In an unprecedented move, the Knesset that was elected in April voted to dissolve itself this week. That means Israelis will have yet another election in September. But what happened in Israel wasn’t about drafting the haredim or defending the country’s secular majority against the imposition of a halachic state.
That’s how Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the Israel Beiteinu Party, has been spinning his decision to stop the formation of a government led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Lieberman and his party ran in the April 9 election promising to support a coalition led by the prime minister. His voters were, in effect, casting ballots for Netanyahu in the same way that other Israelis did so when they voted either for the Likud or for one of its right-wing or religious allies. And Lieberman continued to say that he favored a Netanyahu-led government right up until the moment when it became clear that he was preventing just such a coalition from attaining the majority that everyone thought it had won on Election Day.
Lieberman justified his decision to thwart Netanyahu from being able to form a government by claiming that his insistence on passing a new bill about drafting more haredim was a way of preventing the takeover of the Israeli government by the growing and assertive ultra-Orthodox parties.
If that were really true, then Lieberman’s claim to being the hero of secular voters might have some shred of credibility. But he’s nothing of the sort.
That’s not just because he has worked to augment haredi power in the past, and that the bill he’s championing won’t really change the draft status of most strictly religious men.
Lieberman’s stand is about one thing and one thing only: getting rid of Netanyahu.
The veteran politician from the former Soviet Union has a long and complicated history with the prime minister, dating back decades ago when he worked for him at the dawn of Netanyahu’s political career.
Even though he has always been seen by Israeli left-wingers as a racist and a right-wing thug, they’re cheering him today because they understand that Lieberman has provided them with another chance to get rid of a man they hate a lot more: Netanyahu.
Lieberman knows that he’s not going to become prime minister. And Netanyahu has already given him opportunities—stints as both foreign minister and defense minister—that he wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere. Yet by asking for something that Netanyahu couldn’t give to him—concessions that the haredi parties who have 16 seats to Lieberman’s five in the Knesset wouldn’t make—and won’t do much about the haredim being drafted, Lieberman revealed that his only motive is positioning himself for the post-Netanyahu era of Israeli politics.
Or at least that’s what he and his chorus of new admirers on the Israeli left are hoping.
With corruption indictments hanging over Netanyahu’s head this fall, the post-election negotiations indicated that the prime minister was going to ask his coalition partners to pass a bill that would grant him and future prime ministers immunity from prosecution, as well as enact reforms that would create a better balance between the Knesset and an Israeli Supreme Court that has no constitutional check on its power.
Many democracies, including the United States, don’t allow their heads of government to be held hostage in this manner, and there are valid legal arguments for Israel to do the same. But ratifying such a law now makes it seem as if Netanyahu is being given a “Get out of jail free” pass even if, as most Israeli voters seemed to indicate in April, the charges against him are not substantial enough to justify removing a popular prime minister from office.
By denying him the chance to pass such legislation prior to the next scheduled hearings on the cases against him in October, Lieberman has made it all but certain that even if Netanyahu succeeds in the follow-up election, he will be indicted while in office. That might result in enough coalition defections to ensure that he will be forced out of office even if he wins for a fifth straight time in September.
Others on the right understand that Netanyahu is the only plausible alternative to a government led by a discredited left wing. But Lieberman sensed that the prime minister’s position was weaker than most observers thought, and he had no interest in missing an opportunity to try to end his political career. He hopes to emerge as a kingmaker—and either help anoint Gantz or an alternative to Netanyahu from within the Likud.
Lieberman is counting on the prime minister’s efforts to gain legal immunity becoming more of an issue in the next election and thinks that he will benefit from his pose as the embodiment of secular resentment against the haredim. His stand could also eventually encourage others within Likud, such as Gideon Sa’ar, to revolt against Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s problem is in part his own making. By asking for legislative immunity, he showed weakness that a political shark like Lieberman could smell a mile away. And after 10 years in the top job, his post-election maneuvering may have convinced more voters that his act has gotten tired and needs to end.
While Netanyahu’s prospects are uncertain, his opponents shouldn’t count him out just yet. The voters may well punish Lieberman for an underhanded maneuver; that might increase Netanyahu’s majority. And there’s always the chance that he could wind up dodging legal trouble in some other way.
Lieberman may well have brought Israel one step closer to the inevitable day when it has a new premier. But he wouldn’t be the first person to underestimate Benjamin Netanyahu and eventually pay the consequences. Though Israel’s left-wing media is celebrating today, if Netanyahu survives this test, his critics may look back on this maneuver as just one more failed attempt to take down the man most Israeli voters still seem to think is indispensable to their security.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS–Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.