Avigdor Liberman’s kingmaker fantasy

June 20, 2019 22:22
3 minute read.
Avigdor Liberman’s kingmaker fantasy

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announces his departure, November 14, 2018. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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Avigdor Liberman has long been aware that his Russian immigrant base is shrinking through assimilation and mortality. While in the late ‘90s and early 2000s there was room for two Russian-Israeli parties – Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’aliyah and Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu – today, only a shrunken Yisrael Beytenu survives. Unlike Sharansky, whose party merged with Likud and then promptly dissolved after winning only two seats in the 2003 election, Liberman tries to appeal to a larger audience and exploit the intricacies of coalition politics to remain politically relevant. However, his wager that forcing new elections will increase his political leverage by making himself the kingmaker of a Likud-Blue and White-Yisrael Beytenu national unity government is delusional.

In the 2000s, Liberman’s ambition was Yisrael Beytenu replacing Likud as the largest right-wing party. To this end, he advocated hawkish polices such as forcing Arab-Israelis to swear an oath of allegiance to the country to keep their citizenship, transferring Arab population centers along the Green Line to a future Palestinian state, and fiercer retaliation against Hamas terrorism. This platform catapulted Yisrael Beytenu to 15 seats, making it the third largest Knesset faction in the 2009 election, held in the wake of Operation Cast Lead. However, Yisrael Beytenu could not sustain its momentum and lost almost all of its non-Russian voters in subsequent elections, winning six seats in 2015 and five last April.

Since Liberman’s hawkish campaign promises never materialized, despite him serving as foreign minister or defense minister almost without interruption since 2009, Yisrael Beytenu is now trying to expand its reach by assuming the anti-haredi mantle. Although Yisrael Beytenu was always secular, Liberman sat with ultra-Orthodox parties in multiple governments and developed an amicable working relationship with Shas chairman Arye Deri. Then, after the April election, Liberman unexpectedly refused to join a Netanyahu-led coalition unless it committed to passing a military draft law aimed at yeshiva students and opposed by the haredi parties. Without Yisrael Beytenu, the right-wing religious bloc fell one seat short of a parliamentary majority, thereby precipitating new elections.

Liberman’s plan became clear over the weekend when he urged the formation of a Likud-Blue and White-Yisrael Beytenu coalition – excluding the haredim after the September election – and promised to recommend that President Reuven Rivlin charge the leader of the largest party with heading the unity government. It is impossible to fathom how this stratagem will improve Liberman’s political position, since Netanyahu was willing to appoint him defense minister after the April election precisely because Yisrael Beytenu’s mandates were required to form a majority right-wing religious government. If Likud and Blue and White decide to form a unity government, every poll shows that they could do so without Yisrael Beytenu, and adding it would entail dividing ministerial portfolios three ways instead of two. That said, neither Likud nor Blue and White show genuine interest in a unity government. Likud immediately ruled it out, and Yair Lapid’s Sunday tweet insisting that Blue and White must lead any unity government was tongue-in-cheek.

Of course, the only reason that Yisrael Beytenu was the kingmaker after the last election is because the right-wing New Right and Zehut parties narrowly missed the electoral threshold. To ensure their inclusion in the next Knesset, New Right chairman Naftali Bennett and Zehut’s Moshe Feiglin are discussing forming a technical bloc before September’s election. If they succeed, or New Right performs marginally better than last time, Netanyahu will be able to form a right-wing religious coalition without Liberman. Accordingly, one cannot imagine an electoral scenario in which Liberman enjoys more leverage than he did after the April election, but there are several in which he fares worse.

The writer is the Washington, DC, resident fellow of the Middle East Forum.

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