Fed up with Netanyahu, some look to Liberman

Quietly, and however improbably, a certain momentum is building within parts of the coalition behind the ostensibly pragmatic foreign minister as an alternative to the prime minister

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman pictured in the Knesset in 2011 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman pictured in the Knesset in 2011 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Opinion polls consistently indicate that Israelis see no credible alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. Already Israel’s longest-serving leader after David Ben-Gurion, the Likud party chief scored 24% in a Knesset Channel poll two weeks ago on who is most suitable for the post (double his closest challenger, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett), and a whopping 38% in a similar survey published by Haaretz in September (when his nearest rival was Labor’s Isaac Herzog at a distant 7%).

But if the Israeli public mainstream has yet to be persuaded of an alternative, some in the Israeli political mainstream might just be a few steps ahead.

In the run-up to what many in government expect will be an election year in 2015, Netanyahu is losing ground within Likud, for his perceived shift to the center — as emblemized by his support in principle (and no matter the conditions, the wariness and the collapse of negotiations) for a two-state solution; his release of dozens of murderous Palestinian prisoners in support of the collapsed process in the past year; and his alleged silent freeze on any significant building over the pre-1967 lines outside the major settlement blocs and East Jerusalem.

He is being openly attacked by his grandstanding hardline coalition “partner” Bennett, who spent the entire summer war publicly complaining that Israel was failing to take the necessary action to finish off Hamas, and now declares that a government that cannot provide security in its capital city “does not have a right to exist.”

And he is simultaneously losing credibility in the center — oh, the joys of Israeli politics — where his critics offer mirror-image laments: that he’s not serious about seeking a two-state solution; that he’s alienated Israel’s last best hope, Mahmoud Abbas; that he could have saved the peace process if he’d handled the prisoner release issue with more sensitivity; that he’s endangering ties with the US and most everyone else with insistent new approvals for building over the pre-1967 lines.

His Environment Minister Amir Peretz resigned on Sunday in protest of his purported help-the-rich, bash-the-poor economic policies — no great blow, this… unless the rest of the center-left Hatnua coalition faction were inclined to follow suit.

Liberman is not a man usually highlighted as the embodiment of Israeli political moderation

Yesh Atid’s Science Minister Yaakov Peri promptly declared that his centrist party would have to reconsider its place in the coalition too, given Netanyahu’s supposed new “leaning to the right.” This on the day when Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, already a long-term critic of Netanyahu’s policies on the Palestinians and of Likud hawks’ calls for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, urged the government to take a more proactive role in calming tensions with the inflamed Israeli Arab sector while the prime minister is railing on about stripping extremists of their citizenship.

So who is this alternative to Netanyahu, considered by at least some in the middle ground of Israeli politics?

Step forward Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s minister of foreign affairs and the head of the Yisrael Beytenu coalition faction.

Liberman is not a man usually highlighted as the embodiment of Israeli political moderation. He’s a settler. A political hawk. An advocate of loyalty tests for Arab citizens. He quit Likud in 1997 over Netanyahu’s Wye River deal on partial West Bank redeployments by the IDF, and quit the Olmert government over the Annapolis peace conference 12 years later. He has consistently supported settlement expansion, and has conditioned a recent shift toward support for a “viable Palestinian state” on the remarcating of Israeli-West Bank borders that would relocate hundreds of thousands of Arab citizens of Israel in the new Palestine.

And yet there are those among the coalition’s unhappy centrists who see Liberman as a pragmatist — at least relative to Netanyahu; as someone who would initiate policy rather than defensively respond, as Netanyahu is deemed by his critics to do; and as the possible key piece of a future coalition jigsaw built around Yesh Atid (19 seats), Labor (15), Hatnua (6) and Kadima (2).

As a consequence of various comings and goings in what was the joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu slate in the 2013 elections, Liberman’s party now holds 13 seats in the Knesset. If you add in Meretz (six seats), and/or one or both of the ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas with its 11 seats, and United Torah Judaism 7), the arithmetic starts to look interesting.

We’re talking the crazy, volatile, unpredictable world of Israeli party politics here, so nobody should get ahead of themselves and start crowning Liberman as Israel’s next prime minister. It’s unlikely that Meretz would sit in government with Liberman. Or Labor for that matter. Or that the ultra-Orthodox parties would ally themselves with the overwhelmingly secular Yisrael Beytenu camp. Unlikely, but not impossible.

Yaakov Peri, the former Shin Bet intelligence chief who on Sunday made headlines by suggesting Yesh Atid might have to rethink its place in the coalition, noted in an interview with this writer last week the “fracture” between Netanyahu and Liberman — no great revelation: Liberman canceled the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu alliance in early July, as rocket fire from Gaza was intensifying. More surprisingly, unprompted, Peri heaped praise on Liberman over his attitude, of all things, to the diplomatic process. Said Peri: “I really like what Liberman has been saying recently: There won’t ever be peace with the Arabs, but an arrangement is possible. He distinguishes between peace and a viable arrangement.”

It’s hard to discern at first where his apparent appeal to some centrist malcontents may lie

Ever the political expedient, Liberman has been notably outspoken lately in hammering the right-wingers pushing for Jewish prayer rights on the Temple Mount, and castigating irresponsible colleagues for criticizing US Secretary of State John Kerry and endangering Israel’s ties with the US. “There’s no alternative for us to the United States,” he noted in a TV interview last month.

Still, Liberman has not suddenly become a political dove. He has been at the forefront of attacking Mahmoud Abbas, slamming international governments for moving toward recognition of Palestine, and bashing radical Israeli Arab politicians.

It’s hard to discern at first, therefore, where his apparent appeal to some centrist malcontents may lie. What one coalition source said to me, however, was that “Liberman has proved over the past year that he knows how to be pragmatic. His pragmatism is not my cup of tea. But you can build alliances with him when there is a common goal.”

At the tail end of our interview, Yesh Atid’s Peri assessed that “the people of Israel will accept any reasonable leader… if he has abilities that the present leadership doesn’t have, whether it’s in the political realm, or the economic realm, or the social realm. Until there is someone who gets up and says, I will put together a government, then there isn’t really an alternative. But the moment someone emerges, the nation will accept this leadership. We are an obedient nation, and we are a nation that gives a chance.”

Bennett is unpalatably right-wing for the Israeli middle-ground. Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni missed her moment in 2009. Lapid is deemed to have failed to proved himself, at least thus far. Labor’s Isaac Herzog is seen as decent and likable but lightweight. Ex-Likud minister Moshe Kahlon and IDF chief Benny Gantz are among the potential leaders of the future. But some in the coalition, it would seem, might be ready to give Liberman a chance. Not today, and not tomorrow, but not too far down the line. Largely it would seem, because he’s not Netanyahu.

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