Russian roulette: How Liberman hopes to profit from Netanyahu’s defeat

By forcing new elections over ultra-Orthodox draft bill, Yisrael Beytenu chief aims to establish himself as new champion of secular Israel. It’s already gotten him lots of free PR

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party at the Knesset on June 18, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party at the Knesset on June 18, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Seven weeks after the last Knesset elections, it turns out that Benny Gantz wasn’t the only one who delivered a premature victory speech.

The Blue and White leader was much ridiculed for declaring, late on April 9, that a “great light” had shone out on the country, and that he will be a “prime minister of everyone.” In the last minutes of May 29, as the clock inched toward the midnight deadline for building a coalition, it emerged that the joke was on Benjamin Netanyahu.

“This is a night of an incredible, incredible victory,” Netanyahu had declared just 50 days earlier. His Likud party had achieved an “almost unprecedented” result, he gushed. “When have we received so many seats? I don’t even remember.”

But now we’re back to square one, with new elections scheduled for September 17. And the campaign for the 22nd Knesset is shaping up to be very different from the previous one.

Ahead of the April 9 election, Israel’s political system was preoccupied with one thing only: the candidacy of political novice Benny Gantz. Few people were talking about the prime minister’s legal woes or the ongoing attacks on Israel’s South from Gaza.

Instead, people were curious about the former IDF chief-turned-politician: What will his party be called? Who will be on his list? What does he stand for? Will he join with Moshe Ya’alon and/or Yair Lapid? And, later, what was on his cellphone, which was hacked by the Iranians?

Benny Gantz reacts as he appears before supporters at the alliance headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 10, 2019. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

In contrast, the coming campaign will likely focus on a Knesset veteran who has been sowing political turmoil for decades: Avigdor Liberman. The Yisrael Beytenu boss is the main reason Israel is headed for repeat elections, and while one can only speculate about his motives, he doubtlessly is pursuing a calculated strategy he believes will serve his interests.

Liberman is playing a dangerous game for high stakes. By dragging the entire country to the polls again, ostensibly over his insistence on passing, unaltered, legislation regulating draft exemptions for yeshiva students, he is taking a big risk.

The former defense and foreign minister may emerge strengthened from the September 17 election, as some initial polls reportedly suggest 10 seats for his list (in the short-lived, now-dissolved 21st Knesset, Yisrael Beytenu had only five). But he also might find himself below the electoral threshold.

Right-wing parties wasted no time, firing their first salvos at Liberman mere minutes after the Knesset voted to disband.

“Avigdor Liberman is now part of the left. He brings down right-wing governments. Don’t believe him again,” Netanyahu told reporters as he angrily left the Knesset plenum.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks to the press following a vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset on May 29, 2019, at the Knesset in Jerusalem. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Soon after, his new-media assistant Topaz Luk tweeted, “We have begun” in Russian. Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, has since tweeted numerous times, in Russian and Hebrew, indicating that Liberman will be Likud’s main target in the upcoming campaign.

Other parties that hoped to be governing by now but instead have to hit the campaign trail again, similarly attacked the Yisrael Beytenu boss for having sabotaged the coalition negotiations.

“The dictator Liberman decides on the country’s agenda: He determined which law passes, how it passes, if and when elections are being held,” fumed senior United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni on Thursday morning. “The Israeli public won’t forgive him for that. He won’t pass the electoral threshold.”

Or will he?

Liberman, one of the oldest foxes in Israeli politics, is aware that the religious and right-wing parties are furious at him and will seek to destroy him on September 17. Still, the Yisrael Beytenu chief evidently reasons that it was worth it.

Some analysts suspect that personal animus figured in the latest moves of the former Netanyahu aide-turned-rival. That may well be the case. But there is also a clear rationale behind making the draft bill his hill to die on. It’s part of a political makeover geared at turning the Moldovan immigrant into a champion of secular Israelis suffering from the ultra-Orthodox domination over Israeli politics.

Liberman’s past electoral successes were overwhelmingly due to immigrants from the former Soviet Union. But as time goes on, Russian-speaking Israelis appear to be increasingly less inclined to vote according to ethnic or linguistic fault lines.

Moreover, with no significant achievements to show for his two years as defense minister, Liberman may have seen little value in joining Netanyahu and assuming the same post again. He may have reckoned that Israel will have new elections soon anyway, if and when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decides to formally charge Netanyahu in his ongoing corruption cases.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives in the West Bank on 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Rather than loyally serving as the prime minister’s defense chief until said indictment, Liberman may have preferred to act now to distinguish himself as the unflinching defender of secular Israelis who are fed up with the ultra-Orthodox parties always getting what they want.

“The public is tired of capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox,” Liberman said Thursday in a press conference in Tel Aviv, casting the coalition agreement he turned down as a sellout to the ultra-Orthodox. “We want a right-wing government, we don’t want a halachic government,” he added.

Agitating against the ultra-Orthodox and their allegedly outsize influence over Israeli politics is not a new tactic. In 2013, Yair Lapid’s newly founded Yesh Atid party garnered a staggering 19 seats — thanks, in large part, to a campaign vowing to stand up for Israel’s silent secular majority and the promise to get the ultra-Orthodox parties out of the government.

To be sure, it is very unlikely that Liberman can duplicate this success in September. It is impossible to predict, at this point, who will win over those secular right-wing voters who, for whatever reason, do not want to cast their ballot for Likud. Maybe Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked will make a comeback? Perhaps Moshe Feiglin will be able to translate the hype around his Zehut party into actual Knesset seats this time?

For now, Liberman might seem like the most hated man in the country. But he got lots of free PR out of his act of sabotage, and, as the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad press. Ahead of the last elections, nobody really showed much interest in Yisrael Beytenu. Today, the five-seat niche party is the talk of the town — for better or worse.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed