The Angel of Death, the story goes, was sent to collect Avigdor Lieberman. Answering the door, Lieberman saw the spectre before him, pulled him in by the collar, pummeled him, spat on him, and threw him out. When Death returned to Heaven, he went straight to God. “Lieberman?” God asked, sizing up the bruises. “You didn’t tell him who sent you, did you?”
I heard the joke some years ago, from a veteran journalist who was hardly a fan of Lieberman, the former Israeli defense minister and the head of the secular-right Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel Our Home”) Party. But Lieberman—who, just at the Wednesday-night deadline, refused to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, prompting a second national election in four months, set for September 17th—would no doubt find the story flattering. This is the persona that Lieberman has always projected: Sly, feared, and indomitable. A man who, as his campaign posters put it, “lo dofeq heshbon,” or, roughly (and cleaned-up some), doesn’t give a damn for his enemies—be they Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, Hamas, or ultra-Orthodox communities. The leader without illusions, or “ashlayot.”
This past month, as talks to form a new governing coalition proceeded, it was the ultra-Orthodox who seemed most beneath his contempt. Their two parties, the Mizrahi Shas and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism (U.T.J.), won sixteen seats in April, and their announced price for joining Netanyahu’s coalition was the rescission of a draft law—formulated by his last government, when Lieberman was the minister of defense—that required military service for a steadily increasing number of students in ultra-Orthodox schools. (The draft law’s conscription mandates were reinforced by Supreme Court rulings, in 2017, which held that exempting ultra-Orthodox youth was a violation of the implied equality required by the Basic Law of Human Dignity.) By the end of the talks, the U.T.J. leader, Moshe Gafni, said on Thursday morning, both religious parties had capitulated, asking only that, if the draft law was retained by the coalition, there would be no other demands to upset the religious status quo—reductions in funding for Orthodox schools, say. By then, however, Lieberman seemed unappeasable.
Israel’s increasingly emboldened ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim, have hardly endeared themselves to the country’s secular majority in recent years, pushing Netanyahu’s previous government toward greater concessions and theocracy—for example, banning road and rail repairs on the Sabbath, which resulted in delays and bottlenecks for commuters during the week. Lieberman’s most reliable voters—who, like him, are older immigrants from the former Soviet Union—already resented state-funded rabbis for foiling civil marriages, for preventing them from riding buses to the beach on the weekend, and for getting between them and their ham sandwiches. So Lieberman’s increasingly defiant stand against the ultra-Orthodox community was not unwelcome. On Thursday evening, Netanyahu charged that Lieberman’s gambit was an “anti-Haredi gimmick” to halt his party’s slide—down to five Knesset seats, from a high of fifteen, ten years ago. In fact, however, Lieberman was also retaliating against Netanyahu himself. The two have a history.
Lieberman, who is sixty, was born in Kishinev, now in Moldova—the site of an infamous pogrom in 1903. He immigrated to Israel, with his family, in 1978, and, a decade later, moved to the West Bank settlement of Nokdim. After completing his army service, he enrolled at the Hebrew University, worked as a bouncer, and became acquainted with followers of the extremist right-wing Rabbi Meir Kahane. But, as the peace process with the Palestinians gained momentum, he gravitated to the more mainstream Likud. Netanyahu, who had assumed the Party’s leadership in 1993, recognized Lieberman’s organizing ability and helped make him the Party’s director-general. Preparations for the election of 1996, after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, seemed to seal their connection. “That’s when they were buddies,” Uzi Arad, who later became Netanyahu’s security adviser, told me. “They crisscrossed the country, falling asleep on each other’s shoulder.” After Netanyahu was unexpectedly elected Prime Minister, Lieberman became the director general of the Prime Minister’s office. But the comity was not to last. “Lieberman actually had a softer, more vulnerable side, and Netanyahu had a talent for treachery,” Arad said. When Lieberman ran into management difficulties and Netanyahu “no longer felt he was expedient to him,” the Prime Minister distanced himself. Eventually, Netanyahu simply “dropped Lieberman, who felt he had been humiliated.” Lieberman resigned in the summer of 1997.
He then focussed on his own political career. He criticized Netanyahu for signing the Wye River Agreement, in 1998, which compromised with the Palestinian Authority over the division of Hebron. In 1999, he launched Yisrael Beiteinu, and slowly cultivated a reputation as a hard-liner, building up Yisrael Beiteinu’s strength and merging and splitting with other rightist parties. He joined the Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government, in 2001, but resigned when Sharon dismantled Israeli settlements in Gaza, in 2005; he joined the centrist government of Ehud Olmert, in 2006, but resigned over the Annapolis Conference, which had adopted the Bush Administration’s road map to peace. In 2009, he joined Netanyahu’s government, as foreign minister, and seemed to have returned to a productive working relationship with his old mentor. In 2013, Yisrael Beiteinu ran with Netanyahu’s Likud on a joint ticket; Lieberman expected that the parties would then merge, and he would be seen as Netanyahu’s successor. Again, however, Netanyahu failed to deliver, by blocking the merger.
From then on, all forms of political engagement between the men became transactional. In 2016, Netanyahu made Lieberman the minister of defense, mainly to rid himself of Moshe Yaalon, the former I.D.F. chief of staff and the defense minister at the time, with whom Netanyahu has clashed over his own deals to procure naval vessels. But Lieberman left the ministry last year because, he said, Netanyahu was coddling Hamas, by failing to go after the group’s leaders following missile launches and by approving Qatari money to pay civil servants in Gaza, which is governed by Hamas. Lieberman complained that meetings with the general staff of the Israel Defense Forces had become like “discussions with the leaders of Peace Now.” He has become openly disdainful of Netanyahu’s alleged weakness.
Lieberman’s standoff with Netanyahu, in other words, may be not entirely a power play but vaguely ideological, although the sheer exertion of power in one’s own interest seems, itself, a part of his ideology. “We will sit only in a sane right-wing government, not in a Haredi government,” Lieberman said on Thursday morning. His voters, he might have added, would not tolerate his buckling to Haredi demands—not the demands, not the buckling. “Lieberman hasn’t respected nor liked Bibi for many years,” Ehud Olmert told me. “So I am not surprised that Lieberman proved so firm. He thinks that his secular agenda, which is not new, will be admired by a large group of potential voters that are sick and tired of the ultra-Orthodox.”
Netanyahu responded to Lieberman’s refusal to join his government by claiming that Lieberman is now a “part of the left”—one who “brings down right-wing governments.” Lieberman responded that “when a man from Caesarea”—an affluent town on the Mediterranean, where Netanyahu keeps a residence—“calls a man from Nokdim a leftist, then he might be reminded who voted for the Gaza disengagement.” The personal attacks are likely to escalate, raising the question of whether a right-wing bloc that includes Lieberman and is led by Netanyahu could ever be reconstituted. But the question may be academic—and Lieberman knows it. Hovering over the failed coalition negotiations, and Netanyahu’s political future, has been the Prime Minister’s desperate desire to protect himself from prosecution, on pending indictments for fraud and breach-of-trust, and, ultimately, to stay out of prison. By preventing the formation of a right-wing government, Lieberman may have put such protections beyond Netanyahu’s reach.
Netanyahu’s most likely way of avoiding indictment is by causing the Knesset to pass two laws: one law granting immunity to a sitting Prime Minister and another, much more consequential one denying the Supreme Court the constitutional right to review Knesset laws and possibly reject them as unconstitutional. During the campaign, Netanyahu claimed that he was “not interested in any law relating to the investigations now being conducted against me.” But, during the coalition talks, the laws in question were front and center. The attorney general postponed the indictment hearings until October. If Netanyahu had been able to form a government, he would have had time to get the legislation passed. Now, thanks to Lieberman, this seems doubtful.
Moreover, it had become apparent to all that a stable government was possible without Netanyahu. Leaders of the opposition Blue and White party, which came in second in April’s election, had made clear that they would willingly negotiate with Likud over a national-unity government of seventy members, without the ultra-Orthodox, leftist parties such as Labor or Meretz, or rightist parties like Lieberman’s—if another leader of the Likud, one not subject to indictment, were in charge. What Blue and White would not do is crush what’s left of Israel’s fragile constitutional democracy—its rule of law—in order to save Netanyahu. Neither would the benighted Labor Party, which is now down to six seats in the Knesset, and which Netanyahu approached in desperation two days before the deadline, promising lavish government appointments.
“Bibi needs the Prime Minister’s chair to avoid the defendant’s chair,” Yaalon, who is currently a leader of Blue and White, told the Reshet Bet radio station on Thursday. Blue and White would not go along, he said, though thirty-five per cent of the party’s voters considered themselves on the right—and he asked why prominent Likud leaders would, just to shield Netanyahu. Were Likud leaders to turn against Netanyahu, they would be positioned to inherit the party. “They lack the courage,” Yaalon said. Then again, game theorists might provide a different answer. “The problem,” the veteran news commentator Amnon Abramovitz told me, is that other Likud leaders “may all feel Netanyahu is past, a danger, and would like to see him replaced, but they cannot act together—they are rivals, and none can afford to be branded a traitor.”
Individually and collectively, Likud leaders may believe that caution now will yield power later; but they might come to regret their inaction, whatever its explanation. One never knows how campaigns will evolve, nor how Netanyahu will fare, particularly as the United States enters its own bruising election cycle and cozy relations with the Trump Administration may start to seem more a liability than a benefit. According to a poll by the Walla Web site, fifty-six per cent of Israelis are opposed to an immunity bill. Further, one cannot assume that there will not be stirrings among Israeli liberals, now that they’ve been handed a mulligan. The most important thing that Meretz, Labor, and moderate factions within Blue and White can do is increase the vote of Arab citizens. Party leaders seem more alert than before to a future that rests, if not on alliances with Arab parties, then on appeals to Arab voters. Last Saturday night, the three parties mustered more than fifty thousand demonstrators at a rally in Tel Aviv, to protest any impending change to Supreme Court review. Ayman Odeh, the Arab-Israeli leader of the left-wing Hadash party, electrified the crowd by calling for a “partnership” between Jews and Arabs—“the only way to hope and change in the land and the state.” The rally’s organizers, pressured by rightist factions within Blue and White, had initially rescinded the invitation to Odeh, but the blowback on social media was overwhelming, and all of the party’s leaders attended. In effect, a long-standing taboo against coöperation between self-styled Zionist and Arab parties had been broken.
Civil-society organizations, meanwhile, especially in the legal profession, have been activated, with the aim of inspiring Likud leaders to greater “courage” in the face of the constitutional threat posed by Netanyahu’s effort to save himself. The former Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak, the former Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, and the former Justice Minister Dan Meridor, the latter two long associated with the Likud, have spoken out. So has an organization of roughly two hundred and fifty former senior commanders of the military and security services.
Netanyahu has survived for now, and Likud may win again. But his opponents seem more organized than before, the stakes for democracy are clearer, and the indictment clock seems out of synch with the electoral one. It must be a particularly bitter irony for Netanyahu, though, that he may have to face trial, and could ultimately be brought down, not because of the electoral victory of principled democrats or a revolt from within his own party—but by a former acolyte who is as indifferent to liberal norms, as cynical and as power-driven as he is.
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