The Liberman factor: Less than meets the eye?

In the long run, to fulfill his ambition of becoming PM, Liberman will have to broaden his appeal.

Liberman leaving court 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Liberman leaving court 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The acquittal of Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday morning and his imminent return to the Foreign Ministry has piqued the interest of the world media, vying for top billing with US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Israel and the renewal of talks with Iran.
Many fear Liberman will shift Israeli policy on both Iran and the peace process in a more hawkish direction. But the truth is that the return of Liberman is unlikely to affect Israeli policy on either of these issues directly.
Regarding negotiations with the Palestinians, there are no major substantive differences between Liberman and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Both are extremely skeptical of the chances of reaching a permanent status deal with Abbas, but both support partition of the land of Israel.
Unlike Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, neither are driven by the right-wing, territorially maximalist ideology of the “whole land of Israel.”
So there is unlikely to be much change in Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians on matters of substance.
What we can expect are differences of style – Liberman’s messages will be couched in hawkish, populist language and targeted at a domestic audience, while Netanyahu will target more statesman-like messages to the international community. Liberman’s rhetoric might damage Israel’s standing with liberally minded public opinion in Western Europe and America, but is unlikely to damage government- to-government relations.
As several European diplomats have told me over the years, Liberman is a man you can do business with. Moreover, if Liberman was able to stay in the Olmert government, which offered extremely wide-ranging concessions to the Palestinians, he is unlikely to have a substantive reason to leave a Netanyahu government.
In any case, the most important elements of Israeli foreign policy are virtually always under the control of the prime minister rather than the foreign minister. Netanyahu is thus the key player on Iran, the Palestinians and regarding relations with the US. This was the case before Liberman had to resign, and Liberman’s position will only have weakened since then as Tzipi Livni and Yuval Steinitz have been put in day-to-day charge of matters that would usually come under the purview of the foreign minister.
Liberman may be able to claw back some of those issues from Steinitz, who is politically dependent on the prime minister, but he will not be able to displace Livni without threatening the whole coalition and Netanyahu’s standing in the US – so this is much less likely to happen.
Still, Liberman’s political standing is such that he will have an important influence at the cabinet table. If Netanyahu decides to take any major foreign policy and defense decisions, he will very much want to have Liberman’s support. This is because Liberman is the strongest potential challenger to the prime minister for the leadership of the Right.
The leader of Yisrael Beytenu may not have had a decisive say over policy in the Cast Lead operation against Hamas in Gaza, but his populist, hawkish sound bites made him undoubtedly the main political beneficiary of that war. This is a precedent Netanyahu will not want repeated.
In the short run, though, Liberman is no threat to Netanyahu, whose public standing on the leadership question is far above that of all potential rivals. So for the time being, Liberman’s agenda will be focused on determining whether Yisrael Beytenu should split from the Likud, remain separate but with a joint electoral list, or integrate completely into the Likud.
In terms of maximizing the number of seats for the Right in general and Yisrael Beytenu in particular, the best option is probably to split. After all, the two parties gained considerably more seats when they ran separately in 2009 than when they ran together in 2013. Moreover, Liberman is not in a position to challenge Netanyahu for the leadership of Likud.
However, in the long run, to fulfill his ambition of becoming prime minister, Liberman will have to broaden his appeal, and that will be difficult for him to do in a party whose base is made up of Russian immigrants and right-wingers. It is therefore quite possible his longterm future may yet be in the Likud.
The author is a senior researcher at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.