Isranet Daily Briefing: Avigdor Lieberman Forces New Israeli Elections (June 3, 2019)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (left) and Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman (right) (Source: Flickr)
Avigdor Lieberman’s Risky Bet:  Liel Leibovitz, Tablet, May 30, 2019
Is This the Start of the Post- Netayahu Era?: Jonathan S. Tobin, Algemeiner, May 31,2019
Is This the End of the Netanyahu Era?:  Aaron David Miller, JTA, May 30, 2019 

Best of Both Worlds for Netanyahu?Seth J. Frantzman, Jerusalem Post, May 30, 2019
_Avigdor Lieberman’s Risky Bet
Liel Leibovitz 
Tablet, May 30, 2019
In May of 2016, Avigdor Lieberman, then a member of the Knesset, sat down for a live interview in front of an audience on stage in Beersheba. As usual, he wasn’t mincing words.“I’m telling you,” he thundered, “and you can take me at my word, and everything here is recorded, if I am the minister of defense, I give Mr. Haniyeh 48 hours. Either you return the bodies and the civilians, or you die. As far as I’m concerned, you can order yourself a spot in the nearest cemetery.”The man he was threatening was Ismail Haniyeh, a leader of Hamas who had refused to deliver back to Israel the bodies of two soldiers abducted and murdered by his organization in 2014, as well as Avera Mengistu, an Israeli citizen held hostage by the terrorist group in Gaza. It was the sort of tough talk that made Israelis giddy; it made many even giddier two days later, when Lieberman decided to end yet another of his occasional fallouts with his former boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and rejoin the coalition as Bibi’s minister of defense.Forty-eight hours went by. Then another two days, then a week more, then a year. Haniyeh did not meet any of Lieberman’s conditions. And Lieberman did not make good on his bluster. Speaking at a security conference in Herzliya, Lieberman was asked how he felt about his now notorious threat. “Many promises were made,” he said, “including by me, which were not backed up.”

When Lieberman’s refusal to join Netanyahu’s new coalition forced the Knesset to disband just days after it was sworn in, thrusting the nation into another costly and tumultuous election season, some in the Israeli press revisited the anecdote and wondered what made the politician who caved before Hamas stand firm against Netanyahu, with whom he disagrees on little of substance. Immediately after Netanyahu had won his fifth term as prime minister, back in the halcyon days of last month, Lieberman promised his support, announcing he would not endorse anyone else for the office. Why, then, did he turn his back on Netanyahu at this critical juncture?

To hear the chattering classes in Jerusalem tell it, four explanations are likely.

The first, and most straightforward, holds that Lieberman is truly committed to the policy question that drove him to his latest decision, namely his strong objection to any compromise that allows Haredi men to defer or altogether avoid being conscripted to the Israel Defense Forces. The history of this contentious debate is long, and it dates back to the birth of the state, but partisans on all sides of the question agree on a few cardinal issues. First, the problem may very well solve itself: As Haaretz reported last spring, “in reality, at least in the mainstream of Haredi society, enlistment is no longer a dirty word.” That is in part because the vanguard of Haredi soldiers discovered that it was possible to become a soldier and remain true to the Haredi way of life, before and after military service. Second, trying to solve the problem creates other problems: Israel currently spends hundreds of millions of shekels helping haredi soldiers acclimate into the IDF. And finally, the problem really isn’t very much of a problem: The IDF’s Tooth-to-Tail ratio, or the ratio between combat and noncombat soldier, is already the fourth-highest in the world, and with warfare growing more sophisticated and more dependent on advanced technologies, the IDF is likely to need less boots on the ground, not more. All these good statistics may help explain why Lieberman himself had found it palatable to share the government with Haredi politicians several times in the past decade without making any nonnegotiable demand.

With principle out of the way, passion is next on the lineup. Lieberman started his political career as Netanyahu’s right-hand man—his first big job was director of the prime minister’s office during Bibi’s first term. He has since come to develop a Dostoevskyan dislike for his former patron, calling him, on one unforgettable occasion, a “lying, cheating scoundrel … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Is This the Start of the Post-Netanyahu Era?
Jonathan S. Tobin
Algemeiner, May 31, 2019
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 Yisrael 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 when they voted either for 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. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Is This the End of The Netanyahu Era?
 Aaron David Miller
JTA, May 30, 2019

After 50-plus years of advising on Arab-Israeli negotiations and analyzing Israeli politics, I thought I had seen everything. But Wednesday’s dissolution of the Knesset by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was elected a mere seven weeks ago to lead the parliament, represents a stunning new low in political dysfunction and electoral chaos, even by Israeli standards. 

Whether these developments lead us back roughly to where we were on April 9 or advance us to a genuinely new place in Israeli politics is impossible to say. But in an effort to get above the Byzantine details and arcana of Israeli coalition politics, here are some key questions worth asking. How did we get here?

In an Israeli political system rife with intrigue, vendettas, ambition and dark conspiracy, the answer to this question is not entirely clear. I agree with the Israeli pundits who argue that only Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman know for sure.

Yes, the draft conscription bill, which would require haredi Orthodox men to participate in Israel’s mandatory military draft and which angers Netanyahu’s haredi Orthodox coalition partners, created an impasse. And yes Liberman, who heads the Yisrael Beiteinu party, was generally dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s approach to security, advocating for a tougher approach to Gaza.

But divides over these issues aren’t new. And what happened Wednesday was.

Netanyahu is only the third Israeli prime minister who, tasked by the nation’s president to form a government, was unable to do so. The 21st Knesset, whose members will serve just 161 days before the Sept. 17 elections, will be the shortest parliament term in Israeli history.

Explaining this unique set of developments lies not in traditional policy divides but in a perfect storm of factors unique to the current situation:

To have any chance of protecting himself and secure his political future, Netanyahu needed to form not just any government, but a certain kind of government: a coalition filled with politicians who would help him avoid indictment while in office with three corruption scandals hanging over his head. That ruled out partnering with Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid’s Blue and White party, which campaigned on a promise to remove that very corruption.

So, we’re left with a wild situation in which Liberman, with five key mandates, a longstanding vendetta against Netanyahu and his eyes on the prize of prime minister post-Netanyahu, is seeking to become a kingmaker, to the amazement of anyone watching this drama play out.

Netanyahu will indeed surpass David Ben-Gurion in July as the longest-governing prime minister in Israel’s history. But his fall has been breathtaking, and his future is stunningly uncertain. He now joins the undistinguished club of Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni as previous prime ministers who failed to form a government. Indeed, Netanyahu is now in his own club of one: a prime minister who almost singlehandedly dissolved the Knesset.

This was Shakespeare or the Marx Brothers at their very best. The takeaway here is clear: If you thought the aftermath of the April 9 elections looked like “Game of Thrones,” just wait until the afterglow of Sept. 17.

Netanyahu has been weakened … but can he hang on? I’ve asked this question several times over the past year and a half, in the wake of Netanyahu’s indictment and, briefly, on election night in April. Most of Israel’s chattering classes seem to think the answer is absolutely yes. Haaretz correspondent Chemi Shalev even penned a piece suggesting that it’s even possible now to fantasize – however briefly – what Israel would look like post-Netanyahu.

There’s no doubt that Netanyahu has been severely weakened. Even if he manages to win in September, the argument goes, he’ll be undermined by indictments from which he won’t be immunized. Whether this is wishful thinking on the part of Netanyahu’s enemies or solid analysis is impossible to say for now. But as history has taught us, it would be unwise to underestimate Netanyahu, who still retains significant political assets. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Best of Both Worlds for Netanyahu? – Analysis
Seth A. Frantzman
Jerusalem Post, May 30, 2019

In power for ten years, the Israeli Prime Minister appeared to stumble on Wednesday when he drove the Knesset to dissolve itself and call new elections. Ostensibly this was because Netanyahu had failed to form a coalition government. But how could the master politician who has dominated Israeli politics for a decade and has thirty years of experience in the Knesset’s coalition politics end up in a situation like this? What if it is actually the best of both worlds for him? He continues on as Prime Minister with polls showing that he will likely do well in September, and his rivals have to fight over the scraps.

Netanyahu secured 74 votes to dissolve the Knesset. He got more support for new elections than he got for his coalition. If the smaller parties had been smarter, they might have refused to disperse the Knesset and forced the mandate back to President Reuven Rivlin. However, Netanyahu outplayed them, as he has outplayed rivals in the past. He got Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon to join Likud just before the last-minute Knesset discussion, ensuring that Kahlon couldn’t oppose new elections. This may have been cynical, but it worked.

Netanyahu has successfully pushed a narrative since calling elections in late December 2018. Let’s recall that defense minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned in November over the Gaza crisis. At the time, Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked also appeared likely to resign and trigger elections. But no. Netanyahu convinced them of the importance of staying on. In early December, Israel announced Operation: Northern Shield. Netanyahu could say that he had postponed any major operation in Gaza because of the threats in the North. Shaked and Bennett looked responsible for not bolting. Liberman looked doomed.

But things changed in the first months of 2019. Liberman’s hopes rose and Bennett and Shaked fumbled the campaign for their new party, The New Right. They fell short of the threshold. Netanyahu, as usual, needed those right-wing votes that might have bled over to The New Right, and he gobbled up enough of them on election night to keep Bennett and Shaked out of the Knesset. But Lieberman made it in with five seats and 4% of the vote. Math seemed to favor Netanyahu. So did Israel’s voters, who have become more right-wing and religious over the years. Several parties openly ran under various banners of being either the “new Right” or the real and authentic Right. Arye Deri’s Shas campaigned under the idea that Netanyahu needs a “strong Arye.” Indeed, he got 6% of the vote and eight seats.

In the end, the math wasn’t quite there for Netanyahu to form the right-wing government he championed. Instead, those he pilloried as “Left,” the Blue and White party of several former chiefs of staff and Yair Lapid received the same 35 seats that Likud got. But Blue and White leader Benny Gantz had no path to the prime minister’s office. He didn’t appear to try very hard either in the month and a half after the April elections. He let Netanyahu take the discussions down to the wire. When 100,000 did gather in Tel Aviv to protest on May 25, they were looking the wrong way. They were protesting Netanyahu’s drive for an immunity law, a “defense shield for democracy.” What they got was more democracy in the form of more elections.

There is some irony to Gantz saying that night that Netanyahu was turning Israel into “one-man rule” and Lapid claiming that “we’re not your subjects.” Dispersing the Knesset on May 29 enables Netanyahu to continue to rule. He continues to hold on to numerous ministries and concentrate power. While it’s true there will be more elections, it’s unclear if the electorate won’t simply slip into apathy.

Netanyahu was off to a quick start to grab the narrative on May 29. He argued that the people had chosen him to lead and form a government, and Liberman had prevented it. Now, Netanyahu may have the best of both worlds ahead of him. If he can keep the narrative going, blaming Liberman and demanding a strong mandate in the next elections, he might find the coalition math in his favor and he will have two months to govern as he wants. This comes at an important time for Israel. The US wants to roll out a peace plan, and the new elections could postpone that.

Netanyahu can also try to continue to seek a way out of a pre-indictment hearing on corruption charges. It was already postponed until October. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]

On Topic Links
With 37 Seats in Poll to Gantz’s 33, Netanyahu Cleaning House Ahead of Sept. Vote:  David Israel, Jewish Press, June 1, 2019 — Yes, it’s election season again, so don’t be a baby, dust yourself off and follow the news.
Cynical Use of Draft Issue to Torment Netanyahu:  David M. Weinberg, Jerusalem Post,  May 30, 2019 — The excruciating coalition crisis we suffered through this week, courtesy of Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor (Yvette) Liberman, had nothing to do with drafting haredi men into the IDF.
Netanyahu’s Supporters Push A Bill To Give Him Immunity As Indictments Loom:  Loveday Morris and Ruth Eglash, Washington Post, May 21, 2019 — In the lead-up to recent Israeli elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly denied that he would seek legislation to give him immunity from prosecution in three criminal cases against him.
Avigdor Lieberman:  ISRAELI POLITICIAN: Leslie D. Susser, Encyclopaedia Britannica, June 1, 2019 (updated) — At age 20 Evet Lvovich Lieberman immigrated with his parents to Israel, where he took the name Avigdor.