Bibi's gamble

Despite potential snags, Netanyahu-Liberman are, for now, on course to win the January general election.

Liberman and Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Liberman and Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
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In making an electoral pact with Avigdor Liberman’s far right Yisrael Beiteinu, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking a huge, possibly game-changing risk.
The neo-conservative Likud leader’s gamble could boomerang in two ways: Instead of Likud-Beiteinu throwing the center-left into disarray, it could reinvigorate it; and the price for using Liberman to maximize Likudcontrolled Knesset seats could be Liberman using the Likud to supplant Netanyahu as leader of the Israeli right. To put it bluntly: What the prime minister took on board as an election-winning master stroke could turn out to be a major political blunder.
In the run-up to the January 22 election, American political guru Arthur Finkelstein, who once worked with Netanyahu but now advises Liberman, convinced the prime minister that as head of a large right-wing alliance he would be able to kill two birds with one stone. He would be sure to form the next administration and get a mandate for strong, decisive government, including possible action against Iran, digging in on the Palestinian question and changing the electoral system. But Finkelstein now works for Liberman. And where for Netanyahu the pact has risks, for Liberman it is all win-win. It gives the radical right-winger an added measure of mainstream legitimacy and a launching pad for a future run for prime minister.
On paper the deal looks promising for Netanyahu, too. But it lays him open to a strong challenge from the center left for making a pact with the radical right that could put Israel’s brittle democracy at risk, further hurt the weaker classes and strain relations with the outside world.
Worse for Netanyahu: The pact with the secular, largely Russian immigrant party jeopardizes the support of observant, blue-collar Sephardi voters, who make up the Likud’s core constituency. Indeed, Netanyahu could suffer a double whammy from his erstwhile strategic ally, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas, which will almost certainly pick up disaffected blue-collar Likud voters and might also prefer a coalition with the center left to a government dominated by Netanyahu’s neo-con economics and Liberman’s Russian-immigrant, secular agenda.
There is also the question of Liberman’s leadership aspirations. There are historical precedents for radical right-wing movements sweeping to power on the backs of the more conservative right. And, although for now the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance is only an electoral pact, the Likud, with its heady brew of far-right Knesset members and “Feiglinites,” the extremist settler group led by Moshe Feiglin, could be ready for Liberman.
So why did the normally circumspect Netanyahu agree to gamble? Initially, he was concerned by rumors that the 89-year-old Shimon Peres was being cajoled into leaving the presidency to lead a unified center-left “stop Bibi” campaign. Then the talk was that former prime minister Ehud Olmert would do it. Netanyahu’s move is designed to minimize the electoral impact of either scenario by creating the perception of an invincible unified right. He also hopes the Likud-Beiteinu alliance will enable him to win the election as head of by far and away the largest party, denying the president any discretion in deciding who should form the next government.
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