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On the ‘Bieberman’ Super Party

What it means for Israeli politics

Adam Chandler
October 25, 2012
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman(AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman(AFP)

A bombshell dropped in Israeli politics with today’s announcement that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party will merge with Foreign Minister (and trusted bull-in-China-shop) Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party to form a super-party. The two parties are projected to conceivably control nearly half of Knesset in the upcoming elections. Combined now, the two parties hold 42 seats, but with the swift and gutless demise of Kadima, polls show that the new “Bieberman government” could perhaps take more than 50 of Knesset’s 120 seats.

What does this mean? Well, first of all, this is massively significant because there has not been a party so dominant in Israeli politics in decades. It would also force the hand of factions on the center and left to form a super-party of their own to survive compete. This means trotting out all the failed challengers, old corpses, and aspirants of the left and center and getting them to agree to work together without their egos interfering.

While a two-party system was essentially a hallmark of early Israel, the diffusion of power across a few dozen political parties–including secular, religious, Socialist, Arab, Green, and many others–has made figuring out Israeli politics such a compelling and frustrating exercise in unity and coalition building. The old paradigm also put major parties at the whim of smaller groups like religious parties who have effectively lobbied for the government to not only keep religious Israelis out of the army, but to pay for them to stay home and study. One downside of this merger is that religious party members of Likud will probably hate this.

As J.J. Goldberg writes:

The kink in the plan is the religious vote. Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party puts a very high priority on a secularist agenda. Haaretz reports todaythat the joint Bibi-Liberman list is expected to give high priority to Liberman’s secularist agenda, and might even reach out to bring Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party into a governing coalition. But the Likud relies heavily on religious voters who won’t like that. There’s a good chance that some of them will flee to the settler-based national-religious bloc, which appears to be running under a new banner that will join the Bayit Yehudi-NRP party with the National Union, reducing the Knesset strength of the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list. It’s possible, though, that some will break toward Shas, particularly now that Arye Deri is returning (sharing power with Eli Yishai, who remains no. 1 on the Knesset list but hands over the party chairmanship to Deri).

Are you confused yet? There was also word by multiple sources that Netanyahu and Lieberman would split the governing duties with Liberman serving as prime minister in the fourth year of the coalition. Let me be the first to say this: There are absolutely no circumstances under which I can imagine Netanyahu ceding power to Lieberman, though I am extremely curious about how this report came about and made credible waves through the newscycle.

My first (not particularly earth-shattering) instinct is to say that this is not only about inoculating Netanyahu against a challenge from the center-left by someone like Ehud Olmert, but also ensuring that the issues like Iran and the economy get pushed in the next term. Oh, and I can’t imagine it means anything hopeful for the two-state solution.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.