Reality Check: Liberman’s political future

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 Liberman.

October 27, 2013 22:01
4 minute read.
FORMER FOREIGN MINISTER Avigdor Liberman stands in court, April 30, 2013

Liberman in court 370. (photo credit: Emil Salman/Pool)


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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 Liberman.

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 portfolio.

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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 day.

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.

The stinging 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 this.


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 supporters.

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.

LIBERMAN’S 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.

Although 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 necessary.

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.

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