Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman is in a panic. His attempt to force a national unity government has failed and with no new coalition in sight, Israel is facing the growing prospect of an unprecedented third general election in one year.
This has him so frazzled that he has actually admitted—on live TV—that if push comes to shove, he may vote in favor of a minority government backed by the Joint Arab List. Yes, Lieberman is so desperate he is willing to team up with the very people he has repeatedly called “enemies of the state.”
A minority government supported by the Arab parties would be a historic event, something that would never be forgotten—or forgiven. And all in the name of a foolish political gambit Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to fall for.
Netanyahu’s decision to make New Right co-founder Naftali Bennett defense minister has shaken up Israeli politics. The move followed Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s announcement that at this point in the coalition talks there is zero chance of a national unity government, and his subsequent statement that he plans to “explore other avenues” to form a coalition.
In practice, the only “other avenue” realistically open to Gantz is a government supported by the Arab factions—not as silent partners who will abstain from Knesset votes, but as active ones. In this scenario, all Lieberman has to do is abstain during a vote or simply skip it for Gantz to secure the support of 57 Knesset members, compared to Netanyahu’s 55-MK bloc.
Setting aside the fact that a Gantz government of this nature won’t live out its term, the Blue and White leader first has to get Lieberman to actually agree to this. If he does, Lieberman will have completed his conversion from a right-wing hardliner to an integral part of the left.
Gantz was ostensibly counting on Bennett to avoid this issue—had Bennett and the New Right joined his government, Blue and White would have no need to look to the Joint List for help, thus allowing Lieberman to support said government even from the opposition benches.
But Netanyahu was faster in securing Bennett’s support. Netanyahu’s making Bennett defense minister is no more absurd than his granting of the post to Lieberman in 2016, and there is no question that while the premier’s relations with both Bennett and Lieberman are tense, he gets along with Bennett better.
The frosty ties between Netanyahu and Bennett have also been somewhat thawing lately.
If Bennett is made to vacate his seat in two weeks because Gantz has been able to form a government, then his image will be none the worse for wear, even if the media does ridicule him for having the shortest career as defense minister in Israel’s history.
On the other hand, if Bennett is the sitting defense minister during an election campaign, it will undoubtedly prove an electoral boon for the New Right.
But it seems that Lieberman, not Gantz, is the one Netanyahu really put on edge with this move. Lieberman’s hatred for Netanyahu should seemingly dictate that he join a Gantz-led government, but cooperating with the Arab parties to do so will change Yisrael Beiteinu forever, and not for the better.
As far as Netanyahu is concerned, with Bennett’s appointment he is baiting Lieberman; while the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman failed to oust Netanyahu, he may be able to push Bennett out of the Defense Ministry. While that might prove to be only a small comfort to Lieberman, alas, it may be all he is able to achieve.
Mati Tuchfeld writes for Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.