Analysis: Where will Liberman's trial leave Yisrael Beytenu?

The party won’t talk about its plans, but it may have to break off from the Likud to stay afloat.

Liberman looking up under Likud sign 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
Liberman looking up under Likud sign 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen)
Those who are interested in the verdict of Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s trial, which will be released next Wednesday, should remember the old Yogi Berra quote, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” After all, both sides said they’d appeal if the results don’t go their way, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reportedly agreed to hold the Foreign Ministry until the appeals process ends.
Still, the Knesset buzzed with politicians, advisers and journalists this week, wondering what would happen; some even talked about a betting pool, March Madness- style, over the results.
The Foreign Ministry isn’t the only thing on the line.
Liberman currently holds one of the most prestigious and influential non-ministerial positions – chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee – which will have to be filled if he’s promoted to minister or forced to resign because of the verdict. In addition, the Likud Beytenu merger is not complete, and movement on that front – which could continue toward union or separation – was put on hold until after Liberman’s fate becomes clearer.
All this leaves Yisrael Beytenu in a state of limbo.
While the party has an ideology, a platform and plenty of capable ministers and MKs, Liberman’s looming presence, personality and political style tend to overshadow anyone and anything in his orbit. Perhaps that’s the reason the party isn’t preparing for the possible day after Liberman – at least not in any official capacity.
Even the question of whether Yisrael Beytenu will keep the Foreign Ministry or not remains open. Party insiders say that the ministry is “theirs” and that Tourism Minister Uzi Landau or political newcomer Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir would be the likely candidates for the job. However, many Likud ministers are salivating over the position, including Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz and Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, and Netanyahu is thought to be likely to keep the ministry within his party – his party being Likud, leaving Yisrael Beytenu behind.
There is a theory that Liberman merged his party with Likud to “take care” of his MKs, ensuring that their political careers survive even if the courts decide he must leave politics and they’re left without an obvious leader.
However, a source close to Liberman hinted that the two factions will soon part ways, saying this week, a year after the union, that “the partnership may have outlived its usefulness.”
“It filled its purpose,” he explained, “to make sure we have a government led by the right.” He said that after that goal was met, albeit by a much smaller margin than the 42 seats Liberman predicted before the January election, the merger has only been hurting Yisrael Beytenu, which seems to have lost its identity, at least in the public’s eyes.
All of the policies that Yisrael Beytenu worked hard to try to pass in the last Knesset – enlistment for all, civil marriage, electoral reform – were adopted by Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid, who managed to gain much more media attention for them.
The only thing separating Yisrael Beytenu from being known only as a B-list Likud is the party’s outspoken hawkishness, though even that isn’t always clear cut.
Liberman condemns Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at every possible opportunity, but his future is uncertain. Plus, the Likud has plenty of its own hawks, like Deputy Ministers Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely. The party’s ministers differentiated themselves from the Likud by voting with the Bayit Yehudi on a bill to prevent future prisoner releases, but they were split in the actual vote on releasing prisoners this summer.
All this, compounded with the fact that many Likud MKs and central committee members do not favor an official merger, point to the wisdom of Yisrael Beytenu trying to make it on its own.
What remains to be seen is whether that will be with or without its leader – and we may not know that for a long time. After all, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.