The good news — and the bad — for Avigdor Liberman

The old-new foreign minister is returning triumphantly to the political summit. Now he faces a whole new set of problems

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Avigdor Liberman at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on November 6, 2013 (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90)
Avigdor Liberman at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on November 6, 2013 (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90)

Avigdor Liberman is not guilty. After investigations and trials lasting for the better part of 17 years, Israel’s most investigated politician may have cleared his last legal hurdle.

His verdict was depicted in the Hebrew media as a watershed event, and it’s not hard to go along with the sense that Liberman’s future is key to Israeli policy and politics.

Liberman has a hand in many key areas of Israeli policy making. He wields absolute control over a party that is allied with the ruling Likud and has had stable ballot-box support through years of legal troubles.

As a senior member of the coalition, he also has a vote on countless policy decisions and Knesset bills, from Iran and Palestinian peace talks to economic policy and questions of religion and state. His triumphant return to the summit of Israeli politics will therefore have a few immediate repercussions worth noting.

Liberman faces a difficult political position that may lead to a break-up of his close alliance with Likud and make him a destabilizing factor in the coalition. Yisrael Beytenu’s local electoral slate, which constitute his key grassroots organization and most important source of real political power, fared poorly in the municipal elections last month. Voters had already fled the party en masse after the announcement that it would run in a joint list with the Likud in October 2012.

Liberman must now work to rehabilitate the party’s brand in its traditional Russian-speaking constituency in order to regain his power base. That may soon drive him to separate himself from Likud in order to better compete with it, and with the other coalition partners, for their overlapping voter bases.

Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Liberman’s efforts to merge fully with Likud (the parties currently share a joint Knesset faction, but remain separate registered political parties), and position himself as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s natural successor for party leader and prime ministerial candidate, are not going well. He can’t afford to join Likud without being granted the right to appoint a significant number of his supporters to the party’s Central Committee. Otherwise he will be placing his political future in a party where he doesn’t have any influence over the body that sets the rules of election. He would be hostage to Likud’s veteran leaders, who also see themselves as Netanyahu’s successors and are prepared to unite and even to change the party’s constitution to assure Liberman can’t wrest control of the Central Committee. They could do this by simply moving the power to choose the Knesset list from a primary of party members back to the Central Committee.

Joining Likud thus carries a heavy potential cost. At the same time, splitting from Likud and investing his political capital in regaining his lost constituency carries other risks, potentially destabilizing the coalition without any guarantee that the efforts will be successful.

For many on the right, the verdict, delivered unanimously by a three-judge panel in Jerusalem’s Magistrates Court, confirmed the belief that Liberman has been the victim of a politicized legal system that sought to topple him for his politics rather than his behavior. Liberman has been under investigation on one charge or another for 17 years, and little came of those cases. The refrain was the same across the right on Wednesday morning: that Liberman had suffered inui din, a Hebrew term for delayed judicial proceedings that cause harm to the defendant.

“The fact that the acquittal was unanimous points to gross inui din,” said Liberman’s close ally, the influential Knesset Law Committee chairman and Yisrael Beytenu MK David Rotem.

But the sentiment was not limited to Liberman’s own party.

“It’s a shame he had to wait so many years for justice,” said Housing Minister Uri Ariel. “It was a serious delay of justice that this country must not accept, one that harms democracy and the right to a fair trial.”

“Justice was done after many years of [delay of justice],” agreed Liberman’s soon-to-be deputy, Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a member of Likud, echoing further statements from right-wing NGOs, the Jewish Home party’s spokesman, and MK Motti Yogev (Jewish Home), who released a statement Wednesday morning announcing that he had prayed at the shrine of Rachel’s Tomb for Liberman’s acquittal.

In short, Liberman’s supporters seized the opportunity to take a parting shot at a judicial system they distrust.

Those following the minutiae of coalition politics will note that Yisrael Beytenu is granted four ministerial posts in the coalition agreement — and already controls that number without Liberman: Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir, Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver, Minister of Public Security Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Tourism Minister Uzi Landau. Either the coalition partners (primarily Yesh Atid, which has led the insistence on limiting the size of the cabinet) will approve a fifth ministerial post for the party, thus increasing its proportional influence in the cabinet, or one of Yisrael Beytenu’s sitting ministers will find themselves summarily dismissed back to the Knesset so that Liberman can resume his post.

Liberman will likely try to negotiate an expanded cabinet presence for Yisrael Beytenu in exchange for giving up to another party the post he is leaving, the prestigious chairmanship of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Yair Lapid’s candidate for that post, incidentally, would be MK Ofer Shelah.

Liberman is the most senior champion of the governance bill advancing through the Knesset, a bill that has sat largely stagnant in recent months in sterile debates in the Knesset Law Committee. His return is expected to launch a new push on the bill, opposed by many on the left and among the Arab parties. The bill would raise the electoral threshold from two to four percent and enact a series of governance reforms.

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