US ambassador to Israel David Friedman attempted to coax Yisrael Beytenu party head Avigdor Liberman into joining a government coalition with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in 2019, following the first of four eventual consecutive elections, the former envoy reveals in his new memoir.
While Friedman makes clear that he was motivated by a desire to ensure the formation of a stable Israeli government so that the Trump administration could introduce its peace plan, his meeting with Liberman represented rare direct involvement in Israel’s internal political affairs by a foreign envoy.
The meeting came shortly after the April 2019 election, which found then-prime minister Netanyahu one Knesset member shy of the 61 needed for a governing majority. Yisrael Beytenu seemed like a relatively natural fit; Liberman espoused many of the right-wing views of the other parties in the coalition Netanyahu was putting together, but was refusing to join.
“I met with Liberman to see if I could break the logjam,” Friedman writes in “Sledgehammer,” which hits shelves on Tuesday. The Trump administration envoy left the role in January 2021 and was succeeded in December by US President Joe Biden appointee Tom Nides.
“I told him that we were prepared to launch a Vision for Peace, which I believed he would support. But we wanted Israeli buy-in and that just couldn’t be achieved while the government remained this unstable,” Friedman recalls.
The peace plan, which envisioned Israel annexing all of its settlements while offering a semi-sovereign state to the Palestinians on the remaining West Bank territory, was indeed warmly received by the Israeli right and center. But the Trump administration would have to wait another year before it introduced the plan as Liberman refused to budge, plunging the country into another round of elections.
Friedman writes that Liberman was unmoved by his arguments regarding the peace plan. “In a heavy Russian accent, [Liberman] said it was a ‘mission impossible.'”
Publicly, the Yisrael Beytenu chairman attributed his rejection of Netanyahu’s coalition offer to disagreements over legislation Liberman had advanced regulating military conscription for ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Haredi parties seeking to join the Likud coalition favored relaxing the proposal’s stipulations, but Liberman insisted that the bill remain as is and balked at partnering with Shas or United Torah Judaism.
Friedman argues in the book that this “was not a believable position,” noting that Liberman had joined coalitions with Haredi parties in the past. The former ambassador claims instead that Liberman was actually motivated by “his strong anti-Bibi sentiment.”
Yet Liberman recommended Netanyahu for prime minister following that election and openly spoke of joining his coalition even as he drew the line at altering the conscription law. Prior to the election, Liberman, who had run on a joint slate with Netanyahu in 2013, had been a member of Netanyahu’s government until resigning over Israel’s policy in Gaza. The government continued without him for a few weeks before it was eventually dissolved due to disagreements regarding the ultra-Orthodox military draft bill
Friedman’s claims regarding Liberman dovetail with Netanyahu’s, who downplayed the conscription fight and claimed the Yisrael Beytenu head had been motivated by a desire to torpedo him. “He wanted, in the clearest way, to bring down the government,” the former premier charged in May 2019, immediately after talks collapsed and another round of elections was called.
Despite his personal involvement aimed at helping Netanyahu cobble together a coalition after the election was over, Friedman insists that “there was never a stated White House objective to help Netanyahu get reelected.”
While he didn’t explicitly state his motivation, Trump himself acknowledged in December that his recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights weeks before the April 2019 election gave Netanyahu a boost at the polls.
“Take the Golan for example,” Trump said in an interview with Axios. “That was a big deal. People say that was a $10 billion gift. I did it right before the election, which helped him a lot… he would have lost the election if it wasn’t for me. So he tied. He went up a lot after I did it. He went up 10 points or 15 points after I did Golan Heights.”
Friedman also writes that the Trump administration saw benefit in Netanyahu remaining in office in the context of Trump’s nascent peace proposal.
“Our discussions with the prime minister had advanced significantly and there was sufficient trust established such that we believed that we could advance a peace deal that Israel would accept,” he writes in one passage. “Certainly, everyone in my sphere would be happy with a Netanyahu victory so that our work could continue apace.”
In an earlier chapter of the book, Friedman reveals that he encouraged the Israeli government to green-light building permits for Israeli construction in the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron in October 2017.
The move was seen as an Israeli response to the recent decision by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to list Hebron’s Old City as an endangered Palestinian world heritage site.
“For the first time in fifteen years and with my encouragement, Israel proposed a new building in Hebron,” Friedman writes. “It was in a building lot right between two Jewish homes and had no impact whatsoever on local or broader issues.”
“Prior administrations sadly would have opposed this minor zoning matter. We didn’t. The timing was exquisite.”