Stepping down, Liberman exposes frailty of coalition-building
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AnalysisNo politician or party can actually win an Israeli election

Stepping down, Liberman exposes frailty of coalition-building

The new government may be collapsing before even being born, and the most likely culprit is built into the system

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

There is both cynicism and truth in Avigdor Liberman’s case for abandoning Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition-in-the-making just two days before the deadline for forming the new government.

The cynicism is obvious to the point of comical. The new government “won’t be a nationalist one, but the epitome of opportunism,” the outgoing foreign minister railed in a Monday press conference at the Knesset. This from a politician who spent the 2015 election season refusing to pin down whether he would recommend Likud’s Netanyahu for prime minister or Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog.

Liberman is rejecting Netanyahu’s rightist government, leaving it with a paper-thin, 61-seat majority, while declaiming that he is doing so in the name of rightist principles. But his concern is real nonetheless; he fears for his party’s very survival.

Netanyahu, he charged on Monday, was “without a doubt” intending to bring the center-left Zionist Union into the government while abandoning his right-wing allies Yisrael Beytenu and Jewish Home. Liberman had proof: The coalition agreements already signed with Kulanu and United Torah Judaism included an article — Article 5 — that specified that the agreements could be changed if the coalition grew bigger than 70 Knesset seats.

“When you write ‘expansion of the coalition beyond 70 mandates,’” Liberman said, “I assume you’re not referring to the Joint (Arab) List or Meretz, but clearly the intent is to bring in the Labor Party,” which leads the Zionist Union slate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog during the opening session of the Knesset on March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog during the opening session of the Knesset on March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A Netanyahu-led unity government of Likud, Zionist Union, Kulanu and the ultra-Orthodox — that is, one that replaces Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu with Zionist Union — would indeed come in at an all-but-invincible 77 seats.

Whether Netanyahu actually intends to form that unity coalition is anyone’s guess. But it is clear that Netanyahu instructed the Likud’s negotiating team to make certain the option to do so is written into the coalition agreements.

And it is that fact, more than any other aspect of the complex, often distasteful sausage-making of these coalition negotiations, that reveals the deepest crisis of Israeli governance.

You can’t keep all your options open

Netanyahu has been in Israeli politics for a long time. His habits of thought, the way he appraises people he meets, his sense of his own purpose and mission are all shaped to some degree by those long years in the political arena. One of the most important lessons he gleaned on his way to the top is a simple principle: always keep your options open.

When in 2013-2014, Likud firebrands mounted a two-year campaign in the party’s institutions to strip Netanyahu of some of his powers as party leader and to force him to accept the policy dictates of the party Central Committee — the main policy disagreement concerned Palestinian statehood; they were against — Netanyahu fought tooth and nail to keep his independence, delaying votes, campaigning in long-neglected local party branches, and even putting parliamentary or cabinet posts on the line for MKs who failed to support him in the fight.

In the end, Netanyahu fought his opponents to a draw, preserving his independence while conceding only a handful of minor procedural changes to the party’s constitution.

The fight occupied his attention for months, but not because he disagreed with the Likud base on the Palestinian question. Whether he supports Palestinian statehood in principle — a point to which he has given seemingly contradictory answers over the years — is a matter of intense debate, probably even in Netanyahu’s own mind. But even if he believes it is possible or desirable to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank eventually, Netanyahu is certain it is unsafe to do so now.

Netanyahu fought the rightist faction in the Likud Central Committee not because he believed it was substantively mistaken, but because he views his political maneuvering room as sacred. He could not accept limits from his own party to his ability to negotiate with the Palestinians and the Americans. One obvious reason: It would be tactically foolish to do so. Netanyahu believes the Palestinians will not meaningfully compromise on issues where Israel and the West are in agreement, such as the return of Palestinian refugees into Israel, so peace talks with the current Palestinian leadership are, in any case, doomed to failure. Better that they fail with the ball in the Palestinians’ court, he feels.

While his stated reasons for the move may be questionable, there is nothing immoral in Liberman’s decision to leave

The coalition talks followed a similar dynamic in recent weeks. Netanyahu did not place the “unity government” clause in the coalition agreements because he “without a doubt” yearns to share power with his rivals on the left, as Liberman would have it. Instead, he seeks the advantages of keeping his options open — as a warning to his right-wing partners that they are replaceable, as an escape hatch in case the current government falls and he needs to quickly form a new one before the Knesset can vote for new elections, and as a political fallback in case of a flare-up with Iran or intensifying international pressure on the Palestinian front.

But on Monday, Netanyahu was reminded of the limits of “keeping his options open.” Instead of making a weakened Liberman more acquiescent, the threat of replacement by the center-left made the foreign minister aggressive, giving him the ready excuse for taking his Yisrael Beytenu party out of Netanyahu’s orbit as a first step toward its rehabilitation.

The real culprit

In the end, Netanyahu’s manipulative management style and Liberman’s peculiar brand of political tantrum are both symptoms of a larger malaise: the stark fact that no Israeli politician or party can actually win an Israeli election. Even after doing better at the ballot box than any ruling party in a decade, Netanyahu can still find his coalition brought down to an untenable one-seat majority by the political maneuvers of a single Avigdor Liberman.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum, April 22, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum, April 22, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Indeed, Netanyahu is lucky it’s Liberman. If Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett had decided to pull out of the coalition instead, Netanyahu would have faced the challenge of piecing together a coalition with a minority of 59 seats — and Israelis could reasonably expect to be going to elections again, just weeks after the last ballot.

A political system cannot be built on the assumption that every one of its actors will always pursue the common good. Liberman’s withdrawal, with all the havoc it is wreaking to the right and to the elected prime minister, is probably the most strategically wise move open to him, given his party’s collapsing electoral standing. While his stated reasons for the move may be questionable, there is nothing immoral in Liberman’s decision to leave.

The real culprit is the architecture of Israel’s politics, which allows a single Liberman or Bennett or Aryeh Deri to topple a prime minister who — by any measure — is the nation’s preferred choice to run the executive branch.

Netanyahu’s very first campaign promise in the most recent election was a promise not so much to voters as to himself: to dramatically reform Israel’s system of governance in order to make it easier for prime ministers to form and maintain their coalitions. Now reduced to forming a 61-seat majority and perhaps even begging the center-left to help him stabilize it, there is little doubt that Netanyahu has been reminded of that promise, and it is safe to assume its implementation will be one of the new government’s first orders of business.

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