Could he be PM, what’s his beef with Bibi, and 3 other Liberman election queries

Yisrael Beytenu leader is not quite the crusader against ‘religious coercion’ he claims to be, or the ‘leftist’ that Netanyahu says he is. So why did he push Israel to elections?

Marissa Newman

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Israel Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, May 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Israel Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, May 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In Avigdor Liberman’s telling, last week’s coalition crisis that ended with shock new elections called for September was about one thing and one thing only: passing into law, untouched, the Defense Ministry bill regulating the military draft of ultra-Orthodox men.

Okay, maybe two things. In a series of press conferences as the crisis spiraled, the Yisrael Beytenu leader gradually conceded that the enlistment bill was merely a “symbol” or “symptom” of a broader problem: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s subordination to his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, who are gradually dragging Israel into a “halacha [Jewish religious law] state.”

And this was something he simply could not accept.

In Netanyahu’s telling, by contrast, last week’s punishing debacle was about one thing and one thing only: a personal vendetta by the double-crossing Liberman, who is seeking to replace Netanyahu in office and has no qualms regarding the consequences of his obstinacy for the public purse. Far-reaching compromises were offered to Liberman to join the coalition, but the “delusional” demands by the former defense minister — who quit the government in November in a step that ultimately led to the last elections, in April — demonstrated to Netanyahu that this was a personal score-settling by a predictably unpredictable politician.

And this was something he simply could not accept.

With Israelis still reeling from the political whiplash and bracing for more twists, turns, betrayals and recriminations in the three months before they trudge back to the ballot boxes, what follows is a look at five of the key claims, rumors, and unanswered questions that swirled around Liberman before the curtain fell at midnight Wednesday on the Greek tragedy that was the 21st Knesset. And how they are likely to impact the campaign for the 22nd Knesset. (Even though nobody asked the electorate whether this was something we could accept.)

1. Is Liberman the anti-ultra-Orthodox coercion crusader he makes himself out to be? 

The seven weeks of failed negotiations that culminated last week were not the first time Liberman has ostensibly stayed out of a Netanyahu coalition over issues of religion and state.

On February 25, 2016, the then-opposition lawmaker and former foreign minister publicly roasted Netanyahu over his constant “capitulation” to the ultra-Orthodox political parties. Referring to coalition negotiations with Netanyahu’s team months earlier, which had seen him opt to remain in the opposition, Liberman mused: “When I saw the [proposed coalition] agreement, I understood something else: that his understandings with the Haredi parties are not only for the 20th Knesset, but the 21st and the 22nd and so forth. In short, for all the future Knessets in which he intends to participate. And believe me, he plans to stay in politics until 2069.” The ultra-Orthodox will always be given first preference, Liberman charged, and Netanyahu “will always capitulate to their demands.”

“In the next election, we won’t commit in advance to support you for prime minister,” he said that February. “What I can pledge to you is that Yisrael Beytenu will never be part of a left-wing coalition.”

Precisely three months later, a grinning Liberman sat next to an equally beaming Netanyahu at a press conference and signed a coalition agreement — agreeing, that is, to sit in government alongside the Haredi parties who had long-since inked their coalition demands on religion and state. He would remain in the government for the next two and a half years as defense minister until his resignation in November 2018.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman announce a coalition agreement, May 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Liberman, whose base of supporters is largely made up of secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union, campaigned ahead of April’s elections on opposing “religious coercion,” and supports public transportation and allowing minimarkets to remain open on Shabbat, in addition to ending the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce, and passing legislation regulating — and limiting — exemptions to military conscription for ultra-Orthodox students. “We won’t be partners in a government run according to halacha,” Liberman declared last week.

But his past behavior somewhat undermines the self-styled view of Liberman as champion of secular Israelis and die-hard opponent of the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religion in the government.

To be sure, Liberman has been consistent in his disdain for the relationship between the prime minister and the ultra-Orthodox parties and in his contempt for any attempts to impose religion in the public sphere, underlining his professed steadfastness to his cause with his swaggering slogan mila zo mila (our word is our word). But unlike his protests involving the Palestinians or Israel’s security, he hasn’t previously gone as far as to leave a government or comfortable cabinet post over the religion and state issues he so strongly espouses during pre-coalition negotiations.

Illustrative: Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is hosted by Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman (left), at a meal to celebrate the birth of Litzman’s grandson, June 18, 2017. (Shlomi Cohen/FLASH90)

In 2018, Yisrael Beytenu broke with the coalition to vote against a bill seeking to shutter minimarkets on Shabbat, but did not walk away when it was passed into law. He strongly opposed the government’s about-face on the Western Wall deal and attempts to advance a conversion bill that would entrench the Orthodox monopoly on the process, but did not even feign a beeline for the opposition when the cabinet reversed its previous decision on the promised permanent section for non-Orthodox prayer with shared oversight by non-Orthodox leaders. And when the government, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, ended construction on a pedestrian walkway in Tel Aviv on Saturdays for six months in August 2018, he did not race to show himself the door.

Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, seen with head of the Yisrael Beyteinu political party Avigdor Liberman at the “Sheva Brachot” of Deri’s daughter. December 23, 2015. (Yaacov Cohen/FLASH90)

He sat in multiple governments partnered with Haredi parties despite knowing that doing so meant not reforming the religion and state balance in Israel and, as underlined by ultra-Orthodox legislators last week — who cited their joint support for the Jerusalem mayoral candidacy of Moshe Lion, a friend of Liberman’s — was open to cooperation with his Haredi counterparts when politically expedient.

Director General of the PM’s office Avigdor Liberman (left)  with the head of the PM’s bureau, Moshe Lion, outside the Dutch PM’s office in The Hague. October 1997. (Yaakov Sa’ar/GPO archive)

Notably, even as he railed against Israel’s alleged descent into a “halachic state,” Liberman has also not ruled out joining a government with the Haredi parties in the future.

Throughout his tumultuous political career, the various times he did quit Israeli governments were, respectively, in protest over an IDF withdrawal from areas in Hebron (October 2001, from Ariel Sharon’s government. The party actually left in March 2002, due to the assassination of minister Rehavam Ze’evi hours after their joint resignation was submitted); over negotiations with the Palestinians (January 2008, Ehud Olmert’s government), and over the government’s “soft” military policy on Gaza and the Hamas terrorist group (November 2018, Netanyahu’s government).

At least according to the reasons cited for his resignations, security — not religion — had, until last week, been his “red line.”

Unlike in 2015, when Yisrael Beytenu’s handful of seats didn’t make or break a Netanyahu coalition, Liberman last week took it further than he has in the past, refusing to climb down and prompting Netanyahu’s resort to new elections.

Whether he’ll stick to his stance, and how this will play out if he again holds the balance of power in September, could prove to be the barometer of the as-yet unresolved question haunting last week’s fiasco: Was this about religion at all, as Liberman has said? Or was it just a pretext, per Netanyahu?

2. Is he a leftist?

Minutes after the Knesset vote to disband the parliament and hold new elections, a visibly seething Netanyahu told reporters: “Avigdor Liberman is now part of the left. He brings down right-wing governments. Don’t believe him again.”

The comment — injected with no small amount of venom — drew a response from some in the crowd that Netanyahu would not have anticipated: laughter. Was the prime minister’s characterization of his infuriating nemesis indeed laughable?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on May 29, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Liberman may be one of the last holdouts among the right wing to openly support a two-state solution, with land swaps of majority Arab Israeli cities in Israel which he supports folding into a future Palestinian state. A resident of the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, the former defense minister also supported a carrot-and-stick approach to the Palestinians that clashed with his more bellicose rhetoric, and enraged leaders on the right with a plan in 2017 to approve thousands of housing units in the West Bank city of Qalqilya as a disincentive for terrorism.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman inspects a sight on a rifle at a weapons manufacturing plant in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on December 14, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The spontaneous titters, however, were more likely elicited over Liberman’s highly combative and frequent rhetorical attacks on Palestinians and Arab Israelis, including suggestions that those not loyal to Israel should be beheaded, his allegations that Arab lawmakers are themselves terrorists and a “fifth column,” his high-profile support for the death penalty for terrorists, and comments that appeared to suggest that all the Palestinians killed in clashes along the border fence with Israel were Hamas members as there are “no innocent people in Gaza” (which the Defense Ministry later walked back).

In 2017, he was widely criticized for calling for a boycott of Arab businesses in areas of Israel that saw riots over US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “The people of that place aren’t part of the state,” the then-defense minister said of Wadi Ara. “You can’t go out and demonstrate with a Palestinian flag, take billions in welfare from the country, and then destroy us from the inside.”

“Let them feel they aren’t wanted here,” he urged Israelis.

Liberman himself has also laughed off Netanyahu’s recent characterization of his political views.

“The man from Caesarea is accusing the man from Nokdim of being a leftist?” he scoffed.

3. Was there an attempt to dethrone Netanyahu, with contacts between Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar and Benny Gantz?

During last week’s political rollercoaster, the Blue and White party called for Likud members to break ranks with Netanyahu and form a unity government with the centrist party, fanning rumors that a supposed rogue, namely former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar, could make such a move.

Gideon Sa’ar speaks at a conference in Jerusalem organized by the Israel Democracy Institute, on June 19, 2018. (Yossi Zeliger/ Flash90/File)

Officially, however, all sides are denying the existence of talks between Sa’ar and Blue and White. And, more pointedly, when the Wednesday Knesset vote came to a head, the Likud party — in its entirety — voted in favor of elections, rather than granting President Reuven Rivlin an opening to task Blue and White leader Benny Gantz with coalition building. In another show of confidence in its leader, Likud last week also voted to keep Netanyahu as its prime ministerial candidate for the next election, in a meeting skipped by Sa’ar.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at a demonstration outside the Tel Aviv Museum on May 25, 2019 focused on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to advance legislation to avoid prosecution in three criminal cases he faces. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Liberman has also clamped down on rumors he had met with Blue and White’s Yair Lapid in Vienna immediately after the election, after both politicians jetted out of the country immediately after the April vote. “The last time I met Lapid was two weeks before elections,” said Liberman during a faction meeting last week, adding that he had tried to set a meeting with the Blue and White MK since, but “unfortunately” couldn’t schedule one.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you: Since the election campaign, I haven’t met with Gideon Sa’ar or Moshe Kahlon,” he added. A photo later emerged of Sa’ar and Liberman chatting in the Knesset early last week, again setting off speculation, though a hall filled with lawmakers and reporters snapping photos would hardly be the ideal setting to diabolically plot the overthrow of a long-serving prime minister.

Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu also voted in support of elections in the Knesset dispersal vote at midnight Wednesday, blocking Blue and White’s possible path to forming a coalition, and continued to say it hasn’t changed its support for Netanyahu as prime minister through last week.

The prospect of a Blue and White-led alternative center-right government was also highly far-fetched as it would have required the party (35 seats) to partner with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu (4 seats, which since has moved to run on a joint ticket with Likud in the September election), Avi Gabbay’s Labor (6 seats), Yisrael Beytenu (5 seats), and at least 11 Likud lawmakers to defect from the right-wing party to form a majority government in the 120-seat Knesset. (The ultra-Orthodox parties have rejected the notion of joining a coalition with Lapid, the URWP has said it won’t join the center-left, and the right-wing parties would be hard-pressed to sit in a coalition with the left-wing Meretz.).

Israelis count the remaining ballots from soldiers and absentees at the parliament in Jerusalem, a day after the general elections, April 10, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Speaking to The Times of Israel in June 2015, during his stint in the opposition, Liberman accused Netanyahu of dissolving the previous Knesset over similar unfounded fears of a political “putsch.” The prime minister’s then-coalition partners were more jilted than politically conniving, he insisted.

“After Protective Edge, Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset for no reason. He looked at Yair Lapid; he didn’t like my good relations with Yair Lapid. He didn’t like the good relations between me and Tzipi Livni. He always has all kinds of fears. It’s very easy to incite his thoughts.”

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid seen with his hand on the shoulder of former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman during the opening session of Israel's 19th parliament, held at the Knesset, February 5 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yair Lapid seen with his hand on the shoulder of Avigdor Liberman during the opening session of Israel’s 19th Knesset, February 5, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“It’s like political paranoia, I think. I spoke to Lapid. Nobody wanted to bring him down. Nobody. Not Bennett. Not Tzipi. Not Lapid. You just need to give people a little attention. Invite them in. Sit. Talk. Be a mensch. Make a little effort with your partners.”

4. Does Liberman have a shot at being PM?

As talks last week crumbled and it became clear that Liberman would not back down, Likud accused the Yisrael Beytenu leader of attempting to replace Netanyahu in Israel’s highest office. “His goal is to destroy Netanyahu and then supplant him,” a Likud source said.

Liberman has denied harboring a personal vendetta against Netanyahu and downplayed his prime ministerial ambitions over the weekend.

“I see myself heading my own party. I have to succeed. I’ve never said that the dream to be a prime minister dazzles me. We’ll do our utmost. If we have enough seats, we’ll consider [the premiership]. If not, we’re rational people,” he said in a TV interview on Saturday.

Leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party Avigdor Liberman, presents the joint campaign with Likud party prior to the Israeli elections, in Jerusalem on December 25, 2012. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

But shifting gears on his support for the next premier, Liberman said his party will support a right-wing candidate best placed to form a government, without elaborating. He continued to rule out supporting Gantz for the job.

The Yisrael Beytenu leader has seen a bump in support in polls (which, in the last elections, were again far off the mark) since the coalition talks crumbled and new elections were called, but would likely face trouble siphoning enough center-left votes to propel him into power due to his hardline views on the Arabs. His best-ever showing since entering politics two decades ago was in 2009, when the party won 15 seats; in April, it managed just five seats. Running alone, he does not appear to have a path to power, though last-ditch mergers with other parties could shake up the political map.

5. So what is his beef with Netanyahu?

Despite Liberman’s protestations that has no personal scores to settle with the prime minister, the two politicians have gone head-to-head bitterly and have veered wildly between being formidable political foes and unsinkable allies.

Their working relationship began in the late 1980s as Netanyahu started his Knesset career. Liberman then served as director-general of Likud under opposition leader Netanyahu and of the Prime Minister’s Office under first-term prime minister Netanyahu. He held a series of ministerial posts in subsequent Netanyahu-led governments. And their two parties — Likud and Yisrael Beytenu — ran on a joint slate for the 2013 elections.

Benjamin Netanyahu (L) prepares a speech to the European Council for Security and Economic Cooperation while en route to Lisbon. Avigdor Liberman is pictured on the right. January 1996. (Yaakov Sa’ar/GPO photo archive)

In his stints in the opposition, Liberman has not held back from criticizing Netanyahu, including calling him a liar and a fraud, and describing him as ineffectual, paranoid and weak.

But both the reasons and extent of the hostility, for now, remain a mystery to both the public and even some veteran cabinet ministers who have served with the two politicians for years.

“I asked forgiveness tonight from Netanyahu for convincing him, for over a month, that Liberman would enter the government,” lamented ultra-Orthodox Shas leader Aryeh Deri last Wednesday, shortly before the Knesset vote to disband. “Netanyahu told me all along that Liberman is acting out personally against him and won’t enter the government. Unfortunately, the prime minister was correct.”

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman seen with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in the assembly session in the plenum hall of the Israeli parliament, as the Israeli parliament vote on the Governance Bill, which among others will raise the electoral threshold. March 11, 2014. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90 )

Speaking shortly after lawmakers voted to send the country to an unprecedented second general election in five months, Netanyahu hinted he could soon let Israel in on the secret.

“I will tell you about it tomorrow. Maybe I will tell you some things you don’t know. He deceived the electorate just to get votes,” Netanyahu said.

Tomorrow came and went, and the prime minister appears not to have yet set a course on whether to rip into Liberman personally in the upcoming campaign and disclose dirt on his ally-turned-rival-turned-ally-turned-rival.

And Liberman, no doubt, also has some stories to tell.

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