Liberman and Netanyahu 370.
(photo credit:Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
In making an electoral pact with Avigdor Liberman’s far right Yisrael Beiteinu,
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking a huge, possibly game-changing
The neo-conservative Likud leader’s gamble could boomerang in two
ways: Instead of Likud-Beiteinu throwing the center-left into disarray, it could
reinvigorate it; and the price for using Liberman to maximize Likudcontrolled
Knesset seats could be Liberman using the Likud to supplant Netanyahu as leader
of the Israeli right. To put it bluntly: What the prime minister took on board
as an election-winning master stroke could turn out to be a major political
In the run-up to the January 22 election, American political
guru Arthur Finkelstein, who once worked with Netanyahu but now advises
Liberman, convinced the prime minister that as head of a large right-wing
alliance he would be able to kill two birds with one stone. He would be sure to
form the next administration and get a mandate for strong, decisive government,
including possible action against Iran, digging in on the Palestinian question
and changing the electoral system. But Finkelstein now works for Liberman. And
where for Netanyahu the pact has risks, for Liberman it is all win-win. It gives
the radical right-winger an added measure of mainstream legitimacy and a
launching pad for a future run for prime minister.
On paper the deal
looks promising for Netanyahu, too. But it lays him open to a strong challenge
from the center left for making a pact with the radical right that could put
Israel’s brittle democracy at risk, further hurt the weaker classes and strain
relations with the outside world.
Worse for Netanyahu: The pact with the
secular, largely Russian immigrant party jeopardizes the support of observant,
blue-collar Sephardi voters, who make up the Likud’s core constituency. Indeed,
Netanyahu could suffer a double whammy from his erstwhile strategic ally, the
ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas, which will almost certainly pick up disaffected
blue-collar Likud voters and might also prefer a coalition with the center left
to a government dominated by Netanyahu’s neo-con economics and Liberman’s
Russian-immigrant, secular agenda.
There is also the question of
Liberman’s leadership aspirations. There are historical precedents for radical
right-wing movements sweeping to power on the backs of the more conservative
right. And, although for now the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance is only an
electoral pact, the Likud, with its heady brew of far-right Knesset members and
“Feiglinites,” the extremist settler group led by Moshe Feiglin, could be ready
So why did the normally circumspect Netanyahu agree to
gamble? Initially, he was concerned by rumors that the 89-year-old Shimon Peres
was being cajoled into leaving the presidency to lead a unified center-left
“stop Bibi” campaign. Then the talk was that former prime minister Ehud Olmert
would do it. Netanyahu’s move is designed to minimize the electoral impact of
either scenario by creating the perception of an invincible unified right. He
also hopes the Likud-Beiteinu alliance will enable him to win the election as
head of by far and away the largest party, denying the president any discretion
in deciding who should form the next government.
Netanyahu is banking on the pact with Liberman to ensure that the right-wing
block has a majority of more than 60 Knesset members backing him for prime
minister. He remembers how after the last election in 2009, the Yisrael Beiteinu
leader made him sweat. Then Liberman won 15 seats, leaving him the kingmaker. He
made the most of it, first holding preliminary coalition talks with Kadima’s Tzipi Livni and then going underground. When he
re-emerged a few days later, he was easily able to extract the Foreign Ministry
from a severely shaken Netanyahu in return for his support.
also knows Liberman is a close friend of Olmert’s and that he admires the former
prime minister’s decisive leadership style. Netanyahu feared that this time the
Yisrael Beiteinu leader might not merely bluff about supporting the center-left
to get a better coalition deal, but that he might actually join the rival camp,
especially if its candidate for prime minister is Olmert. The electoral pact
prevents that. The coalitionary horse-trading is already done and dusted. In
return for supporting Netanyahu for prime minister, Liberman has been promised
the choice of any one of the three top portfolios: foreign affairs, defense or
But there is a potential snag. By making a formal alliance with
Liberman, Netanyahu could undermine the Likud’s unwritten bond with Shas,
carefully nurtured over several years of painstaking negotiations with former
Shas chairman, Eli Yishai.
Indeed, for Shas leaders, the pact with
Yisrael Beiteinu is something of a betrayal.
The Russian immigrant party
is in many ways their polar opposite. Where Shas is ultra-Orthodox and Sephardi,
Yisrael Beiteinu is ultra-secular and Ashkenazi, with a constituency that tends
to look down on Shas’s Sephardi voters, and an agenda that undermines their
vision of a state based on Jewish religious values and social
Moreover, Shas leaders have not always been Netanyahu fans.
Their spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef once called him a “blind nanny goat,”
deriding his tight-fisted running of the Finance Ministry. Furthermore, the
return of the relatively moderate Arye Deri as part of a new collective
leadership could also loosen the Likud’s lock on coalition rights with
Indeed, despite their fiercely right-wing electorate, Shas leaders
have been dropping broad hints that the party intends to play both sides of the
right-left divide. An early sign of this came in mid-October, when in a radio
interview former Shas spokesman Yitzhak Sudri surprised his audience by
declaring categorically that all the party’s Knesset members would back peace
moves with the Palestinians, if Yosef told them they should.
member of Shas’s election strategy team, argues that by merging with Yisrael
Beiteinu, the Likud has sacrificed two key defining characteristics: concern for
the Sephardi poor and reverence for traditional Jewish values. He insists that,
as a result, it could lose large numbers of observant Sephardi voters to Shas,
especially in the development towns. He speaks of a huge reservoir of voters on
the edge of the political space between Likud and Shas and predicts that many of
them will come back to vote Shas the way they did in 1999, when it won 17
Knesset seats. “There is a widely perceived need for a large Shas precisely to
prevent the anti-Jewish identity and antisocial welfare trends in
Likud-Beiteinu,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
According to Sudri, even
before the Likud- Beiteinu alliance, Shas was looking at 13-14 seats, up from
its current 11. Now he says the figure is 16-17. If these projections hold, Shas
will almost certainly be the kingmakers next January. And Sudri warns that they
will not support a government that promotes Liberman’s secularizing agenda:
civil marriage, public transport on the Sabbath and more lenient conversions to
Judaism, all of which they see as undermining the Jewish character of the state.
“Obviously our hearts are with Netanyahu. He is our natural ally. But not
at any price. Shas is an independent movement. It’s not in anybody’s pocket,”
The brief “Kahlon affair” in the second half of October
seemed to indicate just how vulnerable Likud-Beiteinu might be to a rival
right-wing party with a credible socioeconomic program favoring working and middle voters. Polls showed that
Moshe Kahlon, the popular Communications Minister, who drastically reduced cell
phone costs, could have won between 13 and 20 seats had he decided to leave the
Likud and run at the head of a new social welfareoriented list.
strategist Eyal Ariel, one of a group of close confidants who urged Kahlon to
run, maintains that he could have revolutionized socioeconomic thinking in
Israel and achieved social reforms the left “can only dream of.” Ariel, however,
insists that in their initial polling most of Kahlon’s support came from the
center-left, and less than 30 percent from the Likud. “I don’t think traditional
Likud voters have that many options. They won’t go to the left. Those who are
ready to consider an ultra-Orthodox party have already made their move. Some
might look at what is happening with the mainly Orthodox-settler Habayit
Hayehudi party under its new leader Naftali Bennet. It might take some seats
from the Likud,” he tells The Report.
Most analysts are less
sanguine. They see three types of Likud voter having difficulty
stomaching the merger with Liberman: Observant and blue collar voters who could
leave for Shas or the revived Habayit Hayehudi; socially concerned voters who
might support Shas or the center-left; and moderates anxious over Israeli
democracy and relations with the Arab world who could cross over to the
center-left. Indeed, some early polls were not as flattering as Likud leaders
hoped, showing the combined Likud- Beiteinu list winning only 35 seats, less
than the 42 seats they hold separately in the current Knesset.
also a degree of unrest in Yisrael Beiteinu. Support for the mainly Russian
immigrant party generally comes from three roughly equal but distinct
constituencies: Veteran Israelis who share Liberman’s radical ultra-nationalist
ideology; Russian-speaking immigrants who share this ideology; and Russian
speakers seeking a voice for their sectarian community needs.
to Roman Bronfman, a former Knesset Member and expert on Russianspeaker voting
patterns, the pact with Likud has reinforced support from the first two groups,
but significantly weakened that of the third. He reckons around two Russian
immigrant seats have shifted to Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid, and about half
a seat each to leftwing Meretz and Communist Hadash. More importantly, Bronfman
says ideas are being floated about forming a new centrist Russian immigrant
party to pick up the slack. He says he doesn’t think he personally will run, but
points out that he has a registered party, the Democratic Choice, which he would
be ready to make available if needed. “Initial polling results have been
positive. And if the decision is to run, it could be as a separate party or as
part of a new unified centrist grouping,” he tells The Report.
the outcome of the election will probably be decided by the degree to which the
center left can get its act together. Their platform more or less writes itself.
Kadima is already excoriating Netanyahu for an “obsession” that will drive him
to attack Iran against American wishes and before other alternatives are
properly explored; Labor will target his “cruel capitalism”; Meretz and the Arab
parties Liberman’s threat to the rule of law and minority rights; Olmert and
former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, if they run, the threat the
Netanyahu-Liberman duo pose to the two-state solution and to Israel’s
They will point to Palestinian Authority
President Mahmoud Abbas’s recent moderate statements on the key negotiating
issues of borders and refugees, and could also be helped by a reelected US
President Barack Obama putting an Israeli-Palestinian package on the table the
center left can build on.
The problem for the center left is whether it
can produce a leader the public perceives as a potential prime minister. That’s
what it did in 1999 with Ehud Barak. This time though Labor leader Shelly
Yacimovich and Yesh Atid’s Lapid have yet to convince that they are ripe for the
top job; Olmert and Livni are both flawed candidates, Olmert because of his
legal troubles, Livni because of past political failures; and Peres is 89 years
old. But if over the next several weeks one these potential candidates fires the
public imagination, and the others unite around him or her, the election could
get very interesting.
Besides the leadership issue, there is another
potential game-changer: The Israeli- Arab vote. In 2009, the Israeli-Arab
turnout was only 52 percent compared to the 65 percent national average. This
time, after a string of anti-Arab Yisrael Beiteinu-led and Likud-backed
legislative initiatives in the outgoing Knesset, the Arabs have a strong stop
There is also talk of the three mainly Arab
parties running a single unified list.
The most popular candidate to lead
it is 53-year-old Ahmad Tibi of Ra’am-Ta’al, but he says he would be ready to
step aside for the sake of unity. If there is a single list and the Israeli
Arabs vote their weight, they could win around 20 seats. And that could change
the balance between right and left in Israel in favor of the
Netanyahu and Liberman go back to the late 1980s. They worked
closely together from the time Netanyahu returned to Israel from his stint as UN
ambassador in 1988, through Netanyahu’s rise to Likud leader in 1993 and prime
minister three years later, until 1998, when Liberman resigned as director
general of the Prime Minister’s Office over concessions Netanyahu made to the
Palestinians and his backtracking on plans to cancel all-party primaries for
choosing Likud Knesset candidates.
In January 1999, Liberman formed
Yisrael Beiteinu, leading it in an increasingly extremist direction, talking
about bombing Egypt’s Aswan Dam, claiming menacingly that “only Liberman
understands Arabic,” and introducing anti-Arab and anti-left-wing NGO
legislation in the last Knesset.
Bottom line: Despite all the commotion
on the center left, Netanyahu-Liberman are, for now, still on course to win the
election. The questions this raises for Israel’s future are profound. Where will
they take the country if they win? Who will be leading whom? And will the center
left find the energy and the political smarts to stop them?