Israel’s elections: Because and about Liberman

The gamble to break with Netanyahu is paying off: like a Shakespearean antagonist, the former partner can make or break King Bibi's future
Then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman seen with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset's plenum hall, as the Knesset votes on the Governance Bill, which, among others, would raise the electoral threshold. March 11, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90/File)
Then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman seen with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset's plenum hall, as the Knesset votes on the Governance Bill, which, among others, would raise the electoral threshold. March 11, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90/File)

Two days after forcing Israel into an historic second round of elections in the same calendar year, Member of Knesset and Chair of the Yisrael Beytenu party Avigdor Liberman  told reporters that Yair Netanyahu — the son of Israel’s prime minister — needs to see a psychiatrist. Israel’s elections are because of Liberman and his almost 30-year relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu. The man who served in the court of King Bibi is poised to dethrone him, and he is not holding back.

The final act of a modern Shakespearean tragedy is about to start. On September 17, the protagonist — Netanyahu — will make his final stand. And, like a well-written play, the hero finds himself facing his worst enemy: his former partner, the man who helped build him. Netanyahu’s battle this election is against the man who knows him best, the person now ready to confront him head-on.

Liberman and Netanyahu started their political journey together. Netanyahu was elected leader of the Likud party in 1992 and named Liberman as party CEO. In 1996, Netanyahu entered the Prime Minister’s Office for the first time and appointed Liberman its director-general, overseeing and managing the machinery of the Israeli government on Netanyahu’s behalf.

During Netanyahu’s first decade in politics, Liberman was his right-hand man. He was there when Arthur Finkelstein introduced his two-question strategy, which would make Netanyahu Israel’s longest-serving leader. The first question: are you more Jewish or more Israeli? The second: do you hate or love Arabs?

Finkelstein’s Netanyahu strategy was simple. Go with the voters displaying pro-Jewish and anti-Arab sentiment. They would become the political base needed to win. Netanyahu brought the Likud and Jewish sentiment; Liberman brought the anti-Arab angle. It worked.

In the 1990s, some one-million Russian-speaking immigrants arrived in Israel. Liberman created a new platform — Yisrael Beytenu — and became their political home. At the peak of his power, in 2009, he won 15 seats and demonstrated the importance of the secular right. Despite the political split from Netanyahu, he remained loyal and actively supported Bibi’s various governments.

This political duo had ups and downs, but the alliance was strong. Yisrael Beytenu won 11 or more seats in 2006, 2009, and 2013. In all cases, Liberman was critical to Netanyahu’s coalition. Things changed in 2015. Liberman won six seats and remained in the opposition. Midway through the term, due to Netanyahu’s fragile coalition, Liberman was appointed to the prestigious post of defense minister and joined the coalition. Netanyahu paid a high price for Liberman’s support, but the calculation was simple: He needed a solid parliamentary majority to keep his office.

In April’s election, Liberman won five seats. His worst result since 2003 was still more than most polls predicted. Dangerously close to the 3.25 percent threshold, he decided to reinvent himself. At this point, the loyal member of King Bibi’s court decided to execute his revenge. Liberman felt Netanyahu had mistreated him during his time as defense minister and stolen his voters. After years of loyalty, Liberman felt betrayed. He broke away.

While Finkelstein’s strategy united Netanyahu’s coalition around a right-wing security platform, the parties greatly differ on issues of religion and state. The coalition included ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and the very secular Russian immigrants of Liberman’s party. When Liberman chose not to join Netanyahu’s coalition in May, he cited differences on the role of religion in government — differences he had gladly turned a blind eye to since the 1990s. This ended Netanyahu’s automatic 61-finger majority and lead to another round of elections.

Liberman’s current election slogans speak volume. His previous campaigns focused on right wing dogwhistles — like attacking Israeli-Arabs with a “No loyalty, no citizenship” call. His new slogans include, “We want a Jewish state, not an Orthodox one,” and “Make Israel normal again.” The change is clear.

In many ways, Liberman has been the only party leader shaping the public discussion of this election. On security, he is outflanking Netanyahu on the right. On domestic issues, he is leading a liberal, secular agenda. Liberman is also going after Netanyahu’s family. And King Bibi is chasing him, reacting to him.

The Likud is attempting to bring the Russian immigrants to it. Aggressively. It is investing millions of shekels in digital campaigns to lure Liberman’s base of support. Netanyahu is running from non-kosher bars to meetings with Russian-speaking influencers. Usually, however, Liberman remains one step ahead, dictating the topic of the day. For example, on Saturday, August 3, Liberman hinted that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein — the most senior Likud politician after Netanyahu — could make a good prime minister. The media coverage was enormous. The result? Netanyahu had Likud MKs sign a pledge of allegiance stating they support him, and only him, as their candidate for prime minister.

Which brings us to the final act. Current polls show Liberman has nearly doubled his political power, growing from his current of five Knesset seats to an expected 10 this September. No matter how you analyze it, Liberman holds the keys to any future coalition government, and therefore, to Netanyahu’s future. Remember: the attorney general will conduct a legal hearing for Netanyahu shortly after the elections, before determining whether to indict him on bribery charges. The keys to Netanyahu’s political future may turn out to be the keys to his personal freedom; it takes a 61-finger majority in the Knesset to receive immunity from prosecution.

Only weeks from election day, it seems that Liberman’s gamble has so far paid off. Rather than ending his political career, breaking Netanyahu’s potential coalition elevated him from court member to kingmaker. Taunting Netanyahu, Liberman has always said that, for him, politics and being prime minister was “an option, not an obsession.” Obsessions take over agendas and prevent rational decisions. This may be Liberman’s edge. As the curtain is raised for Netanyahu’s final stand, Liberman is poised to decide how this Shakespearian play will end — and when.

About the Author
Dana Weiss, an award-winning journalist, anchors the prime time Saturday evening news on Channel 2, the most watched news program in Israel. Previously, she hosted ‘Meet the Press’ for almost a decade.
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