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Promises 'leadership that doesn't get confused, capitulate'

Liberman claims mantle of hawk, as he launches his party’s election campaign

Ex-defense chief accuses Netanyahu of caving to pressure, says his Yisrael Beytenu is the true champion of Israel’s nationalist camp

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman launches his party's elections campaign in Tel Aviv on January 20, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman launches his party's elections campaign in Tel Aviv on January 20, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Former defense minister Avigdor Liberman unveiled his Yisrael Beytenu party’s election campaign Sunday morning, launching a broadside against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “confused and capitulating” leader and promising that he will “not be cowed” by threats others have given into.

Speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv — flanked by posters declaring he will stand up to the BDS movement, the left-wing West Bank watchdog group B’Tselem, the ultra-Orthodox, Hamas and Joint (Arab) List MK Ahmad Tibi alike — Liberman presented himself as a hawk and a tough guy who will keep the government “on the right path.”

“We are the only party that acts according to right-wing values, and doesn’t just talk about them,” the Yisrael Beytenu chair said, noting that his campaign launch came on the 20th anniversary of the party’s formation.

“We stick to our principles, not our seats,” he added, referencing his November decision to resign from the government, which he said he did out of a principled stance in defense of the beleaguered residents of southern Israel, after a ceasefire agreement he opposed was reached with Hamas.

Israel’s former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman talks during the opening of his Yisrael Beytenu party campaign for the upcoming Israeli election, in Tel Aviv on 20 January 2019. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Liberman resigned as defense minister less than 24 hours after the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas went into effect, arguing that he could no longer be a part of a government that caves to terror. His announcement spared no criticism of the prime minister and his Likud party, as well as from fellow coalition parties Jewish Home and Kulanu, portraying them as weak on security matters.

Liberman said on Sunday that Israel needed “a leadership that doesn’t get confused and capitulate” and declared that “such a leader is apparently in the wrong job.” He presented a “diary of events,” a list of decisions that Netanyahu had approved despite Liberman’s opposition that went as far back as the 2004 vote on Ariel Sharon’s Disengagement Plan, which Netanyahu initially voted in favor of, and the 2011 swap of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for captive IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.

Yissrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman launches his party’s elections campaign in Tel Aviv on January 20, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

But the list could also have been seen as an account of Liberman’s recent failures: He tried but failed to prevent Qatari fuel and money from entering the Gaza Strip. He did not get the government to uproot Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin village in the West Bank that was built without the proper permits. He also did not manage to pass a law calling for the death penalty for terrorists — his signature policy pledge last time around. And his call for harsher military action against Hamas in Gaza was ignored, which ultimately led to his resignation.

The new campaign appeared to be an effort to frame those decisions as the fault of others and again rebrand himself as the most hawkish of all Israeli politicians after some claim his stint as defense minister proved otherwise.

Asked by The Times of Israel if the list perhaps proved Liberman’s inability to carry out his own agenda and lack of success in influencing Netanyahu, the former defense chief admitted to falling short at times, even apologizing, but said Yisrael Beytenu was the only party pushing for a “real right-wing agenda.”

“We are the only ones fighting and in the end we will win. I am committed to my principles, unlike others. I am trying to do my best to implement my vision and that is my promise,” he said. “I am sorry about the decisions, but at the end of the day I think that we will be victorious.”

Despite the criticism of Netanyahu, Liberman would not commit to boycotting a future government led by the current prime minister, but said that “nothing is for certain” and declared he would “only sit in a government where our demands are met and our principles respected.”

He said his “clear vision of a future government” included three key commitments: “to destroy Hamas and to end terror; to not give into the fifth column [a phrase he ha repeatedly used to describe Israel’s Arab Israeli population]; and to fight for our secular vision — we really believe in the Jewish spirit but we first of all think everyone has the right to do what they believe.”

Specifically, Liberman said his party would initiate a law that would require MKs to “swear clear allegiance to the flag” when being sworn into the Knesset and mandate their ouster should they reject Israel as a Jewish state.

Despite the bravado displayed Sunday, the election campaign sees Yisrael Beytenu fighting to stay in the Knesset, with polls predicting the party hovering just above the electoral threshold, potentially ending its 20-year presence in the Israeli political sphere altogether.

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