Russian roulette: Avigdor Liberman changed his party’s main cause

Avigdor Liberman’s biography is different from the Russian-speaking immigration’s two prominent politicians: former Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and current Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.

June 28, 2019 07:57
Russian roulette: Avigdor Liberman changed his party’s main cause

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman: What is his game plan for the next election?. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


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Twilight, midnight and dawn seemed to approach simultaneously – an impossibility in any other biography, but not in Avigdor Liberman’s.

The twilight facing the heavyset, bearded and thickly accented political boss of 27 years was about his core constituency’s steady migration to non-sectarian alternatives.

The approaching midnight was about the coalition talks’ legal expiration moment, 42 days after Benjamin Netanyahu won President Reuven Rivlin’s mandate to form a government.

And the dawn beyond these is what will follow Netanyahu’s departure, if it’s up to Liberman’s apparent hope, assessment, and scheme.

LIBERMAN’S biography is different from the Russian-speaking immigration’s two prominent politicians: former Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky and current Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.

Unlike that pair, who became famous after having been jailed for their Zionist activism, the 61-year-old Liberman arrived in Israel anonymously with his parents in 1978 at age 20, a decade before the Soviet Union’s migratory floodgates burst open.

These circumstances would prove priceless for the new immigrant who did his military duty, earned a BA in international relations at Hebrew University, and then landed his first political job – secretary of the Likud-affiliated National Workers Union’s Jerusalem branch.

Liberman was therefore perfectly positioned to help deliver the immigrants to the right bidder. The right bidder, Benjamin Netanyahu, was still in New York at the time, but upon his return home in 1988 his political demand would quickly meet Liberman’s political supply.

It was the beginning of a relationship that would be beautiful at times and crushing at others, a shadow dance of 31 years that freely moonwalked from tango and waltz to jiu-jitsu and back.

The lovefest budded the morning after Yitzhak Shamir’s electoral defeat by Yitzhak Rabin in 1992. The 43-year-old Netanyahu needed field operators as he prepared to engage the succession battle that would pit him against former foreign minister David Levi, future president Moshe Katsav, and the princely Benny Begin, whose revered father passed away earlier that year.

Netanyahu clearly appreciated Liberman’s contribution to the decisive victory that landed him at Likud’s helm. That is how he made him director-general of the Likud, a position the two used in order to build the apparatus with which Netanyahu would strike a great electoral upset when he defeated Shimon Peres in 1996.

Liberman’s subsequent appointment as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office – the Israeli equivalent of White House chief of staff – seemed like the political peak that the 32-year-old Moldavian-born immigrant might want to use as a steppingstone for a business career.

After all, the political “Russian” ticket was already taken by Sharansky and Edelstein, whose Yisrael B’Aliyah (Ascendant Israel) faction’s seven Knesset seats in 1996 seemed to have sapped the new immigration’s electoral potential. Liberman, for his part, was believed to be happier pulling strings behind the scenes over galloping ahead of the masses. He wasn’t.

Hardly 18 months after joining Netanyahu’s operation, Liberman resigned for reasons he never publicly disclosed, and 14 months later he established his own party, Yisrael Beytenu (Israel Our Home). Over the following 20 years his political start-up would emerge as one of the most colorful, autocratic, and mercurial political formations the Jewish state has ever seen.

In term of its performance, Liberman’s party climbed in its first four elections from four to 11 to 15 lawmakers, only to ultimately slide from 13 to six and finally, last April, to five MKs.

It is this steady shrinkage that has made Liberman launch one of the most daring and brazen political gambles an Israeli politician ever made, as he maneuvered the country into its first-ever back-to-back election.

The sectarian ticket is a mainstay of Israeli politics, benefiting assorted communally oriented parties ranging from Arab Islamists to ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Such tickets’ advantage is the compactness and accessibility of their constituencies. The disadvantage is that their leaders must give up on capturing the social mainstream, and on seizing the national helm. It was a compromise Liberman was not prepared to make.

Liberman was aware of this constraint from the onset, and therefore fashioned himself not only as a facilitator of the immigrants’ rights, but also as an ultra-hawk who demands terrorists’ executions, proposes Israeli Arabs’ relocation, and preaches massive military action in Gaza.

Liberman chose that path figuring it would attract a critical mass of native Israelis, and thus transform him from an ethnic politician to a national leader.

This strategy was wisely pursued by fielding as Knesset candidates respected native Israelis from varied backgrounds, like former Israel Police deputy commissioner Yitzhak Aharonovich, former ambassador to Washington Danny Ayalon, former Israel Air Industries chairman Yair Shamir, and former Likud minister Uzi Landau.

The latter two’s lineages as sons of former prime minister and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir, and of pre-1948 Irgun chief of staff and ultimately Likud minister Haim Landau, proved particularly useful.

Then again, Liberman’s personal selections were not always as thoughtful. Having built a party where all issues are ultimately decided by him, Liberman also made outlandish choices that repeatedly scandalized him.

One was little-known Astrina Tartman, whom he had already nominated as minister of tourism but lost that appointment in February 2007 hours before its approval, when it turned out she claimed to possess business and accounting degrees she had never earned.
Equally embarrassing was the parliamentary stint in 2009-13 of Anastassia Michaeli, a convert and mother of eight. Originally a newscaster on Russian-language TV, she twice confronted Arab lawmakers physically, once trying to prevent Haneen Zoabi from addressing a Knesset committee, and once spilling a glass of water on MK Raleb Majadele. In another committee session she claimed homosexuality reflected trauma and resulted in suicide.

Less anecdotally, Liberman’s appointment in 2009 of Stas Meseznikov as tourism minister resulted in the former city councilman’s conviction and imprisonment for fraud and breach of trust. It was part of much broader graft allegations against Liberman’s apparatus, including the indictment in 2017 of former deputy interior minister Faina Kirschenbaum on charges of bribery and fraud.

The corruption scandals bolstered Liberman’s image as a sectarian politician, just after his five years as foreign minister fostered his party’s image as a legitimate alternative to the Likud, so much so that in 201Liberman calculated that returning to his political alma mater as a formidable master of 15 lawmakers would make him Netanyahu’s undisputed successor. It was a fatal mistake.

HAVING HOPED that the sum of their joint venture would prove larger than the 42 lawmakers it fused, the Netanyahu-Liberman ticket in January 2013 instead lost a quarter of its aggregate voters, settling at a paltry 31 Knesset seats.

The lost votes’ destination was clear: most went to the newborn Yesh Atid, whose 19 Knesset seats fed on the liberal, secular, upper middle class, and the rest went to the modern-Orthodox Bayit Yehudi.

The common denominator between the two was fierce opposition to ultra-Orthodoxy’s avoidance of military service, which now resulted in the two parties’ imposition on Netanyahu of a coalition without Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Liberman had also been consistently anti-clerical, first and foremost because of the Chief Rabbinate’s harassment, as he sees it, of partially Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants when seeking conversion or civil marriage. Now he saw his secularist thunder stolen.
Moreover, Liberman’s under performance in the two subsequent elections, and the failure of his stint as defense minister to impress the voters, all imply that his foreign affairs agenda could only bring him this far.

This analysis, combined with Netanyahu’s legal situation, has led Liberman to redefine the strategy whose ultimate goal, as all pundits read it, is to lead the Jewish state.

That is how the settler from the West Bank community of Nokdim – whose residents are both religious and secular – decided to hone in on Netanyahu’s religious policy, and attack him in this regard from the left, while continuing to attack him from the right concerning his handling of the Hamas in Gaza.

THE ATTACK from the left is about Netanyahu’s concessions to his ultra-Orthodox allies on yeshiva students’ conscription.
The need to renegotiate the Conscription Law followed a High Court of Justice ruling in 2017 that the legislation from 2000, which allowed ultra-Orthodox men to work even if they did not enlist, was unconstitutional because it violated the principle of equality.
The consequent re-legislation, passed in a first reading shortly before the previous Knesset’s dissolution, set an annual quota of 3,348 ultra-Orthodox conscripts, a figure that would be gradually raised over eight years to 5,737. Should the actual number of conscripts be lower, a yeshiva that will deliver fewer conscripts than their relative share of students would lose a proportionate share of its state funding.

The first reading, backed by the opposition’s Yesh Atid before it became part of Blue and White, passed despite the ultra-Orthodox politicians’ outcry.

As the recent coalition talks began, the ultra-Orthodox parties demanded, and obtained, Netanyahu’s agreement that the new bill would not be turned into law, but just be made a government resolution, thus leaving it open to endless re-negotiation.

Liberman now gave Netanyahu an ultimatum: either the legislation that had begun before the April election is completed, or he will not have his coalition. Netanyahu had no choice but to call a snap election, since Blue and White would not enter a coalition with Likud unless it replaced its leader.

That is how Liberman, despite wielding a mere five Knesset seats, overwhelmed the political system, and in fact the entire country, by forcing it to hold two elections in the same year.

This is a gamble even Liberman never took while serving over the past 18 years as minister of defense, foreign affairs, transportation, infrastructure and strategic affairs while bolting the governments of three prime ministers, two of whom he served as deputy prime minister.

Realizing he had just made the gamble of his life, and while at it provoked a swathe of the mainstream electorate that blames him for destabilizing the political system, Liberman added a new public oath, beside his vow to pass the Conscription Law: he would force Likud and Blue and White to form the broad government most Israelis evidently want.

Such a configuration will be possible only once the morning after Netanyahu dawns, a dawn that may prove more distant than Liberman’s plots suggest.

Then again, if his game plan does materialize, Liberman will potentially emerge not only as the trendsetter who relegated ultra-Orthodoxy to the political margins, but as a kingmaker, a coalition builder, and a viable candidate for the leadership of the Jewish state.

In such a case, the eventful political career that sprouted on this side of the immigrant-veteran cleavage and then thrived and maneuvered within it may finally emerge on its other side.

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