On Wednesday a secret cabinet meeting was convened in the deep fishbowl that is the Prime Minister’s office. Present were PM Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and several security officials.
Two hours earlier, Avigdor Liberman had announced at a press conference that there was a basis to negotiate Yisrael Beytenu’s joining the government following a “respectable proposal” that included the Defense portfolio.
He was still talking when Netanyahu called him to an urgent meeting. Meanwhile, the security cabinet had convened and Netanyahu found himself facing the still alive and kicking incumbent defense minister, Bogie Ya’alon.
Ya’alon said nothing. Uncharacteristically, he took no part in the debate, and even when, toward the end, Netanyahu asked if he wished to add anything he said, “No, I don’t.”
Bibi closed the debate and the participants started to leave the cabinet room, adjacent to the PM’s office, both of them inside the fish bowl. Whom did they encounter outside, lounging calmly in an armchair and awaiting his turn, but Avigdor Liberman. Between him and Bogie – he on the way out and he on the way in, there was obvious dislike.
At that stage, Ya’alon had not internalized that it was happening. That it was possible. That it’s real. That a possibility exists that Netanyahu would dispose of him and replace him with his nemesis, Liberman, the man, who weeks earlier had called the PM a “liar” and a “crook” and various other succulent words of abuse.
Ya’alon had suppressed this wacko possibility. He would soon learn it was absolutely true.
Two conflicting forces had been at work during recent weeks in efforts to join the government. On the one hand, the Labor/Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog/Eitan Cabel, who were pushed from behind by international forces, mainly Tony Blair, former British prime minister, Egyptian President Sisi and additional regional and European leaders.
Against them stood hawks from the Likud and senior activists in Judea and Samaria, who recognized the trouble they were in if this happened. The currently restricted building in the territories would dwindle further, budgets would disintegrate; life would become hard.
Heading this group was super-strategist Minister Ze’ev Elkin, one of the more efficient of Israel’s politics foxes. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked assisted him. Further backup was provided by fieldworkers such as Samara Council chairman Yossi Dagan and other regional council heads.
At the head of these was one Avigdor Liberman, without whom nothing would have happened. Liberman is unpredictable. He can do an about turn in lightning speed. Everyone who spoke to him in recent months is aware of his intense disdain and resentment for Netanyahu. No one in the world knows Bibi better than Liberman does; nowhere does anyone have less respect for Bibi.
But there is also another side.
Liberman is a man who is easily bored. He has to be constantly in motion. He needs action. He has exhausted the pleasures of life in the opposition. Even if he doesn’t admit it, he has lost interest. How many insults can he hurl at Bibi? His prophesies of doom for Netanyahu’s fourth government did not materialize. What should he do in the meantime? Liberman knew that for him the Foreign Ministry had constituted the glass ceiling.
On being appointed director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office after Netanyahu’s big victory in 1996, Liberman said that Israel was the real land of unlimited opportunities.
Here he was, a young immigrant from Moldova, with the bearing of a communist, a thick Soviet accent and the manners of a wild boar, being given the keys to the Prime Minister’s Office. Two years later he returned the keys, when he realized that Netanyahu was interested in one thing only (to perpetuate his rule) and came back with a private party of his own, via which he was hoping to take off.
He succeeded, but only ostensibly.
He was foreign minister, but who cares about foreign ministers? They can do no damage; they don’t really influence anything. In this country, the No. 2 Man is the defense minister; sovereignty over the territories.
This position will allow Liberman to break all the chains, prejudices and weights that tether his legs. After having been nearly erased in the last election, suddenly he has the chance to rebuild himself.
To reach as high as he can. All at once, he matured.
A month ago Netanyahu gave Ze’ev Elkin the green light to take action in Liberman’s direction, following the news of the Herzog investigation that blocked negotiations for unity with the Zionist Union. Elkin went to work, as only he knew how; slowly, intelligently, with sophistication. He and Liberman are connected on many fronts, including their mother tongue, and Elkin was sure he had plenty of time at his disposal. Them, with the announcement that the police’s Herzog file was about to be closed, he realized that time was running out. Netanyahu pushed on the natural gas sector outline and negotiations with the Zionist Union went into marathon mode, advanced, continuous. Elkin knew that if Herzog comes in, he and his friends are in trouble. He intensified his activity, established an organized and efficient war room, brought in all the leading activists in the territories, who bombarded the Likud ministers with telephone calls, text messages and petitions to go with Liberman and oppose any Herzog option.
The problem was disbelief. Liberman didn’t believe that Netanyahu wanted him in. Netanyahu believed Liberman wanted only to torpedo his deal with Herzog, but then wouldn’t join the coalition.
Elkin exerted all his influence on Liberman. By Tuesday afternoon, he knew that Liberman was willing to hold out his hand. Ayelet Shaked joined the effort. She, too, spoke with Liberman. She knew that Herzog’s inclusion in the coalition would clip her wings and might result in the removal of Bayit Yehudi from positions of influence.
She implored Liberman to give it a chance. In the meantime Elkin called Netanyahu’s office and announced, “Liberman is inside.
He wants to come in.” No one believed it.
That afternoon another marathon meeting with the Zionist Union began and was leaked to the media. On the other end of all this commotion, Liberman was outraged.
He understood that he was being taken for a ride. Once again Elkin and Shaked went into action.
It’s real, they told Liberman; why not give it a try. You’ve nothing to lose. At worst, if you hold out a hand and he prefers Herzog, it’s his problem. You won’t lose from it.
You’ll only win.
Liberman was reassured. He called a press conference for Wednesday at midday. Ayelet Shaked called him again on Wednesday morning with a “golden proposal.” Just go for the logical things, she told him, don’t demand anything that will hurt the ultra-Orthodox, you know Bibi can’t renege again on his agreements with them. Be reasonable and logical and it’ll happen, she promised him.
Liberman listened to her. He’d been having quite a few problems recently. Elkin and his friends on the right had been walking over him in the Russian media, using the same lethal mantra: They’re offering Liberman Defense and Immigration, as well as pensions for new immigrants, and he prefers to stay on the outside simply because he hates Bibi. What about the voters? ”They’ve been scorching my earth,” Liberman said on Wednesday in a private conversation. “I understood that I had to give it a chance. They’ve activated all the regional activists, all branch managers, and mayors. I decided to give it a try.”
It’s all going to plan. The moment Liberman extended his hand, a huge support system went into action on the Right. Ministers sent congratulations, regional activists and Likud offices nationwide called to forget Herzog and go with Liberman.
Netanyahu realized he had a problem: If he continues with Herzog, he’ll be accused of collaborating with the Left.
Within seconds, Bibi picked up the phone to Liberman. Suddenly he’d forgotten all the international threats, the boycott in Europe, what awaits him in November when Obama is released from his bonds and has two months to avenge himself. Everything Netanyahu had been chanting at the Likud leaders over the last few weeks went up in smoke. He became locked on the old, familiar Avigdor. Netanyahu returned, without so much as a glance, back into the warm arms of the right-wing base he so loves. If he’d looked, he’d have seen Herzog’s political body being dragged, tarred and feathered, throughout the streets of the city.Translated by Ora Cummings.