Politics and Diplomacy: Liberman’s path to the coalition

Behind the scenes of the political upheaval that brought the Yisrael Beytenu leader to the Defense Ministry.

Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman
Two months before last year’s Knesset election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped a bombshell at one of the few quiet times in the Israeli news cycle – a Friday afternoon.
He surprised political correspondents by sending them a message that should he win the election, he would not form a national unity government with the Labor Party. He accused the party of selecting “an extreme left-wing and anti-Zionist list” and said that due to the “gaping chasm between Labor and his Likud, “we will not cooperate with them in one government.”
Netanyahu met shortly thereafter with a veteran political correspondent, who told him bluntly, face-to-face: You’re lying to the voters.
The prime minister took the accusation well and asked why he thought so.
The reporter started listing several reasons why he believed Netanyahu was not telling the truth and would indeed form a government with Labor.
Netanyahu stopped him and interjected after he said: You have always tried to have a leading left-winger, like Ehud Barak or Tzipi Livni, in your government to sell you to the world.
Avigdor Liberman is left-wing, so he could do that,” Netanyahu responded in a statement that sounds odd now but made sense at the time, when Liberman had indeed shifted leftward. “So is Moshe Kahlon. He could do that, too.”
Netanyahu’s campaign strategists decided early on that in order to win the election, he had to persuade right-wing voters that the only way to prevent a left-wing government was to vote Likud. In order to counter a response from his rivals on the Right that it would be Netanyahu who would bring the Left into the government, he had to firmly rule out that possibility.
After he won the election, Netanyahu appeared to keep his promise, at least publicly. Labor, which had joined forces with Livni to form the Zionist Union, was not invited to coalition negotiations, which were held only with parties on the Right and the haredim (ultra-Orthodox).
But behind the scenes, Netanyahu made many efforts to bring the Zionist Union into the government.
Although, publicly, Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog fiercely attacked Netanyahu, privately, he was receptive to his overtures and merely sought the right pretext and timing to enter his coalition.
Herzog could not join when the Palestinian wave of violence was at its peak. He had to make sure Netanyahu got the blame for that. After an election in which exit polls showed that voters with security atop their agenda carried Netanyahu to victory, his mantle as Mr. Security was challenged when polls showed 78 percent of Israelis were unsatisfied with his handling of the violence.
Entering a government led by a politically vulnerable prime minister would not have made sense.
Widening the coalition became possible only when the violence dropped to a trickle. Ironically, now-resigned defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who deserves some of the credit for the drop in the violence, will pay the political price for the coalition expansion that could not have taken place had stabbings and car rammings continued on a daily basis.
The other developments that facilitated the widening of the government were the news that Herzog would be cleared of criminal charges in a campaign-financing probe and Kahlon agreeing to Netanyahu’s demand to pass a two-year budget.
Kahlon’s begrudging support for the idea ended bring down the government any time soon, so entering the coalition became more palatable. Netanyahu also had to repay Kahlon for his acquiescence by sincerely seeking the coalition expansion that the Kulanu leader so desperately wanted.
Netanyahu actually did not mind having a narrow, 61-MK coalition which had fewer people to please.
But the rebellions by Likud MKs Oren Hazan, David Amsalem and Avraham Neguise bothered him and motivated him to pay the price needed for a wider government.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who conducted coalition negotiations for Netanyahu and has become the prime minister’s main political adviser, revealed Thursday that there were always two tracks: with Herzog’s Zionist Union and with Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu.
Netanyahu, who is now being accused by the international community of “shifting rightward,” did not have a preference between the two very different parties. For him, it was simple math. If Herzog could bring most of his faction, the government would be more stable, but if he would bring only a few MKs and Bayit Yehudi hawks would leave the coalition, six obedient Yisrael Beytenu MKs were the better option.
Netanyahu and Levin each spent hours with Herzog on a regular basis over the past three weeks to try to work out a deal. There were multiple mediators involved, from former bureaucrats such as Yossi Kucik to international figures like Tony Blair, and Herzog brought teams of aides with him.
By contrast, the deal with Liberman was worked out in a 50-minute meeting with Netanyahu, during which the two met alone, with no mediator.
While Herzog said talks broke down because Netanyahu refused to write down his commitments on diplomatic issues, the Likud said that was true from the beginning and that the real reason no deal was reached was the prime minister could not justify accepting Herzog’s hefty demand for 18 portfolios, deputy ministers and Knesset committee chairmanships for the meager number of MKs who would be loyal to the coalition.
Liberman was not a simple catch either, but for very different reasons.
After Netanyahu betrayed him by supporting Reuven Rivlin for president, Liberman could not trust him.
He was sure Netanyahu was using him to seal a deal with the Zionist Union. Similarly, Netanyahu was burned by Liberman in coalition talks last year and was afraid it would happen again.
Immigration and Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who lost his own portfolio in the process, received a green light from Netanyahu to pursue Yisrael Beytenu following the prime minister’s trip to Moscow with Elkin last month. Elkin was determined to reach a deal with Liberman, because he wanted to block a unity government with the Zionist Union.
A group of right-wing activists in the Likud, led by Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, rallied Likud ministers to tell Liberman he was wanted in the government. Netanyahu’s former bureau chief Natan Eshel eased Netanyahu’s fears by obtaining Liberman’s commitment to not gang up on him in security cabinet meetings and reportedly even obtained a promise to support Netanyahu to form a government after the next election.
When Liberman called a press conference Wednesday, the press thought he would attack Netanyahu.
But Elkin knew in advance that he would express his willingness to join the government, and he even helped Liberman sound credible.
Although Elkin updated Netanyahu the night before the press conference, the prime minister was not persuaded until he heard Liberman say that he would not have demands on matters of religion and state. Liberman backtracked from demands for drafting yeshiva students and for civil marriage that were seen by Netanyahu as nonstarters.
When Levin was asked what helped bring about the widening of the coalition, he appeared to take a page from the playbook of US President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Ben Rhodes. He brought up the same political correspondents who received the message from Netanyahu on that Friday, 16 months earlier.
“It was the media,” he admitted. “They reported incorrectly that we were close to a deal with Herzog. That put pressure on Liberman to beat him to it.”