Why Netanyahu may be quietly celebrating the loss of his defense minister

Avigdor Liberman may have outflanked Bennett on the right, but with new elections in the offing, that puts the prime minister exactly where he wants to be

Raphael Ahren

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and leader of the Yisrael Beytenu political party Avigdor Liberman sign an agreement bringing Liberman's party into the government, May 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and leader of the Yisrael Beytenu political party Avigdor Liberman sign an agreement bringing Liberman's party into the government, May 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s resignation from the government on Wednesday, after the cabinet okayed a deeply unpopular ceasefire with Hamas, is meant to position him as the true defender of right-wing values, willing to sacrifice his senior ministerial position for a principled stance in defense of the beleaguered residents of southern Israel.

At least, that was how Liberman hoped it would play out. But his calculations may backfire and end up working in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s favor.

Liberman quit less than 24 hours after a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas went into effect, arguing that he can no longer be a part of a government that caves to terror. His announcement spared no criticism from 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.

Asked by reporters about his accomplishments, Liberman, who became defense minister two and half years ago, had very little to show. He made sure the defense establishment “worked in an orderly fashion” and launched a website for residents of the south, he said. Not exactly achievements that will help his Yisrael Beytenu party, which polls dangerously close to the electoral threshold, soar to unknown heights.

Indeed, the many grievances Liberman listed during his announcement in the Knesset could also be read as his own catalog of failures.

He tried but failed to prevent Qatari fuel and money from entering the Gaza Strip. He did not get the government to quickly uproot Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin village in the West Bank that was built without the proper permits. He did not manage to pass a law calling for the death penalty for terrorists — his central election promise. His call for harsher military action against Hamas in Gaza was ignored, which ultimately led to his resignation.

Avigdor Liberman announces his resignation from defense portfolio during a Jerusalem press conference, November 14, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

By quitting now, Liberman did manage to outsmart his primary rival on the right, Jewish Home party chief Naftali Bennett, who also opposes this week’s ceasefire.

During the upcoming election campaign, the Yisrael Beytenu boss can now claim to represent the true nationalist camp, denouncing Bennett as opportunistically clinging to his seat rather than quitting in protest over a ceasefire many hawkish voters abhor.

Thus it is possible that Liberman will be able win back some of the hawkish votes that he lost years ago to the Jewish Home.

For Netanyahu — who is set to serve as prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister and health minister for the next three to four months — the timing of Liberman’s resignation may not have been ideal, as it came too close to a deeply unpopular ceasefire.

On the other hand, it also comes in quite handy, as it presents him with the perfect pretext to call new elections, which plays in Netanyahu’s favor for several reasons.

For one, Israel becomes pretty much ungovernable in the months before an election, as every party thinks about what it can do to become popular, often ignoring coalition discipline. Sooner or later, Netanyahu would have called for snap elections (the current date for the next elections in November 2019). Now he does not have to create an artificial crisis to do so (for instance, over the draft exemption law or religion and state issues), and can easily blame Liberman’s resignation.

According to recent polls, the Likud party will win the next elections with a large margin. As Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit agonizes over the question of whether to indict Netanyahu on the various corruption charges against him, getting the public’s mandate to lead the country once more could prove hugely helpful for the prime minister.

Even if he is eventually indicted, a prime minister who just received renewed backing from the electorate will be harder to remove from office than one who has not faced the voters since before the corruption charges against him first surfaced.

This week’s ceasefire may temporarily damage Netanyahu’s reputation as Mr. Security but, seasoned campaigner that he is, he probably will find a way to make voters forgive and forget.

More than 70 Israelis were killed during Operation Protective Edge, a 50-day long war that ended with a similarly disliked ceasefire in August 2014. Just half a year later, Likud won the Knesset elections by a landslide, putting Netanyahu on the road to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

PM Netanyahu (left) speaks with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot at memorial ceremony for Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion in Sde Boker, November 14, 2018 (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

On Wednesday, even before Liberman’s resignation had been confirmed, Netanyahu started his campaign to convince Israel that he did the right thing.

“At these moments, leadership is not to do the easy thing; leadership is to do the right thing, even if it is difficult,” he said at a memorial ceremony for Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion.

“I hear the voices of the residents of the south. Believe me, they are precious to me, their words penetrate my heart. But together with the heads of the security forces, I see the overall picture of Israel’s security, which I cannot share with the public,” he went on.

The polls will show if speeches like this can persuade Israelis that Netanyahu is still the one and only Mr. Security, and that they can trust him to make the right decisions.

Elections are still several months away, and the anger about this week’s inglorious conflagration with Hamas may have dissipated by the time Israelis head to the polls.

Many Israelis don’t particularly like Netanyahu, and yet he wins election after election — presumably because voters believe there is no one who can replace him. Liberman’s resignation did absolutely nothing to change that.

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