Avigdor Lieberman has done it once again. Israel’s most mysterious and unpredictable politician created a political firestorm last Monday by announcing that he has decided to stay out of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government—despite having won only six seats in the recent Knesset elections, which threatened to consign him to political oblivion. His announcement put Netanyahu’s status as prime minister in real danger for two days and eventually caused him to capitulate to demands from junior coalition members, whom only a few days earlier he was planning to politely brush off.
Lieberman stated many reasons for his surprising decision, which seemed to come out of nowhere. He attacked Netanyahu from the right for not toppling Hamas in Gaza during the last war, and accused him of caving in to the ultra-Orthodox parties by erasing pluralistic legislation on Jewish conversions, which was passed by the last government. He described Netanyahu’s new coalition as “purely opportunistic” and boasted that his party was offered sufficient government portfolios (including the foreign ministry for himself) but “chose values over seats.”
There’s no doubt that all of these issues had some effect on Lieberman’s decision to decline Netanyahu’s invitation, but none of them was the main reason for it. It’s true that Lieberman was very critical toward Netanyahu’s management of the last Gaza war—he wanted the IDF to conquer the entire Gaza Strip—and it’s obvious that Netanyahu’s concessions to the ultra-Orthodox will hurt Lieberman’s political base of Russian-speaking immigrants. But behind the “values and disagreements” discussion lies a much simpler motive, which Lieberman doesn’t publicly talk about, for now: The former foreign minister wants to see Netanyahu out of office, and he will do whatever he can to make it happen.
By staying out of the government, Lieberman is forcing Netanyahu to rely on a narrow right-wing coalition of only 61 members (out of a total of 120 in the Knesset). Such a coalition will be extremely hard to manage, as any single coalition member could topple the entire government. The ambitious new Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is planning a list of economic reforms that any single coalition member could potentially block. Kahlon clearly told Netanyahu that he strongly opposes a 61-member coalition and would agree to be part of it only “as a temporary situation.” If he comes to a conclusion that the coalition is killing his reforms, he’ll quit in a matter of months, leaving Netanyahu without a majority. Netanyahu’s only way out of this trap is to persuade the Labor Party, led by Isaac Herzog, to join the government in the future—but Herzog realizes that his price has just gone up, thanks to Lieberman, and is in no hurry to save the prime minister.
Lieberman’s maneuvering surprised many in Israel. Only a week ago, it seemed almost certain that he would sign an agreement with Netanyahu, keeping the Foreign Ministry and winning another portfolio for his party. For the leader of a small party—the smallest to take part in the coalition negotiations—this seemed like a very generous offer. But according to a source close to Netanyahu, the prime minister now believes that Lieberman never had any real intention to join the government and was simply killing time in the negotiation room, waiting for the last hour of the coalition talks in order to drop the bomb and leave Netanyahu crippled.
It’s clear how Lieberman’s decision is hurting Netanyahu, but much less clear what good it does to Lieberman. A number of leading pundits in Israel described it as a “political suicide attack,” in which Lieberman sent his party to irrelevance in the opposition, just in order to kill Netanyahu’s chances to have a full-term, stable government. A suicide attack is either an act of irrational belief, or an act of desperation. Lieberman is a very rational man, but the last 18 months have clearly made him desperate. Before the latest elections, Lieberman had a well-orchestrated plan that was supposed to put him in the prime minister’s office, or in the worst-case scenario, in the Defense Ministry. The plan failed, and he blames Netanyahu for it. Now is his time to seek revenge.
Lieberman began his quest to the prime minister’s office immediately after his return to the Foreign Ministry on Nov. 6, 2013, when the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court shot down the corruption charges against him. Lieberman became a free man on that day, not just physically, but also politically. For the first time in 15 years, he was walking around without a cloud of corruption allegations hovering above him. This allowed him to try and do something he had wanted to do for many years, but couldn’t—abandon his position as a right-wing extremist leading a sectarian “Russian party” and shift toward the center of the Israeli political map, the place from where, he believed, he could one day become prime minister.
Lieberman has always been much more moderate and pragmatic than his own public image. American officials dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, such as Martin Indyk, have been saying for years that at the moment of truth, Lieberman could support a comprehensive peace agreement despite his tough and racist rhetoric. Some officials even explained his hardliner public positions as pure political maneuvering, in the same way that the Obama Administration these days dismisses extreme positions coming from the ayatollahs in Iran. The publicly crazy Lieberman, they said, was just playing politics; the “real” Lieberman was a reasonable guy with whom you could cut a deal.
After his legal ordeals were over, it was time for the “real” Lieberman, or rather the “new Lieberman”—Israel’s equivalent of the “new Nixon”—to finally emerge. Lieberman’s first move as an acquitted, back-in-office foreign minister, was to use the crisis in the Israel-U.S. relationship to present himself to the Israeli public as the responsible adult in Netanyahu’s cabinet. And so, while Likud ministers were competing among themselves to see who would use the harshest language against John Kerry’s peace proposals, it was the supposed racist and hardliner Lieberman who came to Kerry’s defense, calling him “a true friend of Israel” and supporting his peace efforts by claiming that “Israel will not get a better offer than Kerry’s offer.”
Lieberman, it must be noted, didn’t believe for one moment that Kerry’s negotiations during the fall of 2013 and the winter of 2014 would lead to a peace agreement: His support for Kerry had nothing to do with the peace process, which Lieberman believes is a complete waste of time as long as the current Palestinian leadership is in power. It had more to do with maintaining a good relationship between Jerusalem and Washington, while at the same time, serving Lieberman’s political ambitions. What Lieberman wanted to achieve by supporting Kerry publicly was to distance himself from the extreme, settlements-oriented right wing and position himself as the keeper of Israel’s strategically important relationship with the U.S. administration. His strategy worked: The leading commentators in the country praised him for his positive role, and the State Department complimented him. Since a peace deal was never reached, Lieberman’s support of Kerry improved his image in the eyes of centrist voters without costing him anything on the right. Or as one of his advisers summed it up nicely, “He gave Kerry political support, and he received political gains in return. It had nothing to do with peace.”
Using Kerry in order to move toward the center was just one of Lieberman’s calculated moves in the year and a half between his acquittal and the latest elections. Another was to start talking vaguely about his support for a “regional peace plan,” which fit what Lieberman observed in the Israeli public debate: wariness of the Palestinians, and disbelief in any peace accord with them, but a desire to achieve some kind of a broader agreement with the “moderate Arab world,” which shares Israel’s loathing of Iran.
Lieberman started positioning himself as the right man to create dialogue with the Arab world last summer, when he suddenly announced that he has become a supporter of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which only five years earlier he had denounced as “a recipe for Israel’s destruction.” Lieberman’s declaration on the API came after six years of secret diplomatic efforts by the foreign minister to establish quiet working relationships with prominent Arab countries, especially in the Gulf region. Very few people in Israel, including inside his own ministry, knew about these relationships. Lieberman kept them secret for a long time and started unveiling them carefully only last summer. And while many politicians, including Netanyahu, like to speak about the common interests that Israel shares with some of its Arab neighbors, for Lieberman these common interests were more than just diplomatic talking points.
Long before the “new Lieberman” started talking about Israel and the Arab world, the Israeli public got a glimpse of the foreign minister’s ability to cut deals in the region. It happened in August 2010, when Lieberman helped rescue an Israeli photographer from a Libyan prison. The photographer, a young Jerusalemite named Rafram “Raphael” Chaddad, entered the country in order to film old Jewish heritage sites and was soon arrested by Muammar Qaddafi’s brutal police. After five months in jail, he was flown out of the country by Martin Schlaff, a wealthy Jewish businessman from Austria who is considered very close to Lieberman and was involved in many of Lieberman’s legal ordeals over the years. Schlaff’s private plane took Chaddad from Tripoli to Vienna, where Lieberman was waiting to congratulate Chaddad and fly with him back to Israel. The entire operation was secretly arranged using Schlaff’s many business contacts in the Arab world. Very few people in the foreign ministry had any idea that it was being worked out. A senior MFA official says, “In general, very few people in this building know what Lieberman was mostly up to. His schedule was treated like a top secret. He went sometimes on foreign trips that no one had any knowledge about. This Libya thing is just one example.”
Last summer, as the “new Lieberman” was moving toward the political center, the Israeli public suddenly became even more aware of Lieberman’s secret diplomatic powers. One unforgettable example came during the Gaza war last summer, at a meeting of Israel’s security cabinet two weeks before the war’s end. In that meeting, Netanyahu briefed the ministers about Egypt’s efforts to forge a ceasefire but didn’t share with them a ceasefire document that had been sent to him from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, fearing that some of the ministers—Lieberman included—would think it contained too many concessions to Hamas. Haaretz reported that after Netanyahu finished briefing the ministers, Lieberman amazed everyone in the room by pulling the ceasefire offer from his briefcase and putting it on the table for all others to see. Netanyahu was embarrassed, and sources in Lieberman’s office joyfully told the paper that “The Foreign Minister has good enough sources”—and didn’t need to rely on Netanyahu in order to learn of important developments in the region.
It’s unknown how exactly Lieberman received the Egyptian document that Netanyahu tried to conceal from his ministers, but the very close ties between the Egyptian presidency and some of the countries in the Gulf region, who are Egypt’s most important economic supporters, suggest one interesting possibility. Four months later, in late December 2014, Maariv reported that Lieberman met a senior Arab official in Paris for a secret discussion that even members of Israel’s security cabinet were briefed about only after signing special confidentiality papers. A source close to Lieberman says that the purpose of that meeting was to “explore future cooperation on regional crises” and also to “discuss the minister’s ideas about a regional peace plan.”
According to recent reports in the Israeli press, one of Lieberman’s most peculiar connections in the Arab world involves Mohammed Dahlan, the fiercest political rival of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Dahlan grew up in Gaza and after the Oslo Accords and became the head of the Palestinian Authority’s internal security forces in the Strip. He was feared and loathed by Hamas activists for his organization’s cruel interrogation techniques. His iron grip of the Gaza Strip loosened over the years, and in 2007 his security forces failed miserably as Hamas took over Gaza, forcing him to seek refuge in the West Bank.
Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli minister and peace negotiator, described a conversation he had with Dahlan in 2000, during which the Palestinian strongman surprised him by saying that “there are two politicians that the Israeli left is missing out on, big time: Shas leader Aryeh Deri, and Avigdor Lieberman. These two can be key players in a peace agreement, but instead of bringing them closer, the left is pushing them away.”
What do Dahlan, Deri, and Lieberman have in common? Not much, except for the fact that all three are somehow connected to Martin Schlaff. Deri and Lieberman have been close to the Austrian tycoon for two decades, and last April both flew to Vienna to attend a bar mitzvah for Schalff’s son. Dahlan first met Schlaff in the happy Oslo process years, when Schlaff decided to build a casino in Jericho and needed connections to top PA officials in order to get it going. Schalff’s key man in the PA was Arafat’s close financial adviser Mohammed Rashid, who later formed a political bond with Dahlan in order to oust Abbas. In 2007, when Dahlan escaped Gaza and landed in the West Bank, it didn’t take long before Abbas felt that Dahlan and Rashid were working against him, and as a result they were forced into exile because of a pressing corruption investigation. Today, Schlaff’s point man in the PA (Rashid) and his political partner (Dahlan) are both considered protégés of the United Arab Emirates, a rich and influential country in the Gulf that has maintained quiet ties to Israeli officials over the years.
Ever since Lieberman’s appointment as foreign minister, a number of news stories involving secret meetings between him and Dahlan have surfaced, but both sides issued fierce denials. However, both men have openly and repeatedly been calling on the international community to show Abbas the door and replace him with a new, younger, and democratically elected Palestinian leader—presumably Dahlan. Lieberman has made the need to replace Abbas a major talking point, explaining that the old Palestinian president doesn’t have what it takes to cut a deal with Israel. Dahlan, on the other hand, has been described by some of the Israelis and Americans who participated in the 2000 Camp David summit as one of the most flexible and compromising participants from the Palestinian side.
Palestinian officials close to Abbas are absolutely convinced that Lieberman and Dahlan are working together against him. They also claim that Lieberman’s tough line during the last Gaza war, and his demand that Israel should invade Gaza and “topple Hamas,” were meant to pave Dahlan’s way back to the Gaza Strip. Lieberman, of course, denies all of these claims. On Jan. 4 this year, Avi Issacharoff, Israel’s leading Palestinian affairs correspondent, reported that Abbas’ anger over the Lieberman-Dahlan connection was so strong that Netanyahu had to do some serious damage control, in the form of sending the head of the Shin Bet to Abbas with a personal message from the prime minister, assuring him that “the Israeli minister who is meeting Dahlan is doing so without the government’s approval.”
By the summer of 2014, Lieberman was a newborn centrist—a newborn apostle of peace, personally close to the U.S. secretary of state, openly calling to negotiate with the Arab world on its 2002 peace initiative, and working behind the scenes to replace Abbas with a more flexible Palestinian leader, supposedly so Israel would have a better negotiating partner. But putting himself in the right spot was only one aspect of Lieberman’s grand plan. Another was to break his political alliance with Netanyahu, which was formed back in the fall of 2012, three months before the January 2013 elections, and was now standing between him and the prime minister’s office.
That bond, many in Likud today admit, was also a purely opportunistic maneuver by Netanyahu: Lieberman came to him with polls showing that if their two parties ran together, they could win 40 to 45 seats. Netanyahu liked that idea and agreed to form a joint list with Lieberman’s “Yisrael Beitenu.” On election night, however, the list received only 31 seats. In his eagerness to close a deal with Lieberman, Netanyahu accepted most of his demands on the actual makeup of the list, leading to a situation in which Lieberman eventually won 12, while Likud was left with only 19.
Lieberman originally hoped to use the merger in order to become Netanyahu’s natural heir in Likud, but a few months after the elections, he changed course and instead focused on finding the right opportunity to split from the joint list and become independent again. That opportunity arrived last July, a day before Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. After days of constant rocket launches by Hamas into Israel’s south, Lieberman criticized Netanyahu for “waiting too long” and not responding harshly enough. “My disagreement with Netanyahu on this issue doesn’t allow us to work in a joint political framework anymore,” he said. Netanyahu’s advisers pointed out that only a year and a half earlier, Lieberman had supported Netanyahu’s careful reaction to Hamas’ rocket attacks during November 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense.
But Lieberman was just getting started. In the coming weeks, as Netanyahu was running the war against Hamas in Gaza, he found himself fighting a second front in his own cabinet against Lieberman and “Jewish Home” leader, Naftali Bennett, who constantly and publicly criticized the IDF’s slow, heavy, and limited operation in Gaza. While Bennett’s criticism was one-dimensional—he simply called to use more force and insert more ground troops into Gaza—Lieberman attacked Netanyahu from the right by openly saying that Israel needed to conquer Gaza, while also challenging him from the left, by increasing his calls for regional talks with allies in the Arab world. The unprecedented cooperation between Israel and Egypt during the war, which was the only piece of good news in Israel during the entire summer, made his argument seem cogent.
Netanyahu, who has known Lieberman for three decades, realized exactly what his former partner was up to. In background conversations with leading journalists, he complained in panic about “those who are shooting inside the tent.” When asked about Lieberman’s criticism, Netanyahu replied that before attacking the government, the foreign minister should first of all start appearing at the security cabinet meetings—pointing out that Lieberman skipped many of the most important meetings held during the war, yet had the chutzpah to offer an alternative policy. (Lieberman has a reputation for being impatient with long and complicated discussions. Last year I reported that Israel’s governmental committee for arms purchases held four discussions over the purchase of F-35 warplanes, and Lieberman—who is a senior member of the committee—attended only one, and even on that occasion, left in the middle. He had no foreign trips during any of these discussions, nor was he hosting any senior visitors from abroad. One fellow minister claimed Lieberman didn’t attend simply because “he thinks it’s boring.”)
While the Gaza war ended in late August, the war between Netanyahu and Lieberman was just beginning. The most important battle was fought in early November, and it ended in a victory for Lieberman, which paved the way for new elections. On Nov. 12, the Knesset voted on the “Israel HaYom Bill,” named after the free newspaper handed out every morning to hundreds of thousands of Israelis, with unlimited financial backing from Netanyahu’s friend and supporter Sheldon Adelson.
Israel HaYom is known in Israel as “the Bibiton,” a merger of Netanyahu’s nickname and the Hebrew word for newspaper, because it offers unquestionable support for the prime minister, in a way that no newspaper in Israel has done ever since party-owned newspapers evaporated in the 1980s. It is also engaged in a fierce commercial battle with Yediot Aharonot, which was Israel’s top newspaper for two decades before Adelson began his venture.
Lieberman despises Israel HaYom. He has been a favorite of Yediot for many years and obviously sees the Adelson-owned newspaper, which grew in the last years to become the most widely read newspaper in Israel, as an obstacle to his political ambitions. He has made a habit of calling the newspaper “Pravda Israel HaYom” whenever he speaks about it in public and once even refused to take questions from the paper’s diplomatic reporter at a press conference, because “your newspaper is like Pravda.”
This kind of criticism was acceptable to Netanyahu, but last November, Lieberman crossed a line with the prime minister when he instructed the members of his party to vote in favor of a bill sponsored by the Labor Party. The bill would make it impossible for Israel HaYom to be distributed for free. Lieberman’s support helped the proposal reach a majority in the Knesset, to Netanyahu’s great frustration. After the vote, Lieberman was walking around the Knesset with a wide grin, looking almost giddy. Many leading political commentators in Israel believe that the “Israel HaYom Bill,” more than anything else, drove Netanyahu to dislodge his government and declare early elections. Whether it’s true or not, for Lieberman the elections that got under way exactly three weeks later presented the perfect opportunity to conclude his plan and become the next Prime Minister.
In the first three weeks of the elections, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu was polling at around 12 seats, only third in the right-wing bloc, behind Likud and Jewish Home. Lieberman, however, was working behind the scenes on forming a centrist bloc together with the new party led by former Likud Minister Moshe Kahlon and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. While both Lapid and Kahlon were struggling early and polling beneath 10 mandates each, Lieberman believed they would both pass that threshold by election day. Together with his expected result of anything from 10 to 14 seats, the three would hold together more than 30 seats, becoming the largest political force in the Knesset, and would then negotiate a government on their terms with both Labor and Likud. Netanyahu, Lieberman believed, would probably quit after failing to form a coalition without any of these three parties. While the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, would probably stay out of a government led by Lieberman and Lapid, it would have been easier for Lieberman to convince Aryeh Deri of Shas to join in, perhaps with some help from their common friend in Vienna, Schlaff.
Netanyahu is convinced that Lieberman’s legislation to raise the threshold for entering the Knesset—which the government implemented in July 2013—was never really meant to wipe out the Arab parties, as Lieberman presented it publicly, but to stop Deri’s rival inside Shas, Eli Yishai, from splitting away from the party and running on his own platform. It’s hard to tell if Netanyahu’s analysis is right, but the final election results show that he had a point: After the electoral threshold was raised, the Arab parties joined forces and became the third-largest bloc in the Knesset, while Yishai ran against Deri but failed to pass the new threshold and was left out of the Knesset.
While official spokespeople for Lapid and Kahlon denied back in December that a deal with Lieberman was being discussed, senior politicians from both Lapid’s and Kahlon’s parties told me it was in fact in the works. Lapid’s people were hopeful that if his party receives more mandates than Lieberman’s, he would eventually be the leader of the bloc but didn’t rule out the possibility that things would play out differently. Lieberman, meanwhile, was running an election campaign attacking Netanyahu from the right on Gaza and from the left on regional peace, saying something like “let’s crush Hamas and make peace with Saudi Arabia.” It was the most centrist campaign Lieberman ever ran during his 16 years in party politics, and it seemed to be working. But then, on Dec. 24, his plan fell apart.
The corruption investigation against senior members of Lieberman’s party that was leaked to the press on that morning sealed the fate of his plan to become Israel’s next prime minister. While the investigation didn’t involve Lieberman himself, it was enough to remind centrist, non-Russian voters who were attracted to the “new Lieberman,” why they never voted for the old one. A constant deterioration in the polls followed, putting Lieberman at one point on the verge of not passing the new electoral threshold which he, ironically, was most responsible for enacting.
Lieberman tried at first to stay on message and keep at least some of his new supporters, but that proved to be impossible. The only people showing up to his campaign events were his ancient core constituency of older, Russian-speaking voters, and his new messages about regional peace didn’t appeal to them. A person close to Lieberman, who was with him on the road, explains: “He would talk in election gatherings, with an almost all-Russian crowd, about a regional peace initiative, but people would just stare at him. Then he started promising ‘death penalty to terrorists,’ and suddenly people would stand up and applaud.” Soon enough, the old Lieberman was back, and his re-emergence was just enough to win six seats and survive the toughest election in Lieberman’s career.
Lieberman’s vengeful feelings toward Netanyahu skyrocketed during this period, mainly because Lieberman was absolutely certain that the prime minister was responsible for the police decision to make the investigation public at the height of the election campaign. While this accusation sounds detached from reality even to some of Netanyahu’s strongest critics on the left, people close to Lieberman say that he has no doubt about it. In private conversations, he explains that Netanyahu has complete control over the commander in chief of the Israeli police, as well as over the attorney general—both of whom were personally chosen by the prime minister to suit his political needs.
It’s impossible to prove that Lieberman is right in this claim, but it’s also very hard to prove he is wrong. Either way, the bottom line stays the same: Lieberman is determined to take his revenge, and if it’s impossible for him to reach his goal of becoming prime minister—at least right now—he will happily settle for getting rid of Netanyahu. The trick he pulled out of the bag on Monday wasn’t a bad one, but it was hardly enough to even the score. The next time Netanyahu’s government shakes, the prime minister will be forced to turn to Lieberman—and you can bet that his revenge will be slow and painful.
Lieberman’s office said in reply to requests for comment that “there never was any political deal between Yisrael Beitenu and other centrist parties to oust Netanyahu. Lieberman said before the elections and afterward that he would support Netanyahu as prime minister, so long as his demands would become part of the new government’s guidelines. Unfortunately, the agreements reached between Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox parties have made it impossible for Yisrael Beitenu to join the government, and since Lieberman means what he says, there was no choice but to stay out this time.” A spokesperson for Lieberman added that it was Netanyahu, and not his former foreign minister, who decided to break up the coalition and declare new elections last December.
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Amir Tibon is the diplomatic correspondent for Israeli news website Walla.
Amir Tibon is the diplomatic correspondent for Israeli news website Walla.