Maverick Yisrael Beytenu MK is in Liberman’s crosshairs

Party chair wants to declare Eli Avidar a rebel MK to stymie his parliamentary maneuverability — but doing so could risk toppling a coalition desperate for every vote

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar at the Knesset on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar at the Knesset on June 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Lieberman is bent on destroying the political career of one of his own faction members, Eli Avidar.

It is clear to everyone how things will end: Liberman wants to get rid of Avidar by any means possible. If the latter is willing to resign of his own volition, even better. It would make way for the next member on the party’s list — Shadi Halul, a Christian Arab activist.

But if Avidar insists on remaining in the Knesset, Liberman plans to declare him a rebel MK, which would strip him of significant parliamentary powers and prevent him from running on any existing slate in the next election. That was the fate of former Yisrael Beytenu MK Orly Levy-Abekasis, who was booted from the party ahead of the April 2019 election, formed the independent Gesher party and then failed to cross the electoral threshold. Luckily for Levy-Abekasis, there were several subsequent elections in which she maneuvered her way back into parliament. She is now a Knesset member for Likud.

The troubles with Avidar began with a simple press release last month on June 13, hours before the new government was sworn in, and has only escalated from there.

It was a laconic statement reviewing the various positions of each of the party’s MKs and ended with, “Avidar will serve as a Knesset member.”

Avidar, No. 4 on the Yisrael Beytenu list, had wanted to be a minister with the authority to carry out reforms.

Yisrael Beytenu members Alex Kushnir (left), Eli Avidar (center) and party leader Avigdor Liberman at an Israel Independence Day picnic, May 10, 2019 (Facebook)

Liberman, who was set to be named finance minister, offered Avidar the position of a minister within his office. The latter declined, recognizing that he would have little independence in such a position. He asked Liberman to name him either agriculture minister or minister of the Negev and the Galilee.

But Liberman combined the two portfolios into one and handed it to the party’s No. 2 Oded Forer.

Meanwhile, the party’s No. 6 MK Hamad Amar was given the position of minister within the Finance Ministry, which Avidar had refused. Alex Kushnir, seventh on the party list, was tapped as chairman of the Knesset’s powerful Finance Committee.

Journalists who reached out to Avidar asking for comment on the decision not to give him a significant post received the following message in response: “From here on out, there are [six] MKs in Yisrael Beytenu and one independent lawmaker.”

With that sentence, Avidar may well have ended his political career. Avigdor Liberman does not suffer independent lawmakers in his party. MKs are expected to vote according to the party line that he dictates. From that point on, all the work that Avidar did over the past year to satisfy his party chairman was immediately forgotten.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar in the Knesset on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Over the past year Avidar had been a regular attendee at the weekly Balfour Street protests against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His comments against the Likud leader were sometimes blunt and exaggerated, but that’s what Lieberman wanted and got.

But there was also periodic friction between him and Liberman. To Avidar, the protests were about the fight for democracy. Liberman did not view the demonstrations in those terms. He’s not a big democrat.

The Yisrael Beytenu chairman also did not see eye to eye with Avidar’s liberal agenda in support of civil rights, full equality for the LGBTQ community and veganism while expressing doubts in the coronavirus vaccine.

Avidar also had a different worldview regarding Israel’s Arab citizens, whom Liberman for years demonized in campaigns under the slogan “Without loyalty there is no citizenship.” The Yisrael Beytenu chairman is also known for refusing to shake the hand of Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh and not saying hello to Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi. He holds his hand out to fellow coalition member and Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas, but just barely shakes it.

Avidar, meanwhile, was born in Egypt and is friends with many of the Arab MKs. He backs mandating Arabic language studies in schools, views Ra’am’s entry into the coalition as a historic achievement and would even like to see the Joint List do the same.

The branding of Tibi as a “terror supporter” by Netanyahu and Liberman has long bothered Avidar.

Eli Avidar being interviewed in his study, March 2019 (Facebook)

Nonetheless, he managed to get along with Liberman during the two-plus years they served in the Knesset together.

But Avidar’s “declaration of independence” in June quickly made him persona non grata to Liberman, as well as the other MKs in Yisrael Beytenu. His announcement last week that he would vote against a bill aimed at making it easier for lawmakers to split from a party — in an apparent effort to break up Netanyahu’s Likud — only enraged his fellow faction members further.

Ultimately, Avidar arrived at the Knesset for the vote, saw that the coalition had enough votes to pass the legislation and exited the plenum.

As he walked out of the hall, he was met by the party’s No. 3 MK Evgeny Sova who remarked in disgust, “You are allowing Netanyahu to return.”

Over the past week, journalists close to Liberman reported that Avidar had given the party chairman an ultimatum that he would vote against the coalition if he was not appointed minister. It was subsequently reported that Avidar had hired a new strategic adviser known for working with Likud MKs David Bitan, May Golan and others.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R) and Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar attend a plenum session in the Knesset on July 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Avidar, for his part, has told confidants that he does in fact want the coalition to thrive and serve its full four-and-a-half-year term. But to Liberman this is irrelevant, and the Yisrael Beytenu chairman is bent on taking him out.

But in a coalition with a 61-member razor-thin majority, Avidar is not just a problem for Liberman: Even the smallest whiff of uncertainty regarding Avidar has caused those in the Prime Minister’s Office to break into a sweat.

Now Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has given cabinet secretary Shalom Shlomo an additional portfolio: czar of Eli Avidar affairs. Bennett and Shlomo recognize that they will need the wayward MK in order to pass a budget, and are interested in keeping Avidar happy.

Shlomo is in regular contact with Avidar, and if Liberman hadn’t opposed it, Bennett would have already given him a position in the government. But Liberman does not forgive, nor does he forget, so Avidar will have to get used to this new reality.

Avidar has maintained radio silence in recent days, knowing full well what would happen to him if Liberman officially declares him a rebel MK. If Avidar meets the same fate as Levy-Abekasis, he would be barred from introducing legislation and would not be allowed to vote in any of the committees on which he sits (Avidar is currently a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on behalf of Yisrael Beytenu).

MK Orly Levy-Abekasis in the Knesset on July 27, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There is also a potential solution to the problem: When Merav Michaeli refused to join the previous Netanyahu government along with the other Labor MKs, then chairman Amir Peretz accepted her decision, and she continued running an independent legislative agenda from within the party.

This is perhaps the compromise that the Prime Minister’s Office will seek to broker between Liberman and Avidar.

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