David and Goliath: Why Lieberman’s small party blocked Netanyahu’s victory

From left to right, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman meet before a ceremony marking Israel’s receipt of two F-35 Lightning II jets at Nevatim Air Base, Israel, Dec. 12, 2016. (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)














By Jacques Chitayat

A disappointing rain fell on long-time Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s post-election parade after his initial electoral victory was cut short. Being unable to form a coalition needed to make up a stable majority government within the accorded deadline, Bibi decided to call another election, to take place on September 17. It almost seems ironic, as if Israelis were so proud of being the Middle East’s only democracy that they decided to have two elections in the same year.

Unfortunately, this second election, which will put a strain on the wallets, businesses and time of Israelis, is neither the fruit of a love of democracy nor a function of Bibi’s inability to form a coalition. Rather, it is due to Netanyahu’s former associate Avigdor Lieberman’s political and personal enmity towards him, prompting his refusal to bring his small Yisrael Beiteinu party into Bibi’s Likud-led coalition.

The relationship between these two politicians began in 1993, when Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party, recognized Russian-immigrant Lieberman’s abilities and helped make him director-general of the party. When Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister, Lieberman was named director general of the PM’s Office, but over time, their relationship turned sour. One point of view of this deterioration in their relationship can be found in a critical interview with Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s former security adviser, in The New Yorker, “ ‘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” (Bernard Avishai, The New Yorker, 2019).

Lieberman then continued his political career separately, often disagreeing with Netanyahu’s actions, like his signing of the Wye River Agreement in 1998 which divided control of Hebron with the Palestinian Authority. Lieberman launched his own right-wing party, Yisrael Beiteinu, in 1999, but in the late 2000s, the two had a brief period of cooperation, with Lieberman joining Netanyahu’s cabinet as Foreign Minister in 2009.

In 2013, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu ran side by side during the election campaign but, despite Lieberman’s expectation that the two parties would merge, Netanyahu blocked the union. Netanyahu was accused many times by Lieberman of not adopting a more hardline policy on Hamas and – a key issue – of giving the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset too much power in Israel’s society. For example, in Israel, public transport and construction work are generally banned on Shabbat, and the ultra-Orthodox have been enjoying exemption from mandatory military service due to the influence of Haredim parties in Netanyahu’s coalition. Lieberman has, since a number of years, been openly critical of Netanyahu’s supposed character weakness.

Should it then come as a surprise when Lieberman refused to help Netanyahu maintain his position as leader of Israel, considering their well-documented political and ideological divide, as well as the disappointing moments of their relationship? While Netanyahu is not a perfect leader, he has done a relatively good job of keeping Israel safe from the threats coming from neighboring countries and in forging good diplomatic relations internationally. By refusing to form a coalition with him (he was one vote shy of a majority), Lieberman has expressed his and presumably many other Israelis’ discontent with Bibi’s arguably weak stance against Hamas and his almost too eager attitude towards giving the ultra-Orthodox minority a great deal of power in citizens’ daily lives. Nevertheless, one could also argue that Lieberman, for personal reasons, is primarily interested in stopping Netanyahu from being Prime Minister, perhaps with the goal of one day assuming the role himself.

These two main figures of Israeli politics will surely anxiously await the results of the second round of elections this September. Will voters will punish Lieberman for leaving their country without a government for almost a year, confirming their support for Netanyahu? After all, in the meantime, no major reform or decision (including Trump’s much-vaunted peace plan) will take place, in a State that needs a strong government to stay afloat. Or will Israel’s electorate show admiration for Lieberman’s toughness and his willingness to fight for a more secular and even more right-wing country, even if it means another election campaign? Only time will tell.