Political defection, or party switching, is not generally considered a good thing. But the politico who has been most recently branded with this unsavory description simply doesn’t fit the bill.
Last week, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is a “true friend of Israel,” and that Naftali Bennett, Economy minister and the leader of Bayit Yehudi, had been irresponsible in his remarks about Kerry. The State Department has since praised Lieberman’s remarks.
Bayit Yehudi’s response has been to question Lieberman’s loyalty to the right, likening him to Tzipi Livni, the centrist Justice Minister and chief Israeli negotiator with the Palestinians.
This, and other conciliatory comments by Lieberman, will stun those not following Israel’s political tectonic plates. Lieberman is an ultra-nationalist who ran on the campaign slogan of “No Loyalty, No Citizenship,” and has generally been considered to be on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right.
Indeed, Lieberman has likely not changed one bit. He simply understands that the political reality favors a slight turn to the center. There are two reasons for this.
First, Lieberman realizes that a merger between Likud and Yisrael Beteinu is no longer possible; like the Likud Knesset list, the Central Committee has been stacked with hardliners opposed to Lieberman. Liquidating Yisrael Beteinu and slowly filling the Likud rolls with his supporters is not a politically prudent or feasible short term goal for Lieberman. His future, should he want to be anything more than a junior coalition partner, is tied directly to those in Likud who are more sympathetic to him–––aka, Netanyahu and his dwindling allies in the Likud. Netanyahu is now at war with Bennett and Bayit Yehudi. It’s not surprising that Lieberman is taking Bibi’s side.
Finally, Lieberman knows Netanyahu’s position in Likud is dire. Should Kerry’s framework agreement provoke a right-wing backlash and trigger new elections, Netanyahu may need Lieberman and his 10 fellow Yisrael Beteinu MKs (along with the handful of Likud MKs loyal to Bibi) to run on a solid platform. Lieberman may very well allow Netanyahu to lead the group for one election cycle on the condition that he would lead the group, with Netanyahu’s blessings, in the next election; or, perhaps, a midway transition, Gordon Brown style.
Avigdor Lieberman is not inconsistent, nor is there any mystical aura surrounding his politics. He’s plainly doing what’s in his best interests.