Why Avigdor Liberman is the real winner of both 2019 elections

#6: Avigdor Liberman

Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Avigdor Liberman
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
There are few politicians in Israel who know how to seize power and wield it as well as Avigdor Liberman.
So it should come as no surprise to those who know him that the Israeli elections have not once but twice, in a six-month period, left him in the key position as Israel’s kingmaker, who seeks to redesign the country’s political landscape.
It’s a particularly remarkable achievement for a politician with a blunt and often undiplomatic style of speech, perpetually eulogized by political pundits tending to denigrate him as a solely Russian-speaking candidate who is hardly representative of the larger Israeli public.
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The tall, bearded Russian-Israeli is one of the few Israeli politicians on the Center-Right of the map, who does not appear to fear the opposition. He has braved political insignificance more than once by taking the risk of leaving the government to make a principled point.
Liberman has done it enough times in his last two decades as the head of the Yisrael Beytenu Party, that his departures have almost become more of a signature move of political acumen rather than a sign of personal defeat.
Liberman was a minister in former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s government, but was fired over his refusal to support the 2005 Disengagement. He initially sat in Ehud Olmert’s government, but quit over Annapolis.
Already in November 2018, he quit his post as defense minister over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Gaza policies, just one month prior to Netanyahu’s decision to head to early elections.
YISRAEL BEYTENU was given little chance of passing the threshold, but ended up with five seats - just enough so that his party could have entered Netanyahu’s coalition, thereby allowing the prime minister to form a right-wing bloc, which would have included the ultra-Orthodox parties. It was a move many expected Liberman to make.
Instead he used his sudden position of power, to seize more power by attempting to reset the country’s political agenda: from one that had been focused on a right-wing versus left-wing government, to the religious-secular divide.
Liberman called for Netanyahu not to form a right-wing government that was dependent on the ultra-Orthodox parties but to instead create a government with Blue and White Party head Benny Gantz. Both those parties had received 35 seats in the April election. It was in fact a scenario that was almost his ideal political set up, having told the Saban Forum in 2012 that he preferred the US two-party system of government and would like to see something similar in Israel.
When neither Netanyahu nor Gantz heeded his call, Liberman gambled, refusing to enter Netanyahu’s coalition. It was a move that ultimately sent the country back to elections.
In a June interview with The Jerusalem Post, Liberman said he was focused on ideology and not personality when it came to the Prime Minister’s Office.
“I don’t believe in this personality cult,” he said. “I am committed to an ideology and to a type of governance in the way of [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky – a nationalistic and liberal government and not one that is promoting a Halachic state [ruled by Jewish law].
“Our campaign is clear: We are for a Jewish state but we are against a Halachic state.”
The gamble paid off for Liberman, who emerged stronger the second time around with eight seats, while both Gantz and Netanyahu fell, garnering 33 and 31 seats respectively. It was a tally that cemented Liberman’s role as kingmaker.
In the week since the September 17 election, he issued the same call, as he continued to try to redesign the Israeli political landscape to his personal preference – one devoid of Israeli-Arabs on the Left, and absent of the ultra-Orthodox on the Right.
“I have already said that I see the ultra-Orthodox parties as political opponents and not as an enemy,” Liberman told reporters after the election. “The Joint List, however, is certainly an enemy and not [merely] political opponents - and wherever they are we will be on the other side of the aisle.”
THE 61-YEAR OLD Moldovan native, who made aliyah in 1978, began his political life in the Likud Party. He was Netanyahu’s political protege in the 1990s, serving first as director general of the party and then as director general of the Prime Minister’s Office from 1996-1997, when Netanyahu was serving his first term as premier.
But he broke away from Netanyahu to protest the signing of the Wye Memorandum with the Palestinian Authority, and formed his own Yisrael Beytenu Party in 1999. Liberman is one of the few Netanyahu protegés with staying power. He has a governmental resume that outdoes almost all other candidates in all parties, including having been minister of national infrastructure, transportation, strategic affairs and deputy prime minister. Under Netanyahu, he served twice as foreign minister and once as defense minister.
An outspoken hawk, who has called Abbas a diplomatic terrorist and the Israeli-Arab parties the enemy, he has long seen himself as a man who could one day be prime minister. Early on he developed a peace plan, which called for a new map of Israel that would place  densely populated Israeli-Arab areas of sovereign Israel within the boundaries of a future Palestinian state. In exchange, portions of the West Bank with Jewish populations would be placed within Israel’s sovereign borders.
It is not for nothing that Democratic Union politician and former prime minister Ehud Barak has warned that Liberman’s real goal here is to find a way to already become prime minister now.
But irrespective of whether he reaches the prime minister’s office, these last six months place him in a powerful position to chart Israel’s future.
One recent political analysis warned that the Yisrael Beytenu leader had backed himself into a corner. But it is more likely that when the dust of the elections settles, he will be one of the few politicians who can consider himself a winner.
If a unity government is formed between the Likud and Blue and White, Liberman will justly declare victory, even if he sits in the opposition. He already stated as much on election night and continues to do so. If he is part of such a unity government, all the better.
Should Netanyahu manage to put together a right-wing government, he will wait in the wings, as the politician who did his utmost for
secular Israel – and take that message to the polls the next time around.