In just three days, the 20th Knesset has seen more drama than in its entire winter session.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon appeared to be publicly moving past their dispute over the army’s morality and the right of generals to speak their mind, opposition leader Isaac Herzog was eager to enter the coalition, even at the expense of splitting his (increasingly furious) Labor Party, Joint (Arab) List leader Ayman Odeh was fashioning himself to be opposition leader (however unlikely), and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman wagged his finger in disapproval at Netanyahu from the dregs of the opposition.
By Friday afternoon, in an embodiment of the principle of “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” the hawkish Liberman was the presumptive defense minister, Ya’alon abruptly took a break from political life over the rift with Netanyahu and his demotion, Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick was poised to enter the government as the next lawmaker on the Likud slate, Herzog returned empty-handed to his party accusing “far-left extremists” of torpedoing a “rare opportunity” for peace, Yisrael Beytenu MK Orly Levy-Abekasis quit her faction over the coalition talks, and senior Likud members were jockeying for positions in the cabinet reshuffle — including the coveted and vacant Foreign Ministry, which had been expected to be Ya’alon’s consolation prize.
And with coalition talks ongoing, there may be a few more surprises in store. In the interim, here are the Israeli figures who are emerging as the “winners” and “losers” of three tumultuous days of political maneuvering.
Winner/Loser — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: With Liberman heading to the coalition, Netanyahu has seemingly resolved the issues of political extortion in his 61-MK razor-thin coalition, in which every Knesset member, with the weight of their vote, has the leverage to make serious demands.
After two Likud MKs skipped all Knesset votes for weeks over the closing of the immigration project for the Falash Mura community of Ethiopia, the prime minister was forced to reach an agreement with them. Now, with Liberman’s five seats (down from six, with Levy-Abekasis’s resignation), the prime minister can effectively pass a two-year budget and has bolstered the stability of his coalition, squashing the renegades. (All assuming, of course, that the not-finalized talks with Liberman do culminate in an agreement.) In exchange, Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to support the death penalty for terrorists (which is unlikely to pass into law) and allocate NIS 2.5 billion toward pensions for immigrants from the collapsed Soviet Union who came to Israel in the 1990s too old to save up for retirement — the very immigrants who make up Liberman’s political base.
Netanyahu also managed to punish his fresh opponent Ya’alon, seemingly holding on to hopes the humbled Likud lawmaker will take the Foreign Ministry and remain at his side. But the move backfired, with Ya’alon quitting the Knesset altogether and vowing a political comeback.
In just three days, the prime minister made his biggest right-wing rival his ally, while edging out his long-time ally and creating a new right-wing rival. And the popular Ya’alon could in the future — allied with former Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, for example — pose a credible threat to Netanyahu.
Now Netanyahu will also be faced with dealing with Liberman, one of his fiercest critics on matters of defense, and the fallout within the defense establishment of Ya’alon’s departure and Liberman’s appointment. (Not that Liberman’s appointment has no perks for the prime minister; it will be interesting to note whether Netanyahu takes him to Moscow in June.)
During the 2014 Gaza war, Netanyahu, Ya’alon and then-IDF chief Benny Gantz held nearly nightly press conferences on the status of the conflict. While rarely informative, and often deflating, the trio presented something that Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to achieve in the emerging political climate — a united front, with officials sticking to party lines. One can only imagine what a similar conference, under similar circumstances, would look like for Netanyahu when he is flanked by the predictably off-script and far more hard-line Liberman, and the tempered, no-nonsense IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot.
Loser — Isaac Herzog: In Herzog’s account, this is how the talks played out — “regional and global players,” including the Egyptian president, were pushing for a unity government to seize a “rare opportunity” for peace, that, he insists, was contingent on his being in the coalition, namely as foreign minister.
In a heated interview Thursday on Channel 2 television, Herzog claimed that world leaders told Netanyahu that they didn’t trust him on matters of Israeli-Palestinian peace — apparently confirming media reports that former British premier Tony Blair, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi were behind the effort to reconcile Netanyahu’s Likud and Herzog’s Zionist Union, thereby creating a more palatable climate for peace efforts.
“What do you think, that Sissi works for me?” said Herzog, referring to the timing of a Tuesday speech by the Egyptian president urging a peace push while Herzog and Netanyahu held marathon coalition talks.
But Netanyahu balked under pressure from his party, squandering a “historic” chance for a regional peace, said Herzog. It’s possible, the opposition leader conceded on Thursday night, that “Netanyahu played me” — and presumably, “the regional and global players” as well.
Was Netanyahu playing him all along? Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) on Thursday told Army Radio that reports that Likud and the Zionist Union were close to a deal were “far from reality.” Likud was courting Yisrael Beytenu all along, said Levin, who held negotiations on behalf of Likud with Liberman on Thursday. “We made a huge efforts, over months, not weeks, to convince Yisrael Beytenu to join the government,” he said, and reports of a unity government pushed Liberman to the negotiation table.
“There was nothing, it never happened, we never agreed to freeze construction in Judea and Samaria,” Levin said, using the biblical term for the West Bank. “Herzog is right in saying that he stood up for the principles of his party [during the negotiations], and therefore we couldn’t reach an agreement.”
Members of his own Zionist Union faction, led by MK Shelly Yachimovich, didn’t believe Herzog’s peace narrative. “I don’t believe, not even for a second, that Boujie [Herzog] believed the peace initiative would work. He wanted to save his own political skin,” Yachimovich told Army Radio on Thursday.
Herzog, who initially blamed the failed talks on “far-left extremists” rather than Netanyahu, returned to a fractured party on Wednesday — the majority of whom scorned his talks altogether, with several lawmakers urging him to resign for what they view as his groveling to the Likud.
But on Friday, the prime minister confirmed there was an opening for a regional peace initiative and extended yet another invitation to the Zionist Union to enter the government. In a statement that did not mention Liberman, Netanyahu said there were “opportunities on the diplomatic front, specifically because of certain developments in the region that I am constantly working on.”
“Therefore, I made a big effort to include the Zionist Union in the government, and therefore I am seriously leaving the door open to this union, one that will only benefit Israel,” said Netanyahu, leaving Herzog in a bind.
Short of entering the coalition, which will be nearly impossible to justify for the center-left party if Liberman is defense minister, it’s difficult to imagine the sort of dramatic measures the opposition leader, who has avoided calling primaries for over a year, will need to take just to stay on top of his divided party. But if Labor refuses to rally behind their leader, and Herzog doesn’t act, Netanyahu may have effectively ended the political career of Isaac Herzog.
Winner — Avigdor Liberman: For years, Liberman has had his eye on the Defense Ministry, and now it’s his for the taking. The former foreign minister will also please his constituents — mostly from the former Soviet Union — with a deal to resolve the pensions crisis for Israelis who immigrated in the 1990s, who were older at the time of immigration, and are therefore living without either a Russian or Israeli pension.
Netanyahu has pledged to support Liberman’s proposal to enact a death penalty for terrorists, but the bill is unlikely to pass muster with judicial authorities or the attorney general. A similar bill proposed by Liberman’s party was felled in the Knesset last year by a vote of 94-6. The unpredictable but pragmatic Liberman is also said to have given up his demands on religion-state issues, namely reforms to Israel’s conversion authorities, the enactment of civil marriage, and instituting a more equitable and universal national service.
Winner — Yehuda Glick: With Ya’alon out of the picture, Glick — who survived an assassination attempt by a Palestinian assailant in 2014 over his Temple Mount activism — is set to enter Israel’s parliament on the Likud slate. While the move is likely to set off a wave of condemnation from the Palestinians and Arab states, who fear Israel is seeking to alter the status quo at the flashpoint holy site, Glick’s entry to the Knesset means he will no longer be allowed to visit the mount. In a bid to calm tensions, Netanyahu has ordered police to prevent politicians from entering the holy site.
In December, Glick told The Times of Israel he would advocate for Jewish prayer at the site if he enters Knesset.
“Just as I do it today outside the Knesset, I’ll try to do it inside the Knesset,” the 50-year-old redhead said. “If I am in the Knesset, I will try do my best to change the situation on the Temple Mount.”
Loser — Arab Israelis: Liberman has a history of anti-Arab remarks, including a call to decapitate “disloyal” Arab citizens of Israel. He has also urged land swaps in the event of a future peace deal that would hand over Arab Israeli cities to the Palestinian Authority. Naturally, Liberman’s ostensible appointment as defense chief has raised alarm in the Arab Israeli community.
Earlier this week, with Zionist Union looking set to enter the coalition, Odeh — as leader of the coalition of Arab-majority parties known as the Joint List — was positioning himself as the next leader of the opposition. At the same time, the Meretz party called for a left-wing alliance to block Odeh from the role and it’s unlikely that opposition members Yair Lapid, Shelly Yachimovich and Tzipi Livni (who were expected to remain in the opposition) would let him take the role uncontested. Regardless, with Herzog remaining opposition leader, Liberman has also blocked Odeh from seeking that position.
Loser/Future Winner — Moshe Ya’alon: He was booted unceremoniously from the Defense Ministry, but Ya’alon is leaving the Knesset a popular figure, and having stuck to his guns on the army’s ethics. And he’s promising he’ll be back.
Winners — MK Shelly Yachimovich and MK Tzipi Livni: By consistently refusing to compromise on entering Netanyahu’s government, both Yachimovich and Livni may have fashioned themselves in the eyes of their constituents as more effective leaders of the opposition than Herzog, who they accuse of pandering for political gain.
Loser — The ultra-Orthodox parties: United Torah Judaism and Shas have a long history of intense distaste for Liberman, who resents their control over religion-state matters and has repeatedly accused Netanyahu of “bowing” to all of their demands. If matters such as the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox soldiers to national service is raised again, and as bills on issues like state control over ritual baths are in the pipeline for a Knesset vote, a fight between Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties appears to be only a matter of time.
Loser — The Israeli media: In his interview on Thursday, Tourism Minister Levin thanked the Israeli press for its months of thinly-sourced reports on progress with the Zionist Union, which he said compelled Liberman to negotiate. “As an aside, thanks to you — through spin and rumors,” Liberman was brought to the table, said Levin. “We’re happy to help,” replied Channel 2 political reporter Amit Segal wryly.
Winner — Russian-speaking pensioners: Liberman’s representatives were demanding NIS 2.5 billion to resolve the pension crisis. The Finance Ministry, according to reports, was not sure where those funds would come from, but was expected to accede to the demand. Meanwhile, rumors circulated this week that with Netanyahu no longer beholden to the majority held hostage by Likud MKs David Amsalem and Abraham Neguise over Ethiopian immigration, the prime minister may no longer abide by the agreement. Amsalem’s spokesperson told The Times of Israel that it was “just rumors.” But with the new funds allocated to pensions, the Absorption Ministry set to be handed over from Likud to Yisrael Beytenu, and Netanyahu’s general distaste for political threats from junior lawmakers — it will be curious to see, when the budget is finalized, whether the agreement on Ethiopian immigration is implemented as promised.
The Knesset will resume its summer session on Sunday, with the first plenum meeting on Monday. With the opposition splintered and angrier than ever before, the coalition adjusting to the changes, and Likud members pushing for senior roles, it promises to be interesting.