Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s One-Man Wrecking Ball
Fixated on ruining Netanyahu - no matter the cost.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party were unable to form a governing coalition within the six weeks prescribed by law — an outcome that seemed inconceivable six weeks ago, with the Likud’s stunning victory in Israel’s April 9 general elections.
And as a result, on September 17, Israeli voters will again go to the polls and again elect their representatives to the Knesset. In the meantime, Netanyahu will remain Israel’s caretaker prime minister.
The man responsible for Israel’s political chaos is former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. Liberman, a native of Moldova, leads the Yisrael Beitenu party, which he formed 20 years ago. His party won five seats in April in Israel’s 120 seat Knesset. Although it is a paltry faction, its size was sufficient to block the formation of a government. Without Liberman, Netanyahu had a coalition of 60 – one short of a majority.
This isn’t Liberman’s first rodeo. Last November, Liberman resigned his position in protest over Netanyahu’s refusal to go to war with the Hamas regime in Gaza, after Hamas began pummeling Israel with rockets and mortars. He took his six-member faction with him. Although Israel’s elections weren’t scheduled until November 2019, with Netanyahu’s governing coalition reduced to 61, Liberman’s resignation started the clock to early elections. Those elections, which took place in April, were called in January.
In other words, by the time the next elections are held in the September, Liberman’s refusal to work with Netanyahu will have left Israel without a stable government for ten months.
During the course of the coalition talks, Netanyahu offered Liberman more than any minor political faction could have hoped to gain. Not only did Netanyahu agree to Liberman’s demand to return to the defense ministry with full executive powers – that is, with autonomy from prime ministerial veto, — he was also offered the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption.
All that was insufficient, however. Liberman decided to stake his case for overthrowing Netanyahu on the mandatory conscription of ultra-Orthodox young men. For historical reasons, the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox men have received deferrals from Israel’s universal draft. Over the past two decades, as ultra-Orthodox Jews became a larger percentage of the population, the public outcry over the inequality of burden sharing grew louder. The issue has served as a rallying cry for non-religious Israelis across the electoral spectrum.
Historically, the issue has been a populist cause for center-left parties. This has been due, in part, to a desire to keep right-wing governments in a state of chronic instability. The issue of the ultra-Orthodox draft deferrals limits Likud’s options for coalition-building. It can form a government with center-left factions, or with ultra-Orthodox parties, but not with both.
Faced with this dilemma, in 2013, Netanyahu opted to form a government with center-left parties and exclude the ultra-Orthodox parties. The center-left leaders returned the favor, colluding with Liberman to destabilize the coalition. Their actions forced Netanyahu to call early elections a year-and-a-half after the government was formed.
Liberman formed his party to represent Israelis from the former Soviet Union, who immigrated to Israel en masse with the break-up of the Soviet Union. It is a shrinking demographic because as the years pass, the Israeli Jews from the former Soviet Union and their children have become integrated into mainstream Israeli society. In an effort to diversify his voting base, Liberman embraced the ultra-Orthodox draft as a means to develop a new constituency among secular nationalists.
The ostensible reason for his refusal to reach a coalition agreement with Netanyahu is his insistence that Netanyahu pass a draft law from the last Knesset that would require the ultra-Orthodox community to fill specific quotas of draftees annually. Liberman’s position made little sense on its merits. The ultra-Orthodox parties agreed, during the course of the negotiations, to fill draft quotas. But they insisted that the quotas be determined annually by the government, rather than by law. This made sense, since the Israel Defense Force’s requirements change from year to year. By making the number of conscripts a function of a government decision, the number can be raised or lowered, depending on military requirements in a manner that would be impossible if the quotas are fixed in standing law.
Liberman’s rejection of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ counter-offer is proof that his demand was not substantive. It was instrumental. Liberman demanded something that made no sense in order to prevent anyone from giving him what he said he wanted.
Liberman did this because what he really wanted was to bring down Netanyahu, and so force Israel into another three months without a proper government, and force voters back to the polls just after they finished the last elections.
Why was Liberman so fixated on bringing down Netanyahu?
The short explanation is that Liberman hates Netanyahu. A longer explanation is that Liberman and Netanyahu have a long history. They began as partners. When Netanyahu was first elected to Israel’s premiership in 1996, Liberman served as the general director of the prime minister’s bureau. The two men worked well together. But as a long-time associates of both men explained to Breitbart News, Liberman got caught up in a criminal probe during that term and Netanyahu failed to assist him in the way he expected.
So Liberman resigned, left Likud, and formed his own party, Yisrael Beitenu. Since then, Liberman has nursed a grudge against Netanyahu, and worked consistently to block him from power.
In 2006, Ehud Olmert from the center-left Kadima party was prime minister. In July 2006, Hezbollah initiated a major war against Israel. During the six-week war, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, pummeled Israel with thousands ofmissiles, many of which reached central Israel. A million Israelis were forced to evacuate their homes in Israel’s north.
Olmert responded to Hezbollah’s aggression by leading Israel in one of the most underwhelming military operations in its history. Olmert had no clear operational goal, sending troops into battle willy-nilly. They were underequipped and poorly led by Olmert, his government and the IDF senior commanders. Israel failed to defeat Hezbollah. And in the aftermath of the war, Hezbollah not only restored its full control over south Lebanon, but it also won Lebanon’s parliamentary elections in 2008 and proceeded to swallow the country.
As soon as the ceasefire was reached and the soldiers were sent home, reserve officers and soldiers, furious over what had happened, began marching to Jerusalem to demand Olmert’s resignation, along with the resignations of then-defense minister Amir Peretz and IDF chief of general staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz. Opposition to Olmert was growing in his governing coalition. And it wasn’t clear how he would be capable of remaining in office in light of his stunning failure in war. Netanyahu, then head of the opposition, seemed assured of returning to office that year.
But in a move that shocked the public, Liberman stepped in to save Olmert. Whereas Liberman made demands on Netanyahu this month that were impossible to satisfy, when he saved Olmert in 2006, Liberman did so without conditions. He served as minister without portfolio and brought in a Knesset faction with 11 members, thus ensuring Olmert governing stability until he was forced to resign on criminal corruption charges in 2008.
In January 2009, Netanyahu replaced Olmert as prime minister. Liberman served as his foreign minister until he was forced to resign after being indicted on corruption charges in 2012. In 2013, he returned to the foreign ministry and then colluded with the heads of two center-left factions to subvert Netanyahu. Netanyahu responded by bringing down his own government and going to early elections.
In 2015, Liberman refused to serve in Netanyahu’s government. But he entered the government in 2016 to serve as defense minister. He then resigned in November 2018, forcing Israel to go to early elections this past April.
Throughout his career, Liberman has cultivated a reputation as an unstinting nationalist and populist. His anti-Arab rhetoric wins him the applause of Israeli voters angry at the government’s non-enforcement of its laws against Arab crime gangs, and its failure to censure Arab politicians who openly side with Israel’s enemies.
But in truth, Liberman has accomplished nothing in office. His party held the public security ministry, responsible for Israel’s police, for six years. And his hand-picked public security minister did nothing to increase law enforcement among Israeli Arabs.
Liberman’s policy for dealing with the Palestinians and Arab Israelis who reject Israel’s right to exist is both unrealistic politically, and militarily insane. Liberman’s policy is to give the Galilee, with its large Arab population, to the Palestinians, while incorporating Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria into Israel. The policy is based entirely on ethnic lines. If implemented it would render Israel strategically non-viable and politically incomprehensible.
While his position that Israel must do more to bring down Hamas’s terror regime in Gaza is reasonable on its face, the question is: what would he have Israel do? Israel has no interest at present in restoring its control over Gaza. The move would be too costly in human lives. It would also be too costly diplomatically and financially, and the return on the investment would be dubious at best.
Israel’s current strategy – that is, Netanyahu’s current strategy — of keeping Hamas perpetually weak while pushing for Egypt to permit Gazans to leave through the Egyptian border or work in the Sinai peninsula makes much more sense in the long term. And, in fact, during his stint in the defense ministry, Liberman signed on to Netanyahu’s policies of keeping the conflict with Hamas on a low burner.
It is hard to know how Liberman’s decision to force Israel to carry out new elections will impact his political future. There is a considerable constituency in the center that is motivated solely by its hatred for Netanyahu. In April, they voted for Blue and White, the main opposition party, led by three former IDF chiefs of staff and a former TV star. It is possible that a few of Blue and White’s Knesset seats will pass to Liberman — and, together with one or two votes from Russian Israelis, he will again pass the four-seat threshold and return to the Knesset.
But what is clear enough is that his determination to deny the people of Israel the government they elected will cost him with the political right. From now on, his party will no longer be considered a right-wing party. Netanyahu and Likud can be depended on to invest major resources in courting the vote of Russian-speaking Israelis.
Whether Liberman survives the second election he has forced his countrymen into in under a year or not, though, is a secondary question. Due to his actions, Israel is losing precious time to work with U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration. The next six months were expected to be devoted to securing Israel’s long-term interests in Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”), and to undermining Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons before Trump’s attention is moved to his reelection campaign. Due to Liberman’s actions, Israel will lose that opportunity.
So, too, with what was presumed to be a clear mandate from the public, Liberman’s decision to prevent Likud governing has blocked it from enacting urgent legal reforms. The April elections centered on the need to restore checks and balances to Israel’s judiciary, and to subordinate the state prosecution to Israel’s political leadership. Both institutions today rule Israel unencumbered by legal restrictions on their actions. Their ability to open criminal probes against political leaders, based on little to no evidence, has kept lawmakers in a perpetual state of paralysis. The elections in April settled the issue electorally. The public demanded judicial and legal reform.
Liberman’s refusal to join the coalition has saved Israel’s imperial judiciary and prosecution from any legislative check for the foreseeable future.
Polls have yet to be taken to gauge the public’s view of Liberman’s behavior, or of the fact that the country has now been forced into new elections. But it isn’t difficult to sense the public’s anger and frustration. Israelis voted for a right-wing government led by Netanyahu. They voted for that government because they wanted to be able to take full advantage of Trump’s friendly administration, and they wanted to enact urgent reform of the legal fraternity.
And now, due to one man’s personal vendetta against Netanyahu, the Israeli public has been denied their right to a government.