The triumvirate: Avigdor Liberman, Avichai Mandelblit & Aviv Kochavi

How these three men made the most impact on Israel in 2019

FROM LEFT, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen Aviv Kochavi,Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit – outsized impace (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
FROM LEFT, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen Aviv Kochavi,Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit – outsized impace
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found himself in unfamiliar waters in 2019: for the first time in a decade, he was arguably not the country’s most influential actor.
Granted, the prime minister in this country – even when he heads only a transitional government – wields great power and has an enormous influence on the day-to-day events of the state and its people.
But something felt different this year.
For a decade, Netanyahu dominated Israel like few others since founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, leaving a huge imprint on every sphere: diplomatic, economic, military.
But in 2019 – Netanyahu’s own annus horribilis, as Queen Elizabeth II referred to her own “horrible year” in 1992 – his utter dominance began to fade.
Matters political, legal and even to a degree military were no longer completely in his hands. He was unable to shape events this year according to his own will to the degree he has in the past. Things were no longer in his control.
Netanyahu won one election in April, but was unable to form a government. He was given a second chance to do so after the inconclusive elections in September, but again failed. He told the country over and over that nothing would come of the three investigations against him, but something rather large did emerge – a decision to indict him on charges of breach of trust, fraud and bribery.
There were even reports that he wanted to engage in a widespread military campaign in Gaza just prior to the September elections, but was thwarted in this by the top military brass and the attorney-general. In 2019, key matters slipped from Netanyahu’s grasp.
Instead, three others emerged as having had an outsized impact on the country’s affairs: Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen Aviv Kochavi.
“What does Liberman want?” was a question heard over and over in print, radio and television interviews during 2019. “What’s he doing? What is he after?”
And, indeed, that is a legitimate question, since Liberman – more than anyone else – is responsible for the fact that 2019 will go down as Israel’s year of poor governance; the year in which the country went to the polls twice, and still couldn’t come up with a leader; the year in which it decided to go back to the elections for an unprecedented third time in 11 months.
And all of that due in a large degree to Liberman.
It is Liberman who at the end of 2018 quit his position as defense minister, bringing about the collapse of the government and sending the nation into a seemingly unending election spiral.
Why? His stated reason: displeasure with the country’s Gaza policies – he wanted to see the IDF use a stronger hand.
And it was Liberman – a man whose views on Israeli Arabs, on the diplomatic process with the Palestinians and on Israel’s foreign affairs placed him on the hard Right of the Israeli political spectrum – who opted not to join a right-wing government after the April election, redefining who is in the right- and left-wing blocs, and sending the country back to elections in September.
And it was Liberman who emerged from that election, not chastised by people angry that he did not form a government with Netanyahu in April, as had seemed so natural, but rather strengthened – with his party winning eights seats in the Knesset, rather than the five it won four months earlier.
This gave Liberman the balance of power. Would he join with Netanyahu this time around, or go together with Blue and White leader Benny Gantz? He chose neither, saying he wanted a “unity” government.
Liberman successfully reinvented himself in 2019. No longer was he the fire-spitting far-right politician who wanted Israeli Arabs to sign a loyalty oath – and who advocated redrawing the borders of Israel, to draw the settlement blocs in and the Israeli Arabs out. No, now – at least in the eyes of some in the media – he was a man of principle who wanted to see more haredim (ultra-Orthodox) in the army and an end to the dominance of the haredi parties over issues of church and state.
What does Liberman want?
 After already having served as national infrastructures minister, transportation minister, strategic affairs minister, foreign minister and defense minister, what Liberman wants is to become prime minister – but his path to that office is blocked because he represents a small, sectarian party built on Russian-speaking immigrants, who don’t support his party as much as they did in the past, and whose children hardly need the party at all.
So Liberman has two possible paths to the pinnacle of power: either merge with the Likud, something he did unsuccessfully in the past, or dramatically expand his base.
After the April elections, he reportedly hoped to merge again with the Likud, but the Likud decided to co-opt Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party instead, leaving Liberman out of the mix. So he concentrated on expanding his base, picking an anti-haredi message to do so – a message that has proven so effective to many in the past, including Yair Lapid.
Liberman did expand his base, growing from five to eight seats between March and September. These eight seats were vital to Netanyahu, and to Gantz. Everybody wooed him, and the country waited with great expectation for nearly every word he would utter.
Liberman emerged as the country’s king maker, and then decided not to anoint a king. Why? Because he wants that crown himself – and will navigate and plot his moves in such a way that someday, he will have a real shot of gaining it.
His name is in the news unceasingly, yet most of the country would have trouble identifying Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s voice on the radio. Soft-spoken, unassuming, he incongruously dominated the domestic news in 2019.
Would Mandelblit approve various appointments? Would he give a nod to decisions made by the security cabinet? Most importantly, what would he do regarding the Netanyahu investigations?
Netanyahu’s legal fate – and, as a result, his political fate and the question of who would lead the country – was largely in Mandelblit’s hands.
When would he decide whether or not to indict Netanyahu: before or after the elections? When would he hold a hearing for Netanyahu? What would he decide?
If he decided to indict, as he did, then there is a prime minister – and a candidate to again be prime minister – under the cloud of indictment, with all that means for the political calculations of the different parties. And if he chooses not to indict, then the prime minister and prime ministerial candidate is not under this cloud, with all that means for the various political calculations.
Mandelblit’s task was unenviable. He was certain to be damned either way. If he decided not to indict, he would be criticized as being a stooge of the prime minister. And if he decided to indict, he would – as in fact he was – be accused of having had a hand in an attempted “coup” against the prime minister.
In 2019, the elections dominated the year. And Mandelblit’s decisions during the year had a huge impact on the elections.
Like Mandelblit, Kochavi’s voice is also not one most of the country would recognize on the radio. Yet in 2019, his say in events impacting the country’s life was enormous.
He took over as chief of staff on January 15, and since then, the IDF has continued to act on various fronts: in Gaza and Syria, and – as he hinted in a speech he delivered this week – in Iraq as well.
Kochavi’s main concern, like that of his predecessor Gadi Eisenkot, is Iran. But it is not only the threat of Iran gaining a nuclear capability, as was the case when Israeli chiefs-of-staff looked at the situation 15 or 20 years ago.
It is not Iran far away, but Iran next door that is now the immediate concern – literally next door. Iran being present in Syria, trying to be present in Lebanon, present in Iraq. Those are Kochavi’s challenges.
In a speech at an IDC conference on Wednesday, the chief-of-staff’s focus on Iran was not about its nuclear capabilities, rather its conventional ones – its entrenchment nearby, its missiles.
“There is a possibility that we will face a limited confrontation with Iran, and we are preparing for it,” he said, adding that Iran is now “an enemy that we can see – and that we deal with.”
That is a massive responsibility. A wrong move, a bad miscalculation, a piece of advice to the defense minister that should not have been given, and this country could find itself in a war with Iran – something whose consequences and price would be huge.