Analysis: An Afternoon of Hard Maneuvering May Yield New Defense Minister and 67-Member Rightwing CoalitionWednesday, May 18th, 2016
Israeli media reported Wednesday evening that MK Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) has accepted the Prime Minister’s invitation to join his government and receive the portfolios of Defense and Immigrant Absorption — which is a nice package considering Liebrman is only adding six seats to the coalition.
But what a difference six seats make. With the budget vote coming up this Summer Session, Netanyahu will be able to breathe easy. Last session, three rogue members of his Likud faction chose to abstain from voting just to make a point, which helped derail some government legislation, awarding undeserved wins to the opposition. With 67 members, the fourth Netanyahu government can live out its entire four-year term.
Also, unlike the earlier potential coalition partner, Isaac Herzog’s left-leaning Zionist Camp, Lieberman is a natural fit in the current government. When he ended his 90 minute private meeting with the PM (which followed the PM’s meeting with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, where the latter was given his walking papers), most of Likud’s senior ministers were quick to congratulate and welcome him back into the fold. Liebrman really is no stranger to Likudniks — from 1993 to 1996, with Netanyahu in place as party chairman, Lieberman served as the Likud party’s director-general. When Netanyahu was elected to his first term as prime minister, Lieberman served as director-general of the prime minister’s office, the equivalent of the White House chief of staff, from 1996 to 1997. With a few noted exceptions, Lieberman has been to the right of Netanyahu, and left his side to start Yisrael Beiteinu in 1999 over concessions Netanyahu granted the Palestinians in the 1997 Wye River Memorandum. But these days there’s very little daylight between Lieberman and the majority of the Likud Knesset faction.
In addition to Netanyahu’s need for coalition stability, the other issue behind Wednesday’s dramatic change was the growing gap between Defense Minister Ya’alon and the rest of the Likud party, which could have put Netanyahu’s future in danger had he continued to be associated with his DM. In several key episodes in the country’s fractious confrontations with Arab terrorists, Ya’alon appeared to be going out of his way to drag the Netanyahu government to the left.
Last Purim, an IDF medic in Hebron shot and killed a terrorist who had already been neutralized by six bullets to his body. The soldier’s commanders on the ground planned to give him a disciplinary hearing at the time, but an Arab B’Tselem agent shot and released a video of the event, and shortly thereafter military police picked up the medic on murder charges. Ya’alon supported the MP and the military prosecutors, despite an unprecedented wave of protest against the IDF brass that frightened Netanyahu. The PM met with the Medic’s father, the charges were reduced to manslaughter and the case may yet be dismissed, but the PM felt that his DM had stuck him in an untenable spot with the Likud diehard rightwing voters.
Then came the notorious Holocaust Memorial Day speech of the IDF deputy chief of staff, who compared, albeit not directly, episodes such as the Hebron shooting of the terrorist to the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany. Again, Netanyahu’s core voters were outraged. He ordered his DM to extract and apology from the general, but the IDF would not apologize, and denied the charges instead.
Finally, there were the terrorists’ bodies. On several occasions, Netanyahu opposed returning the bodies of killed terrorists to their families for burial without some cost, the least of which would be to let them wait a few days, or weeks, as a deterrence to others. In early May, against Netanyahu’s explicit request, Ya’alon ordered the return of the body of a terrorist who had been killed after attacking and wounding three IDF soldiers, one critically, with his car. Then the IDF said something preachy about having no interest in detaining the bodies, ostensibly as political chips.Netanyahu was livid. Anyone who was following those events and understood the growing resentment in Likud against Ya’alon, could see that his days at the helm were numbered.
It isn’t clear whether Netanyahu was very smart or just very lucky when he allowed himself to be talked by his finance minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) into inviting MK Isaac Herzog to join his coalition government. On its face the move looked crazy if not stupid: for one thing, it wasn’t at all certain that more than half of the Zionist Camp MKs would make the switch over, seeing as they view Netanyahu as the poison tree that must be uprooted, not the shade tree for their top members to sit on lucrative portfolios. So the most Bibi would have gotten were 15 or 16 new MKs, but at the cost of Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi 8 seats, which would have netted him only 7 or 8 additional seats — but would have alienated his rightwing voters. So why did he embark on this apparent fool’s errand? Like we said, either because he is frighteningly clever or frighteningly lucky.
Avigdor Liebrman’s mission from the first day of the 20th Knesset has been to topple Netanyahu’s government and come back after the next elections as the most viable rightwing leader. This is why he refused Netanyahu’s repeated courting in the spring of 2015, and continued to bide his time in the opposition, together with Arabs and leftists, the people he dislikes the most—waiting for his chance. He figured, when the time came, with a big enough issue, and with Bibi’s rogue MKs doing their bit, Lieberman could deliver the deadly blow to Netanyahu, with a resounding vote of no confidence.
But when it started to look as if the Zionist Camp was going to boost Bibi’s numbers beyond the point of toppling, Lieberman realized it was time to shelf his revenge plan and get inside the tent before he’d lose any hope of leaving an impression on his voters this term. And so, seemingly out of the blue, Lieberman gathered a press conference in the afternoon, even as Bibi was scolding Bogie (Lauren Bacall’s nickname for Humphrey Bogart which somehow stuck with Ya’alon during his long and decorated military service) — and the Russian refusnik of yesterday suddenly started to play a serenade to Bibi on his balalaika. For the right price—defense and absorption, and the right terms—the death penalty for terrorists, for instance, he and his Yisrael Beiteinu are definitely ready to jump in.
Netanyahu may have been clever or lucky, but Lieberman was, without a doubt, brilliant. He may appear from this day on as serving Netanyahu, but it will be the PM who’ll be forced to do his bidding on security, because it is Lieberman and not Netanyahu who speaks for the rightwing Likud voters. If Bibi flinches at one of Lieberman’s calls (which the latter will issue politely and calmly) — then Bibi’s voters could easily go for the alternative. Say what you will about Avigdor Lieberman, but he could teach a class on maneuvering to a school of sharks.
As a result of all of the above, and should the coalition talks between Bibi Netanyahu and Yvette Lieberman be successful, Israel will have its first truly rightwing government ever. The Haredim are concerned about the draft, but it’s doubtful the new DM will focus on that hornet’s nest at this stage of his new career. If he does, it would bring a quick and unhappy ending to the 20th Knesset.
The one remaining unknown at this point is Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who really wanted to bring the Zionist Camp into the government and is now stuck to the left of Netanyahu, and with polls that show his Kulanu party dropping from 10 to 7 seats come next elections, while his identical twin, Lapid, is projected to win 19 or 20 seats next time around. Kahlon could kill this latest coalition deal in a kamikaze departure followed by resounding vote of no confidence, at which point nothing could save Bibi’s fourth government.
Oh, what interesting times we’re having.David Israel