5779’s Person of the Year is a no-brainer: Avigdor Liberman

Middle Israel: The 61-year-old tennis enthusiast who single-handedly thrust us into monumental tumult shaped this stormy year more than anyone else.

AVIGDOR LIBERMAN – a need to reinvent himself. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
AVIGDOR LIBERMAN – a need to reinvent himself.
Our Person of the Year 5779 is not a scientist, artist, athlete or indeed any representative of merit.
Unlike other choices we have made along the years, like Nobel laureate Ada Yonath (5770) or world-renowned economist Stanley Fischer (5769), this time we could not flee to any of the many stories of Israeli excellence, for two reasons: first, there was no such major story this year, and second, 5779 was one of the most intensely political years in Israeli history, and our choice must reflect that distinction.
For that reason we also cannot choose this year a world leader, the way we did last year (Vladimir Putin) and three years ago (Donald Trump), or a Middle Eastern leader, as we did with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mohamed Morsi and Bashar Assad in 5766, 5772 and 5773, respectively.
Nor can we nominate a humble person who sacrificed for a cause, like Yigal Gueta (5777), the Shas MK who attended his gay nephew’s wedding even though it cost him his Knesset seat; or a martyr like Muhammad Bouazizi (5771), whose self-immolation sparked pan-Arab revolt; or a war victim like Alan Kurdi (5775), the Syrian toddler whose shipwrecked body was washed to a Turkish shore.
At the end of a year in which Israel held two general elections within five months, our choice must reflect this unprecedented distinction, the way we chose Alef (5767), the code-named woman whose accusation of Moshe Katsav triggered the president’s downfall, or Moshe Talansky (5768), whose testimony signaled Ehud Olmert’s political demise.
Having understood this, our choice of 5779’s Person of the Year is a no-brainer: Avigdor Liberman.
THE 61-YEAR-OLD tennis enthusiast who single-handedly thrust us into monumental tumult shaped this stormy year more than anyone else. All the rest of the year’s political protagonists seemed like pawns on Liberman’s chessboard.
Benjamin Netanyahu, a master of Israeli politics and a major-league statesman, was caught completely off guard by Liberman’s failure to join his coalition. “If only I had preempted him,” one has to imagine Netanyahu mumbling to himself as last week’s election results emerged.
The same goes for the ultra-Orthodox parties, whose political gluttony led them to overplay their hand, ultimately making one demand too many. “If only we had thought of Liberman when we insisted on rescinding that Conscription Bill,” one has to imagine them fretting as they now stare at a prospective broad government where their Antichrist, Yair Lapid, might play first violin.
Liberman rocked the system so hard that everyone was affected, including some who benefited from his unpredictability. Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked on the Right, Orly Levy-Abecassis in the Center, and new Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz on the Left were all granted free rides back to relevance thanks to the heavily accented man whose shape, beard and bluster are so reminiscent of cartoon character Bluto, Popeye the Sailor’s bullying nemesis.
Towering above all other beneficiaries of Liberman’s grand maneuver was Benny Gantz, who owes him his sudden proximity to the premiership. If not for the unnatural election Liberman forced on us, Gantz and his colleagues would now have been watching from the parliamentary sidelines how Netanyahu, Arye Deri, and Bezalel Smotrich run the Jewish state.
Yes, judging by recent days’ events, one is tempted to crown President Reuven Rivlin as Person of the Year, due to his emerging role as a broad government’s engineer. Alas, that government will not be here before 5780, so it might eventually make Rivlin a candidate for next year’s choice; but insofar as the elapsing year is concerned, he cannot claim to have shaped it.
That is also why Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit cannot be Person of the Year.
Yes, the man who in a previous life was Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary is inches away from indicting him and thus potentially ending his former patron’s political career. However, despite its centrality in our life, that legal situation, like Rivlin’s role in these political days of awe, has yet to mature. Yes, it cast a thick shadow over 5779, but it did not shape the elapsing year.
In short, it all leaves us with Liberman, and the question following what he did to us this year is what his emergence as Person of the Year means. Unfortunately, it means we are politically ill.
HIS RIVALS say that Yvette, as his friends call Liberman, has left little imprint during more than 13 aggregate years as minister of infrastructure, transportation, strategic affairs, defense, and foreign affairs, and even less as a lawmaker since entering the Knesset two decades ago.
That may be true, but Liberman did do two things:
First, as director-general of the Likud in the early 1990s, he was instrumental in tilting Russian-speaking voters rightward, after many of them had voted for Yitzhak Rabin. Second, as a party leader he introduced a kind of populist rhetoric never previously heard here, ranging from his warning to Egypt that Israel can bomb the Aswan Dam to his vow to kill Hamas’s leaders if he became defense minister.
Liberman’s failure as defense minister to deliver on this promise made of him a laughingstock, and his consequent need to reinvent himself is apparently what made him veer from anti-terrorist babbler to anti-religious crusader, the cause he used to shake the politician system as he just did.
All this, coupled with his hope to install here an authoritarian presidential system, means Liberman is not the prime ministerial embodiment he thinks he is, but a potent threat to the future of the Jewish state, and this is before considering his dubious financial history.
Then again, in showing how ultra-Orthodox politics can be confronted, and in voicing its Russian-speaking victims’ plight, he has shown veteran Israelis that what they think can be delayed indefinitely can and must be addressed at once. That is why Avigdor Liberman is our Person of the Year.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.