Politics & Diplomacy: Aiming for the top job

Avigdor Liberman’s acquittal has smoothed the way for the Foreign Minister’s political ambitions.

Aiming for the top job (photo credit: AMIR COHEN / REUTERS)
Aiming for the top job
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN / REUTERS)
Three minutes on a clear, early November morning was all it took for the Jerusalem Magistrates Court to throw out charges of fraud and breach of public trust against the once and future Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. Conviction with moral turpitude attached would almost certainly have spelled the end of his rambunctious political career. The unanimous, unqualified acquittal reopened the way for the ambitious Yisrael Beytenu leader’s drive to the very top of the Israeli political ladder.
The idea of Liberman in the prime minister’s office is anathema for many. His critics insist that it could be the unmaking of Israel; his supporters point to an unpredictable creative streak and argue that he is one of the few potential national leaders with the capacity to produce viable out-of-the-box solutions.
Whether or not he makes it to the top, his influence on Israel’s international standing is likely to be huge. Much will depend on how far Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allows him to go as foreign minister, and how Netanyahu fares in fending off any leadership challenge he launches.
In aiming for the top job, Liberman, who at 55 is nine years younger than Netanyahu, will first have to decide on an organizational strategy. He could attempt to take over Netanyahu’s Likud and run as its candidate; he could try to rebrand Yisrael Beytenu and accelerate the process already well underway of extending its appeal beyond its original largely Russian immigrant constituency; and he could make what would be a startling shift to the political center, currently inhabited by Yesh Atid, Labor, Hatnua and Kadima, but suffering from the absence of a leader clearly perceived as prime ministerial material.
Within Yisrael Beytenu, Liberman is already being hailed as a future prime minister.
At a late November meeting of the party Central Committee in Jerusalem, speaker after speaker calls on him to run, a move they say that would in itself transform the party from a mid-size coalition adjunct to a major contender for national power.
Liberman needs little prodding. He delivers a would-be prime ministerial speech, unfolding a long-term strategy for securing Jewish dominance over as much of the land as possible. Bedouin land claims in the Negev must be blocked; settlement of the West Bank must continue apace; and Israel must aim to bring in another three million Jewish immigrants over the next 15 years to secure a Jewish majority over all the land it holds. He also expounds a hawkish security policy. If rockets are again fired from Gaza on Israeli civilians in the south, the IDF should invade, reconquer and reoccupy the entire Gaza Strip, toppling the Hamas government and, once and for all, destroying its terrorist infrastructure.
On the matter at hand, whether to turn last year’s ad hoc electoralpact with the Likud into a full merger or terminate the connection between the two parties, Liberman keeps his options open by deciding not to decide. At his instigation, the Central Committee votes unanimously to empower the secretariat, in other words Liberman, to make the decision when the time is ripe.
Liberman’s preferred choice is to run for prime minister through the Likud. Of course, the main reason for the electoral pact was to ensure that Netanyahu retained the premiership. But the wily Liberman also saw it as an opportunity to infiltrate the Likud by gradually turning the ad hoc alliance into a full merger, and then linking up with Likud hawks to establish himself as Netanyahu’s successor as party leader.
Tha plan, however, seems unlikely to succeed. Opposition to a full merger within the Likud is fierce. Other would-be party leaders like Gidon Saar, Silvan Shalom, Yisrael Katz and Moshe Ya’alon don’t want Liberman inside the tent challenging them.
Moreover, the ad hoc alliance is widely seen in the Likud as a monumental failure.
It captured just 31 seats in the January election, only 20 of which went to the Likud.
The electoral pact, grass-roots activists grumble, was good for Netanyahu, but bad for the party. Worse, the mainly Mizrahi activists who make up the decision-making Likud Central Committee and Liberman’s Russian immigrant supporters hold each other in mutual disdain. The Likud activists now in the saddle bristle at the thought of Liberman and the Russian immigrant supporters that come with him stepping on their toes.
To circumvent opposition in the Likud, the fecund Liberman is already working on an alternative strategy: a grand alliance of all the main parties of the right – Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Bayit Yehudi. For Liberman, this has two distinct advantages.
The grandeur of the scheme could melt current Likud opposition and, in a wider framework, Liberman’s chances of emerging as leader would be greater.
If this idea fails to take hold, there is another fallback strategy. There is nothing to stop Liberman disbanding his party and joining the Likud – together with the rest of Yisrael Beytenu – on an individual basis.
This was the model adopted by the farright Jewish Leadership’s Moshe Feiglin, who brought in droves of like-minded observant anti-Arab settlers to get himself elected high enough on the Likud list for a place in the current Knesset. By bringing in thousands of his own people and allying himself with Likud party hawks, Liberman could aim higher.
However, he may well be reluctant to give up the party he leads with such emphatic control. If he decides to run outside the Likud, he would have to broaden Yisrael Beytenu’s appeal by giving it a more universally Israeli image. Already, despite its sectorial public image, the core character of the party is more Israeli than immigrant.
It has picked up considerable all-Israeli support from other now defunct or ailing hawkish Greater Israel parties, like Tzomet, Tekuma and the National Union. And of its 11 Knesset members, only four are immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
More than rebranding Yisrael Beytenu, the burly, outspoken Liberman could have difficulty rebranding himself. Speaking heavily-accented Hebrew, running his party in dictatorial fashion and given to making aggressive remarks against political opponents and regional foes, he is widely perceived in Israel as more Brezhnev than Ben-Gurion.
At the Central Committee meeting, there are far more Hebrew-speaking delegates than Russian. Party members, oozing confidence, urge Liberman to make his bid through Yisrael Beytenu running on its own. They point to the party’s results in the October municipal elections as an indication of its nationwide hold. Yisrael Beytenu contested 49 cities and came away with 94 city councilors, four mayors, three local council heads, nine regional council heads and 23 deputy mayors and deputy local council heads.
But it suffered a resounding setback in Jerusalem, where Liberman failed to get his candidate Moshe Lion elected as mayor or a single Yisrael Beytenu delegate onto the city council.
Either way, municipal results are misleading when it comes to national politics. And the real question is how much support Yisrael Beytenu’s uncompromisingly hawkish and at times anti-democratic policies could garner. For example, one of its defining characteristics has been a persistent drive for anti-Arab “loyalty laws.” This was designed to appeal especially to large Russian immigrant populations in mixed cities like Haifa, Acre, Ramle and Lod, where friction with local Arab residents was rife. It is not clear how much traction this and the Greater Israel ideology would have on the national stage.
Some pundits say that because of the limitations on the right, Liberman might surprise and make his move through the untenanted Israeli center. There were some initial indications – his early November comments implicitly censuring Netanyahu for getting into a public spat with America over Iran and his support for Yesh Atid’s Ofer Shelah to replace him as chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
The game plan would be to depict himself as the great pragmatist moving the way Ariel Sharon did from the far right to the political center, and like Sharon having the strength to take far-reaching historicaldecisions. He would project himself as a strong leader, who, unlike the pressureprone Netanyahu, actually has the capacity to deliver national salvation. His close friend and sometime ally, Shas leader Arye Deri, predicts that a new Liberman, without the millstone of corruption allegations around his neck, is about to emerge with a newfound capacity to express his longrepressed creative political brilliance.
But given Yisrael Beytenu’s intrinsically hawkish nature, a move to the center is highly unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future.
Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of his acquittal, Liberman veered sharply to the right. At the annual Sderot socioeconomic conference, the returning foreign minister poured ice-cold water on US Secretary of State John Kerry’s Herculean efforts to advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Peace, he proclaimed, “would not be achieved through mediation.” It could only “be built, slowly.” First there would have to be security for Israel and a vibrant economy for the Palestinians, and peace would only be possible when Palestinian GDP per capita reaches $10,000, “not a day before.” Given that today it is below $2,000 in the West Bank and less than half that in Gaza, this could take quite some time. In the meantime, in Liberman’s view, Israel should not make any concessions, because, as past experience shows, that “would not get it anywhere.” In other words, according to Liberman, the occupation can continue indefinitely, irrespective of the harm that might do to Israel’s international standing and the Palestinian unrest it could trigger.
Liberman will undoubtedly use his return to the Foreign Ministry as a lever to build his prime ministerial credentials. Already he is talking about a total revamping of foreign policy. At the Sderot Conference, he argued that for decades Israel’s orientation had been “unidirectional,” aimed solely at Washington. By contrast, he advocated a “multidirectional” approach in which Israel would establish a new set of global alliances, not instead of the strategic relationship with America, but alongside it.
According to Liberman’s analysis, America has too many other problems on its plate, and therefore increasingly less time for Israel. And the pointed question he asks is where this leaves Israel in the international arena and how it might compensate for lost American interest. “The relationship with America is declining,” he declared. “And we need to find additional allies with common interests.” The countries Israel should seek out, he said, are those that don’t need Arab money or Arab diplomatic support and could benefit from Israeli innovation and technology.
Netanyahu is party to the reorientation policy. His recent visits to China and Russia and the way French President Francois Hollande’s mid-November visit to Israel was played up are all part of an attempt to signal that Israel has other options and is not solely dependent on America.
Liberman’s comments on finding new allies raised tremendous controversy.
True, Israel does face the challenge of a possible American retreat from the region.
After Iraq and Afghanistan, its uneasy ties with the new government in Egypt, its hesitancy over Syria and the late November interim nuclear agreement with Iran, President Barack Obama’s America seems bent on down-scaling its Middle Eastern involvement. The question for Israel is how best to deal with this. And critics on the left, like Labor’s new leader Yitzhak Herzog, maintain that to clash with America on the Palestinian track and over Iran while calling for alternative “alliances” could do far more harm than good.
Indeed, the critics say, Netanyahu and his would-be successor are playing with fire. Putting a damper on peace talks with the Palestinians, castigating America’s agreement with Iran in apocalyptic terms and ill-considered aspersions about the strength of the strategic alliance could leave Israel without peace with the Palestinians, without a US military and diplomatic umbrella and open to international delegitimization.
Unless the two find a way to restore the intimate ties with Washington, the foundation of Israel’s foreign policy and existential strategy, Liberman’s question about Israel’s place in the world could become relevant in ways he has yet to anticipate, the critics charge.