Liberman’s long shot, a Netanyahu ouster and a centrist secular government

From his seven mandate perch, can Liberman succeed in gunning for a centrist government made up of Blue and White and the Likud?

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman hardly seemed like a victorious politician when the polls closed on Monday night. Many argued that the results, which gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an air of success, knocked Liberman off the kingmaker pedestal he has held for almost a year.
The Moldova-born politician had run a lackluster campaign during the third election cycle that rarely made major headlines. A resident of the Nokdim settlement who supports sovereignty, he was viewed until this last year as the head of a party in the right-wing camp.
But he made no mention of settlements or sovereignty when he cast his vote Monday, speaking instead of a choice between a nation that followed Jewish religious law or a strong Yisrael Beytenu, even though the civil-religious divide was not a major campaign issue.
In an election dominated by talk of sovereignty over the settlements, even Nokdim did not lend him its support. He came in third after Likud and Yamina, receiving only 7.46% of his home community’s vote, less than the 10.4% he received in the September election. He similarly tumbled throughout Judea and Samaria, where he received only 2.8% of the vote compared to 3.6% in September. Overall he garnered seven seats, one less than the eight he won in September.
In a subdued and even toned speech to his supporters on election night, Liberman spoke of studying the results, pledging there would be “no fourth election.”
It almost seemed like a meaningless platitude in the first flush of the exit polls, when many believed Netanyahu could have received the necessary 61 seats he needed to form a government. Even if Netanyahu stayed at 60, the thought was he could easily peel off a right-wing politician from another party. True, he had been at 60 seats after the April 2019 election and failed, but now, two more elections later, it was felt that it might be an easier task.
The falling confetti around Netanyahu at his victory party, the chants of “long live King Bibi” and Netanyahu’s own enthusiasm created a spellbinding fantasy of success.
But Liberman has long made a career over transforming the smallest political foothold into a massive power field. It’s a power he has wielded with great acumen particularly because he is almost always under estimated.
For two elections running, first with five seats and then with eight, Liberman prevented a Netanyahu-led government and sent the country back to elections.
One could argue he has singularly determined the country’s fate out of his deep pursuit for a secular government.
Both in April and September, Netanyahu could have formed a government, if only he had Liberman’s backing.
But Liberman held out, both times, for what he called a “liberal-Zionist” government, made up of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party and Netanyahu’s Likud.
The first time around, in spring 2019, he kept the country on tenterhooks, announcing only at the final moments that he would not back Netanyahu.
This time around, Liberman clearly set his course from the start. While Netanyahu supporters were still celebrating in the predawn hours on Tuesday, he posted on Facebook that he had no plans to support a Netanyahu-led government that included the ultra-religious parties. He appeared to be one of the first Israeli politicians to note that Netanyahu had failed to secure enough votes to form a government, by three seats. His right-wing bloc of Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina only had 58 seats.
Liberman didn’t leave the public in suspense for long. Later in the day, he clarified again that Yisrael Beytenu was not joining Netanyahu’s government, telling reporters “there is no right-wing bloc, only a messianic-religious one.” He painted himself for them as the only true right-wing party, knocking Netanyahu for not being right-wing enough.
On Wednesday, Liberman clarified his intent to openly push for Netanyahu’s ouster as prime minister. He agreed that Yisrael Beytenu would support a Gantz-led drive to push the Likud leader from power. The legislation would bar a Knesset member under indictment, as Netanyahu is, from forming a government.
He also stated that he would consider telling President Reuven Rivlin that he would support Gantz as prime minister. Rivlin is tasked with giving the politician with the most recommendations the first shot at forming a government. If the Joint List’s parties make a similar recommendation, Gantz would have the appearance of more support than Netanyahu – 62 seats to his 58.
News of Liberman’s decision fueled sudden speculation that Gantz could form a left-wing minority government, which included Liberman and which had the support of the Joint List from the outside, if Rivlin turned to him first.
But Liberman is historically as uneasy about an Arab partnership with the government as he has been about an ultra-religious one. He is particularly opposed to the Arab parties because they do not believe Israel should be a state for all of its citizens rather than an ethnic Jewish democratic state.
When he speaks of his party as the true right-wingers and the need for a secular, liberal Zionist government, the play he is likely imagining is probably not a left-wing bloc government.
The scenario he’s holding out for more likely goes like this. Support the Knesset legislation and succeed in blocking Netanyahu from forming a government.
Liberman would also recommend Gantz to Rivlin, but not as the head of a minority government. Instead, in the coming weeks he would maneuver to place Gantz as the head of a government that would include Likud, either led or not led by Netanyahu. He would then join that coalition.
It’s a long-shot scenario, but then, from the start, Liberman has been a marathon runner and not a sprinter.