Politics: A clear day in the ‘Garden of Eden’

Avigdor Liberman is free of the legal cloud that hung over him for the past 17 years – and he will use that freedom to advance the causes he believes in and prevent the government from taking steps he opposes.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman 390 (photo credit: Flash 90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman 390
(photo credit: Flash 90)
Whenever Likud politicians speculated about the future of their party in recent years, they mentioned two “inevitable” events they believed would strengthen it into the kind of solid ruling party Israel had in the days of Mapai: The death of Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and the conviction of Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman.
The former event took place a month ago. Tens of thousands of non-haredi Sephardi voters are now seen as political free agents who can potentially be returned to the Likud, the party they or their parents supported before the emergence of Shas.
The latter event did not turn out as well for the Likud. For much of the past 17 years, when Liberman was under investigation and on trial, his conviction seemed just as much a foregone conclusion as the rabbi’s eventual death.
But the legal establishment that pursued Liberman relentlessly ended up with nothing to show for all of its work, despite huge amounts of taxpayer funds spent on the effort, which involved sending investigators to Belarus, Austria and Cyprus to question people and search for clues.
Now, that very legal establishment that tried so hard to bring Liberman down has empowered him tremendously. Although Liberman always mocked and downplayed the impact of the investigations on him, his associates said that when his acquittal was announced, they could see how relieved he was.
Even when the investigations were at their peak, Liberman would tell reporters who asked how he was doing that life was “the Garden of Eden.”
When they would ask whether he was worried, he would respond that his only concern was improving at tennis.
The investigations began before Liberman’s political career, when he was a top aide to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Liberman has never had a day in politics without a legal cloud hovering over his head until now.
Liberman has been liber-ated. Like a prisoner released from jail, a slave in the American South following the US Civil War, or a wife who receives a get ending an unhappy marriage, he is now emancipated and unfettered.
“Freedom is not a license for chaos,” the dot memorably told the line in the classic book The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics by The Phantom Tollbooth author Norton Juster 50 years ago.
So how does Liberman intend to handle his newfound freedom? The answer is everything Netanyahu and the international community fears, and more. He will use his 11 mandates to advance the causes he believes in, and prevent the government from taking steps he opposes.
That means he will make sure his electoral reform plans pass into law. Anyone who thought he would compromise better think twice.
Beforehand, it looked like the proposal to double the electoral threshold from 2 percent to 4% would be toned down to a more modest 3%. Now, the Arab parties will have to seriously consider getting past their differences and uniting ahead of the next election.
On matters of religion and state, Liberman has been frustrated that Yesh Atid stole his party’s agenda and copied proposals on issues like conversion, civil unions and reforming the rabbinate.
Who remembers that “service for all” was the platform of Yisrael Beytenu long before Yesh Atid was born? From now on, Liberman will make his presence felt on those issues. The haredim who prevented him from getting his confidant Moshe Lion elected mayor of Jerusalem will pay a price for betraying the promises they made Liberman, whose slogan is that his word is his bond.
The proposal to draft yeshiva students will be advanced with full force. Liberman intends to see to it that criminal sanctions for draft evaders will not be removed from the bill.
But the issue behind which Liberman will throw his weight the most is the peace process with the Palestinians. Last time he was foreign minister, Liberman for the most part stayed out of that realm, which didn’t go anywhere anyway, due to mistakes made in Washington and elsewhere.
Now, Liberman intends to make sure that Netanyahu and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni do not make concessions that would be unacceptable to him. He will not let her make serious decisions without his consent. If she has to leave the coalition, so be it.
The rest of the coalition is fine with Liberman, who does not want to see haredi parties or Labor join.
He believes the coalition can advance key issues, as long as its new ministers and MKs learn to work better together.
Liberman is frustrated that there has been friction in the coalition over relatively minor issues. He believes the coalition in the previous government was less cohesive but more stable.
But the first step Liberman will take will result in more instability.
At Yisrael Beytenu’s November 24 convention, the bond with the Likud that began ahead of the general election is likely to be broken.
Liberman believes the bond has outlived its usefulness and prevented Yisrael Beytenu from expressing itself on key issues. He fears his party’s identity could be lost in the Likud’s shadow. And he wants his independence.
The Likud had intended to woo Yisrael Beytenu’s Russian-speaking voters when Liberman was in jail and Shas supporters when Yosef was in the ground. The latter plans will move forward.
The plans to bring about the demise of Yisrael Beytenu will be put on hold, but not thrown away.
After all, there could always be another investigation.