaders over the coalition talks with Netanyahu. As a result, they were sharply critical, without really knowing what was at stake. The clashes, particularly between him and Yachimovich, were highly charged and personal, with the resultant bad blood now splitting the party in two.

LABOR’S WEAKNESS in the face of the perceived threat posed to Israel’s democracy and its future by the new government has sparked calls for the creation of a large new unified political center for national salvation.

It would challenge the government over the most fundamental of all issues – the kind of Israel they want to see: democratic and peace-seeking as opposed to rampantly nationalistic, trampling on democratic values and closing potential avenues to peace.

One of the key players in the political center is Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, leader of Kulanu. With his 10 Knesset seats, he holds the balance of power. For now he is in government but has made it clear that his continued support is dependent on the new coalition “acting responsibly and respecting the rule of law.”

He could pull the plug at any time. To preempt that, Netanyahu appointed Kulanu’s Yoav Galant, a former nominee for chief of staff, to the cabinet. Still, Kahlon is said to be close to key centrist players outside the government and could topple Netanyahu as soon as they are ready to mount a challenge.

Among the people and parties mentioned as potential leaders in a new centrist block are Kahlon’s Kulanu, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Zionist Union, former Likud cabinet minister Gidon Sa’ar, former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and now Ya’alon. Former prime minister Ehud Barak signaled readiness to play a part too when in a feisty TV appearance he accused the government of showing signs of fascism and Netanyahu of doing very little to counter them. Indeed, others accuse Netanyahu of actually pandering to the extremists to win votes.

The game-changer could be Ya’alon. In backing the IDF top brass against Netanyahu in two recent cases relevant to the extremism discourse, Ya’alon won kudos across the political spectrum. In the case of the shooting of the wounded Palestinian terrorist, he backed the army’s unequivocal criticism of the soldier Azaria’s action. Netanyahu initially concurred, but when he saw the flood of social media support for Azaria, he telephoned the soldier’s father in an act of solidarity.

Ya’alon also defended Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan’s expression of concern over fascist trends in Israeli society and encouraged the generals to speak their minds despite Netanyahu’s stern censure.

In his resignation speech, Ya’alon said dangerous men had gained control of the country and that, after a break from politics, he would return to challenge for the national leadership. Widely respected for his competence and integrity, he could well prove to be the leader the large unified centrist bloc has been looking for.

Livni, who called Liberman’s appointment “a moral crisis,” has been working for several months on the establishment of just such a bloc as a vehicle to topple Netanyahu.

Similar efforts in the past faltered over the choice of a leader – with none of the existing party bosses ready to give way. Now Livni is proposing that the leader be chosen in a popular primary open to all ready to register in support of the big idea.

Ironically, Netanyahu’s choice of Liberman may turn out to be the wake-up call the center needed to get its act together.

The late National Religious Party leader Yosef Burg used to quip that “when we come to that bridge we’ll double-cross it.” For Netanyahu, Liberman’s appointment may prove a bridge too far and a double cross too many.

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