For two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been charging that his enemies are pursuing a “vendetta” to push him out of office. As criminal investigations against him gathered pace, he blamed the opposition, the media, the police, the state prosecution hierarchy and the attorney general.
On Wednesday, he was proven right. But it was none of these purported antagonists who forced him, just 50 days after he appeared to win one general election, to call another because he was unable to form a majority coalition. It wasn’t one of the derided “leftists” upon whom Netanyahu has focused so much vitriol. Rather, the enemy pursuing the vendetta was his own former longtime aide, now his nemesis, Avigdor Liberman.
Furious as he spoke to reporters immediately after the Knesset had voted to disperse and call new elections on September 17, Netanyahu blamed “the personal ambition of one man” for dragging Israel back to the polls.
Liberman, his former PMO chief, foreign minister and defense minister, never truly wanted to sign a coalition deal and deliberately rejected every compromise, Netanyahu stormed. Liberman, he declared, reaching for the most hideous insult he could find, “is now part of the left.”
What just happened?
Minutes earlier, before the fateful Knesset vote, Liberman had offered a very different narrative. He had wanted to join the coalition, he claimed. He had recommended to the president last month that Netanyahu be charged with forming the government. He had fully intended for his five-strong Yisrael Beytenu to be part of a Netanyahu-led 65-strong coalition in the 120-member Knesset.
All he had demanded was that legislation designed to raise the proportion of young ultra-Orthodox males serving in the army, a bill endorsed by the IDF itself and passed on a first reading 10 months ago, be fully and finally approved with no further changes.
But Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox parties had chosen not to meet this entirely reasonable demand, he lamented. Instead, the coalition negotiations had been a saga of “complete surrender by Likud to the ultra-Orthodox.” And while Yisrael Beytenu was a “natural partner” in a right-wing government, he said, “we won’t be partners in a government run according to halacha” — Jewish religious law.
Netanyahu’s version of events was slightly lacking. Israel did not necessarily have to be gearing up for new elections set for five months after the last round. Netanyahu could have simply reported to President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday that he’d been unable to form a majority coalition, and Rivlin could then have cast around for somebody else to have a try. But King Bibi had absolutely no intention of taking that risk; much better new elections, with a new bogeyman in the shape of Liberman to help him get out the vote, than giving Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, Likud rival Gideon Sa’ar or any other pretender a clear run at the throne.
But if Netanyahu didn’t quite tell the full story, Liberman’s narrative was transparently false. The ultra-Orthodox draft legislation, whose every comma he so stirringly championed, would barely change the dismal reality in which the overwhelming majority of young Haredi males are exempt from the army. This is not a landmark law for which it was worth bringing down parliament one month after a fresh crop of legislators were sworn in.
Rather, Liberman realized that he held the balance of power. He may have calculated that he could win more seats next time as the great crusader of the secular right (and may well be mistaken). But he was primarily motivated by the desire to hurt Netanyahu. A great deal of nastiness may have played out behind the scenes between these two veteran political heavyweights, but even Liberman’s public utterances leave no room for doubt about his contempt for a prime minister he has repeatedly informed us he considers to be duplicitous, indecisive and soft.
Over recent years, he has leveled most every printable insult under the sun at Netanyahu, including but not limited to liar, crook and cheat. It was his resignation as defense minister last November, when he accused the government of capitulating to Hamas terrorism, that led to April’s elections. In retrospect, it is a wonder that Netanyahu didn’t prioritize locking Liberman into his coalition as the first goal of these failed negotiations, given the Yisrael Beytenu chief’s animus and proven potential for wreaking political havoc.
Liberman won the battle. But who will win the war?
As the 21st Knesset voted itself into oblivion at midnight — the law to disperse itself was its sole legislative achievement — a Channel 12 TV anchor remarked, with a degree of sorrow, that “what we are watching is parliament committing mass [political] suicide.” Netanyahu’s hold on his Likud MKs is so firm that they all dutifully voted themselves out of a job, at least temporarily, evidently confident that he will lead them safely back here in three and a half months’ time.
But what of Liberman and Netanyahu? What now becomes of them?
Pursuing his vendetta against Netanyahu to this bitter dead end, Liberman may turn out to have fatally damaged his own political career. Not only will the formidable Netanyahu be singularly focused on eviscerating him at the polls, but so too will the ultra-Orthodox parties he so publicly humiliated. And while many Israelis may not bother to schlep to the polling stations again, especially if September 17 is a typically sunny day, the ultra-Orthodox community always votes in high numbers, and its representation in the next Knesset is likely to grow. Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu didn’t fare all that well on April 9, winning just those five seats — a far cry from its high of 15 in 2009. It might have trouble making it back into the Knesset at all next time.
For his part, Netanyahu vowed after the Knesset dissolution vote to run “a sharp and clear campaign” in September, “and to win.” It would be foolish, as ever this past decade, to bet against him — particularly given the loyalty his party’s MKs have shown him in the last few frenzied days.
Liberman chose not to make an issue of Netanyahu’s alleged criminal entanglements. He chose not to assert that he was staying out of a Netanyahu coalition because the prime minister has been planning to advance legislation that would render him immune from prosecution — and in the process oversee a radical constitutional change that would limit the power of the Supreme Court and undermine the checks and balances at the heart of Israeli democracy. Now that would have been a cause to champion.
But Liberman will be hoping, nonetheless, that his fatal preemptive strike on this Netanyahu coalition will immensely complicate the prime minister’s legal situation from here on. He will be anticipating that with Netanyahu’s pre-trial hearing set for early October, just two weeks after what are now to be our next elections, the prime minister — provided, of course, that Netanyahu is more victorious in the next election than he turned out to be in the last one — simply won’t have time to legislate himself a Get Out of Jail card. If that proves to be the case, Liberman might truly turn out to have been Netanyahu’s most effective adversary.
It is certain, however, that Netanyahu will seek to have that hearing delayed — arguing, quite reasonably, that he has to fight an unexpected extra election. And it’s entirely possible that the attorney general will grant his request for a postponement, which might yet give Netanyahu the time he needs to try to extricate himself from his legal woes, at whatever cost to those democratic checks and balances.
The attorney general, after all, is not pursuing a vendetta against Netanyahu. Unlike Avigdor Liberman.