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Avigdor Lieberman’s Risky Bet

Why did he just bring down Bibi Netanyahu’s government? And what does he stand to lose if his gamble goes wrong?

Liel Leibovitz
May 30, 2019
Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

In May of 2016, Avigdor Lieberman, then a member of the Knesset, sat down for a live interview in front of an audience on stage in Beersheba. As usual, he wasn’t mincing words.

“I’m telling you,” he thundered, “and you can take me at my word, and everything here is recorded, if I am the minister of defense, I give Mr. Haniyeh 48 hours. Either you return the bodies and the civilians, or you die. As far as I’m concerned, you can order yourself a spot in the nearest cemetery.”

The man he was threatening was Ismail Haniyeh, a leader of Hamas who had refused to deliver back to Israel the bodies of two soldiers abducted and murdered by his organization in 2014, as well as Avera Mengistu, an Israeli citizen held hostage by the terrorist group in Gaza. It was the sort of tough talk that made Israelis giddy; it made many even giddier two days later, when Lieberman decided to end yet another of his occasional fallouts with his former boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and rejoin the coalition as Bibi’s minister of defense.

Forty-eight hours went by. Then another two days, then a week more, then a year. Haniyeh did not meet any of Lieberman’s conditions. And Lieberman did not make good on his bluster. Speaking at a security conference in Herzliya, Lieberman was asked how he felt about his now notorious threat. “Many promises were made,” he said, “including by me, which were not backed up.”

When Lieberman’s refusal to join Netanyahu’s new coalition forced the Knesset to disband just days after it was sworn in, thrusting the nation into another costly and tumultuous election season, some in the Israeli press revisited the anecdote and wondered what made the politician who caved before Hamas stand firm against Netanyahu, with whom he disagrees on little of substance. Immediately after Netanyahu had won his fifth term as prime minister, back in the halcyon days of last month, Lieberman promised his support, announcing he would not endorse anyone else for the office. Why, then, did he turn his back on Netanyahu at this critical juncture?

To hear the chattering classes in Jerusalem tell it, four explanations are likely.

The first, and most straightforward, holds that Lieberman is truly committed to the policy question that drove him to his latest decision, namely his strong objection to any compromise that allows Haredi men to defer or altogether avoid being conscripted to the Israel Defense Forces. The history of this contentious debate is long, and it dates back to the birth of the state, but partisans on all sides of the question agree on a few cardinal issues. First, the problem may very well solve itself: As Haaretz reported last spring, “in reality, at least in the mainstream of Haredi society, enlistment is no longer a dirty word.” That is in part because the vanguard of Haredi soldiers discovered that it was possible to become a solider and remain true to the Haredi way of life, before and after military service. Second, trying to solve the problem creates other problems: Israel currently spends hundreds of millions of shekels helping haredi soldiers acclimate into the IDF. And finally, the problem really isn’t very much of a problem: The IDF’s Tooth-to-Tail ratio, or the ratio between combat and noncombat soldier, is already the fourth-highest in the world, and with warfare growing more sophisticated and more dependent on advanced technologies, the IDF is likely to need less boots on the ground, not more. All these good statistics may help explain why Lieberman himself had found it palatable to share the government with Haredi politicians several times in the past decade without making any nonnegotiable demand.

With principle out of the way, passion is next on the lineup. Lieberman started his political career as Netanyahu’s right-hand man—his first big job was director of the prime minister’s office during Bibi’s first term. He has since come to develop a Dostoevskyan dislike for his former patron, calling him, on one unforgettable occasion, a “lying, cheating scoundrel.” It’s not too hard to imagine what brought about Lieberman’s change of heart. Netanyahu is famous for skillfully disabling anyone he perceives to be a potential political threat, and it must have been painful, for an ambitious politician like Lieberman, to watch his aspirations soar only to hit Bibi’s glass ceiling again and again. This week’s debacle, many in Israel believe, was Lieberman’s ultimate payback, a revenge plot of a scorned underling against his imperious boss.

Then again, there’s explanation No. 3, which sees Lieberman’s move as purely pragmatic. Sensing that Netanyahu’s days may be numbered—all those investigations and possible indictments don’t look too promising—Lieberman might have very well acted out of pure reason when he took the step that might be the one to finally put an end to King Bibi’s storied career. Believe in this theory, however, and numerous hiccups arise, including the fact that Lieberman refused to endorse any of Netanyahu’s rivals on the left and continues to define himself as an ardent right-winger despite knowing that the right in Israel can govern only in coalition with the Haredim, a partnership that has shaped the Israeli electoral map for more than 40 years. Put simply, Lieberman can’t insist both on having a committed right-wing government and a government formed without the Haredim, and his failure to realize that is jarring.

Unless, that is, you believe in what’s behind door No. 4. The Israeli columnist Akiva Bigman advanced another theory in Yisrael Hayom, arguing that Lieberman, like a grizzly in Denali, was not motivated by anything save for disinterested, instinctual hunger. Craving more political power—the natural state of any politician—he spotted an opportunity to get some and took it, caring little about the immense damage he’d done to the stability of the political system and the state’s coffers. Like a card shark, he might’ve just gambled that a dramatic move backed by an ideological veneer could only serve him well, gaining him a few thousand more voters and cementing his status as kingmaker, even if the outcome of the next electoral round ends up being exactly the same. Judging by Lieberman’s career, that’s a very likely explanation: About a year after calling Netanyahu a scoundrel and storming out of his government in 2015, Lieberman returned to Bibi’s orbit, trading his old job as minister of foreign affairs for a shinier post as minister of defense before resigning once again two years later.

But if Lieberman’s latest move was indeed just a naked power play, he may soon have a very rude awakening. While it is profoundly foolish to try and divine the outcome of the upcoming elections in September, it is very likely that the results next time around will look either the same or, likelier still, hand the right-wing bloc a sturdier victory. It is, for example, highly likely that the 138,598 Israelis who voted for Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s failed New Right party will support either the United Right or Likud, as would many, if not most, of the 118,031 who cast their vote for Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party. These previously wasted votes—neither party made it in to the Knesset last time around—could be worth four, five, maybe six mandates. And Haredi Israelis, incensed by what they perceive as a bigoted attack on their way of life, are likely to come out and vote in even greater numbers, which, being a well-organized and largely hierarchical community guided by influential rabbis, may deliver them a few additional Knesset seats.

The center left, on the other hand, has no reason to feel giddy. Labor, having crashed and burned with a mere six Knesset seats, is still led by the man who led it to the most stinging failure in its history, the unpopular Avi Gabbai. And Lieberman’s strong anti-Haredi rhetoric is likely to take away power from Blue and White: Many of that party’s voters support it because they like Yair Lapid’s strong support of secularism, but with Lapid making overtures to more observant Israelis, and with Lieberman now portraying himself as a secularist crusader, Israelis may choose to give the former minister of defense a few mandates they had previously awarded to Lapid and Benny Gantz. Earlier this week, for example, Raviv Druker, one of Israel’s most prominent journalists and a pundit identified with the center left, announced that Lieberman now had his vote. Lieberman, one Israeli columnist quipped, was “the new Yair Lapid.”

If Likud, the Haredi parties, and the United Right grow stronger, and Blue and White and Labor grow weaker, Lieberman’s gamble may prove disastrous. He could potentially emerge in September with a few more Knesset seats, but all Netanyahu needs to form a stable coalition is just one: The prime minister currently enjoys 60 supporters out of 120, which means that there’s a very good chance that he could form the next coalition without any help from Lieberman or anyone else except for the Haredim and the right. If that happens, Lieberman’s seats will be meaningless, and he will once again be exiled to the opposition’s benches. He will also have to face the wrath of Netanyahu, a political mastermind who is never late to punish dissenters.

That, however, is all in the misty, distant future of three months hence. For now, Israelis are back in hectic, messy, contentious election mode, a mode they’ve gotten to know a little too well, thanks in large part to Avigdor Lieberman.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.