Editor's Notes: Avigdor Liberman wants to show the real Right

The Yisrael Beytenu head sits down with ‘The Post’ for an exclusive interview to talk about what happened in the coalition talks with Likud, and his plans for September 17.

June 7, 2019 12:44
Avigdor Liberman, chairman of Yisrael Beytenu in conversation with the Jerusalem Post

Avigdor Liberman, chairman of Yisrael Beytenu in conversation with the Jerusalem Post. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

On April 15, Avigdor Liberman convened his first faction meeting after the last election. It was just a few days before Passover, and the party was holding a toast at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. Liberman was determined and unequivocal.

“If we are forced to choose between giving up on the haredi draft law to remain in the coalition, or sitting in the opposition, we will go to new elections,” Liberman said at the time.

The next day, members of his party went to the President’s Residence and recommended that Benjamin Netanyahu receive the mandate from Reuven Rivlin to form the new government, taking the Likud leader above the 60-seat mark. Again, the party was clear.

“We said in the campaign that we will support a right-wing government, and we think that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the person to head it,” newly elected MK Yevgeny Suba told Rivlin at the time. “But it doesn’t mean we will join it. We have already said that.”

None of this should have come as a surprise. During the election campaign, the party repeatedly made two commitments: that it would support Netanyahu’s candidacy to form the next government, and that it would insist that the haredi draft bill be passed into law without any changes.

How it all ended is known: Netanyahu tried to broker a compromise between Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox parties in the two weeks running up to his deadline on May 29 but he failed. Finding himself with no alternative, he dispersed the 21st Knesset and took Israel to a second election in the same year for the first time in its history. He also found a scapegoat to blame: Liberman, who the prime minister accused of joining hands with the Left in an attempt to bring him down.

I met Liberman this week to hear his version of the events – what really happened with Netanyahu, what he predicts the results will be in the upcoming election on September 17, and whether there is a chance Liberman will recommend Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz the next time he meets with the president.

Liberman is a skilled and shrewd politician, but also something of an enigma in Israel. He lives in the settlement of Nokdim, but at the same time he approved Palestinian construction in Area C when he was defense minister. He says he wants a right-wing government, but in the end refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition.

Liberman pushed back on the Likud’s claim that he used the draft bill as an excuse to bring down Netanyahu. “It was in the center of Yisrael Beytenu’s campaign from the beginning,” he said during the exclusive interview from the party’s headquarters in Jerusalem. “Everything was clear in the campaign, after and now. We have a commitment to our voters.”

Even if that were the case, almost everyone was sure that Liberman would compromise in the end and join the coalition. A number of senior politicians assured me in the week running up to the May 29 deadline that Liberman would give in. They were all wrong.

According to Liberman though, it had nothing to do with Netanyahu, but was rather a simple matter of a being a politician who says what he means and means what he says. Instead, he believes that Netanyahu had decided early on in the post-election negotiations that he didn’t want Liberman in his new government, and that it was actually the prime minister who used the draft bill as his excuse to keep out Yisrael Beytenu.

To back up this claim, Liberman says his party never held coalition negotiations with anyone except Netanyahu, neither outside Likud nor within the Likud Party. In addition, even when the talks with Likud were failing, he still ordered his party to support Matanyahu Englman, Netanyahu’s candidate for state comptroller, who won the post this week.

“What we saw was that even though we were straight with them, from day one Netanyahu tried to hold talks behind our backs and tried to break away members from Blue and White and then [Labor Party Chairman] Avi Gabbay,” Liberman said, claiming that Likud even tried to peel away members of his own party.

Gabbay, he said, feared that Netanyahu was just interested in bringing Labor into the coalition to only throw the party out a few months later and replace it with Yisrael Beytenu. Netanyahu told Gabbay to film him promising that wouldn’t happen, and that he could not wait to “sever his relationship with Liberman.”

“These are the facts,” Liberman said. “He didn’t want me from the beginning since I am not a ‘yes man.’ I have opinions, and I am not willing to just cave in and surrender.”

LIBERMAN AND Netanyahu go back more than two decades. In 1996, when Netanyahu was first elected prime minister, Liberman was at his side, serving as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office. That lasted a year, and by 1999 Liberman had founded Yisrael Beytenu, a party that was focused on the million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The party, which initially won just four seats, garnered 15 seats in the 2009 election, making him Netanyahu’s key coalition partner, Israel’s foreign minister, and subsequently defense minister, a post he resigned in November due to disagreements over the right strategy for stopping Hamas rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

The relationship between the two politicians is one of the most complex in Israeli politics. Some claim that no one knows Netanyahu better than Liberman, often referred to by his Russian name Yvette. Even if that is true, it didn’t stop Netanyahu from launching a head-on attack against his former partner after the Knesset dispersed.

“Avigdor Liberman is now part of the Left,” the prime minister said. “You give him votes, to the Right, and he does not give his vote to the Right.”

Liberman hit back the next day. “The man from Caesarea [Netanyahu] is calling the man from Nokdim a leftist,” he said at a news conference in Tel Aviv.

In our interview, Liberman rejected the claim that he was out to settle a score. At the same time though, he refrained from declaring that his party would support Netanyahu in the post-election consultations with the president.

“I don’t believe in this personality cult,” he said. “Instead, I am committed to an ideology and to a type of governance in the way of [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky – a nationalistic and liberal government and not one that is promoting a Halachic state.”

Does that mean, I asked Liberman, that for you these new elections will be about religion and stopping the haredim?

“Our campaign is clear,” he said. “We are for a Jewish state but we are against a Halachic state.”

In Judaism, he went on to explain, there have traditionally been two schools of thought: Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the two sages who can be found arguing throughout the Mishna, with Shammai taking the stricter approach and Hillel ruling for a gentler and more lenient type of Judaism.

“We are for Beit Hillel,” Liberman said, “not for [URP co-leader Bezalel] Smotrich who said he wants Israel to be governed according to the Torah and restore the legal system from the days of King David and King Solomon.”

Netanyahu, he claims, would have given Smotrich and the haredi parties whatever they wanted, and his proof was in the draft of the coalition agreement that Netanyahu was planning to sign with United Torah Judaism, which would have lifted the ban on allowing segregation in public spaces.

“It shows which direction he will go,” Liberman said.

Does this mean that you will not recommend Netanyahu after the next election, I asked? Is there a chance you will support Gantz’s candidacy for prime minister?

Liberman dodged talking about Netanyahu. He said that there was only one route to becoming prime minister in Israel, and that it came from the right-wing camp. Gantz, he said, did not have a chance.

“There is no chance to recommend Gantz,” he said. “He is a good guy, I respect him, but I don’t think he has a realistic chance to form a government. You can only form a government from the Right, and he has no experience in the civilian sector. You can’t come without any other experience.”

Does this mean he would consider running this time as a prime ministerial candidate?

“I have to be realistic,” Liberman said. “I am not rejecting this possibility, but I am not blinded by it either. I borrow a phrase from Yitzhak Rabin, who said that politics are an option and not an obsession. We will see what happens; and if there will be an opportunity, then we will decide.”

In that case, I said, the chances are high that the results of the upcoming election will be similar to the results of the April 9 election, and that means that the haredim will once again be Netanyahu’s partner and you will again have to decide whether to give in on the draft bill.

Liberman said he is not sure that will be case. His hope is that Yisrael Beytenu ends the day on September 17 in double digits. With initial polls showing his party climbing from five seats to nine, he might have a chance. Only that way, he said, can he ensure that Israel does not become a Halachic state, and the rights of secular Israelis are not undermined.

“We hope we will get more votes since there is no one else on the Right except for Yisrael Beytenu that is able to fight for this and protect these people,” he explained.

Besides for the failure to pass the haredi draft bill, Liberman is concerned with additional trends in Israel: the attempt to close supermarkets on Shabbat, to stop work on the Yehudit footbridge in Tel Aviv that crosses the Ayalon expressway, and legislation aimed at limiting conversions.

“There is an attempt to take Israel back in time, and this is part of the struggle,” he said.

Surprisingly, despite his personal disagreements with Netanyahu – Yisrael Beytenu created a graph showing how Netanyahu voted for the disengagement from Gaza while Liberman didn’t, supported the release of Palestinian terrorists when Liberman didn’t, and most recently supported a ceasefire with Hamas when Liberman didn’t – Yvette said he is not opposed to the controversial immunity bill that the prime minister had planned to pass if he had formed a government.

“The law is legitimate, and anyone who is not found guilty in a final verdict can run for office,” Liberman pointed out. “We did not have a problem over the immunity bill. The draft bill was the final issue.”

HAD A COMPROMISE been found and Liberman had joined the government, he would have returned to the Defense Ministry, the place he left in November after Israel agreed to a ceasefire with Hamas.

Politically, I said, you didn’t really gain from being in the Defense Ministry. Instead of climbing in the elections due to your high-profile position, you fell from six seats to five.

Liberman answered that serving as defense minister is a “privilege,” and political gain or benefit is not part of his calculation.

“Defense issues are the issues that will accompany us for many years to come, and it is by far the biggest and most important ministry,” he said.

Liberman went on to list some of his accomplishment after almost three years in the post. He appointed Aviv Kochavi as the chief of staff, replaced most of the General Staff without a hitch, established a new missile corps in the IDF, oversaw the destruction of 19 tunnels that were crossing into Israel from Gaza, and made countless decisions on special operations behind enemy lines that are still unknown today.

But, he admitted, he did not agree with Netanyahu’s policies when it came to the Gaza Strip. His resignation on November 14 came after 500 rockets were fired into Israel, and the government decided to accept a ceasefire instead of launching a large-scale operation as he had wanted.

“On Gaza we did not agree,” he said. “I quit after Hamas fired more than 500 rockets to the South and Netanyahu decided to fire 15 million dollars in cash and suitcases in response. We need to do everything different. I presented a plan that was clear and detailed of what needs to happen. We cannot accept a reality that you pay protection money for Hamas threats and they don’t stop violence.”

The latest example was just last week, when two people were wounded in a stabbing in Jerusalem that Hamas praised but Netanyahu failed to react, he said. “He continues as if nothing happened,” Liberman said. “They launch balloons from Gaza, and the Zionist decision is to enlarge the fishing area.”

Is it possible, I asked, that Netanyahu isn’t really right-wing?

Liberman wouldn’t say. But he noted that it is important to remember the prime minister’s past, how he voted for the disengagement from Gaza, how he apologized to Turkey for the flotilla in 2010, and how he torpedoed legislation that Yisrael Beytenu had tried to advance to enact the death penalty in Israel.

“People can conclude what they want,” Liberman said.

On September 17, that’s exactly what he hopes will happen.

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