Liberman in court 370.
(photo credit: Emil Salman/Pool)
Last week’s local elections might have kicked off the 2013-2014 political
season, but the defining political action of the coming months will be decided
not by ballot box or Knesset vote but rather by the Jerusalem Magistrates Court,
in the case of Yisrael Beytenu leader and would-be foreign minister Avigdor
If the judges find Liberman not guilty of fraud and breach of
trust next week, he will be free to return to the post Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu has deliberately kept vacant for him since the elections. However, if
the judges decide that the former foreign minister is guilty of a crime of moral
turpitude by appointing then-ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben-Aryeh first as
adviser to the foreign minister and later as ambassador to Latvia, in return for
confidential information regarding a police inquiry into him, Liberman will have
to resign from the Knesset and give up any hopes of a ministerial
Such a verdict would remove from frontline politics one of the
most dominant political figures of the past decade and more, and one of the few
people on the Right seen as a viable successor to Netanyahu as the leader of the
national camp. Indeed, Liberman’s malign influence on the past and present
Knesset has been immense: under his domineering leadership, Yisrael Beytenu has
been behind some of the most anti-democratic legislation the Knesset has ever
tried to adopt in its attempts to muzzle Israel’s Arab minority or silence
left-wing opposition to its crude nationalism.
But recently, Liberman’s
image as a political kingmaker and prince-in-waiting has begun to slip. Firstly,
while the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu merged list for the Knesset elections helped
maintain Yisrael Beytenu’s electoral strength, its joint 31 seats fell far short
of the over-40 an over-confident Liberman was predicting before polling
And then last week Liberman suffered a humiliating loss of face in
Jerusalem with the defeat of his mayoral candidate Moshe Leon to incumbent Nir
Barkat. Liberman’s deal with Shas leader Aryeh Deri to push Leon’s candidacy
will go down as one of the most bizarre political partnerships ever forged in
Jerusalem given the total lack of commonality between Yisrael Beytenu’s mainly
Russian-origin, often fiercely secular voters and the Mizrahi haredim who
constitute Shas’s electorate.
However, as far as Liberman and Deri
concerned, Leon’s candidacy was meant to be just a first phase in a grand
political scheme to reshape the current government coalition. Shas is desperate
to get back into government – its whole raison d’etre is to ensure funding for
the unsustainable haredi lifestyle of long-term yeshiva learning and IDF draft
dodging – and watching Finance Minister Yair Lapid tackle these two issues for
the good of wider Israeli public is driving them crazy.
verbal attack on Netanyahu by Ovadia Yosef’s sons when the prime minister paid
them a condolence visit following the rabbi’s death is clear evidence of
Liberman, too, is less than enamored of Lapid. Although the finance
minister is currently languishing in the opinion polls, if Lapid survives the
next year and the economy begins to pick up, he will again become the darling of
the middle classes, just in time for the next election cycle, and will once more
take away votes from centrist Likud and Yisrael Beytenu
Despite Shas branding Russian immigrants as not really Jewish
in the last election campaign, Liberman, assuming the court clears him of
wrongdoing, would much rather sit around the cabinet table with Deri, who
doesn’t threaten his pool of voters, than with Lapid.
POLITICAL future, though, for now belongs in the hands of the court, which is
not the case for the three reelected mayors of Bat Yam, Ramat Hasharon and Upper
Nazareth who also face, or are likely to face, criminal charges. Under the law
as it currently stands, while ministers under indictment have to suspend
themselves from office, the same is not true for city mayors.
the High Court previously ruled that these three officials should be deposed
from office due to the severity of the suspicions against them, it did not bar
them from running for reelection, and the electorate in these municipalities,
amazingly, voted them back in.
Unlike most Knesset members or even
cabinet ministers, mayors of major municipalities have a direct influence on the
daily life of Israeli citizens through the budgets and planning powers they
wield. Even accepting the premise that they must be presumed innocent until
proved guilty, it still beggars belief that people under suspicion of serious
wrongdoing can remain in office.
One of the few ministers who does have
power over our daily life is Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who, rightly, is
now looking to fix this anomaly by promoting governmentsponsored legislation
that would enforce the suspension of any mayor under indictment while requesting
that the courts deal speedily with the matter.
And as the clocks went
back this weekend, it’s fitting to end this column with further praise for Sa’ar
for his ending the farce in which Israel’s summer time ended weeks before it was
With no haredi parties in the coalition to trot out the
spurious arguments that the Yom Kippur fast would be unbearable if conducted
during summer time, one of Sa’ar’s first actions on replacing Shas’s Eli Yishai
as interior minister was to lengthen the period of summer time. This year, we
all enjoyed extra hours of sunlight each day – and nobody suffered more than
usual on Yom Kippur – so thank you Gideon Sa’ar. for literally brightening our
lives.The writer is a former editor-in-chief of
The Jerusalem Post.