Since PM Netanyahu declared over two weeks ago that he was calling early elections, which will be held on January 22, the Israeli political world started to tremor; last Thursday evening, with Netanyahu and FM Lieberman’s announcement that their parties were uniting under the name, Likud Beitenu, an earthquake has taken place.
During the last 3.5 years, Israel has had one of its most stable governments in history. Despite not having the largest party in the Knesset, Netanyahu’s Likud party, together with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu party, stood solid. The two parties formed the largest bloc in the Knesset with 42 seats out of 120, and together with the Sephardic religious party Shas, and other right wing and religious parties, Netanyahu was easily able to muster up a majority.
Despite his majority, there were a few crises, and high and low moments. However, one trend remains clear: Netanyahu has always shown the need to bring in a strong ally from another party. Netanyahu, a shrewd politician, basically used Barak and Mofaz when needed and discarded them accordingly. Ehud Barak will be remembered as the leader who defected from the Labor party, in order to continue to serve as Netanyahu’s loyal defense minister; as long as Netanyahu had Barak, he could create the illusion that Israel was interested in reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Later, earlier this summer, in order to buy time, he enticed Shaul Mofaz, the leader of Kadima, the largest party in the Knesset, to join his coalition. This gave Netanyahu an almost historic majority; needless to say, this was a short-lived partnership.
At times, it seemed as if Netanyahu believed that having a second-strong man in the coalition would neutralize the real force, Avigdor Lieberman. His party, Yisrael Beitunu (Israel’s Our Home), is a far-right party, who in the 2006 elections almost surpassed Likud’s performance. Lieberman in some senses can be seen as the “bad boy” of the Likud, since it was Netanyahu who helped give him his quick boost into Israeli politics, but left the Likud in 1997, objecting to Netanyahu’s concessions to Palestinians. In 1999, he formed the Yisrael Beitunu, which bases its main source of voters from immigrants from the fomer Soviet Union. His party since has continued to grow, and is a major force in Israeli politics.
For Netanyau, joining with Lieberman, who might be indicted in the near future due to an ongoing corruption case, is a huge political gamble. It is hard to find a more polarizing politician than Lieberman. Within the Likud, many see Lieberman as far too right wing; among Israel’s left he is seen as a racist, whose politics borderline on fascism; among Israel’s Palestinian citizens (20% of overall Israel population) he as seen as a threat. Put simply, he is a provocateur.
For the Likud, a democratic party, with proper institutions, the fact that Netanyahu has made the decision to set up a joint list with Lieberman, without the blessing of the party, is not good news at all. If Netanyahu allows Lieberman to become too dominant, Likud has the chance of losing its center-right voters, who support the Likud as a right -wing party, which has remained true to its liberal and pluralistic foundations, represented by such politicians as Dan Meridor and Benny Begin. Further, with the recent announcement of Moshe Kahlon that he will not run for the upcoming elections, the Likud is left without a center-right Mizrahi candidate. One Israeli pundit correctly commented combining Likud’s traditional Mizrahi base together with Lieberman’s Russian base, is like mixing oil and water.
For Lieberman, this is a win-win situation. He is interested in infiltrating the center (along with importing his radical right-wing politics) and leaving his party behind. Yisrael Beitunu as a party seems limited in scope and seem has reached its peak. What seems clear is that Lieberman is laughing out loud at his adversaries such as Ehud Barak and Shaul Mofaz, who seems to have been finished by Netanyahu’s slick moves; the question remains what Netanyahu has in his secret brief case for Lieberman. If he needs, will he be able to ditch Lieberman if polls in the next few weeks show the new Likud Beiteinu as not being able to dish out the strong numbers they are predicting.
On a personal note, over the years, I have made myself clear many times concerning Lieberman. I would claim that as Israel’s Foreign Minister, he has brought Israel to one of its lowest place ever, and his unruly behavior in the halls of the United Nations does not suit a country of Israel’s stature. He has proven time again that he has no interest whatsoever in the peace process, and even his politics can be seen not only as anti-Arab but generally unsympathetic to Muslims in general. Even the thought that one day he might become Israel's defense minister, or even the Prime Minister, hopefully will be enough to convince the center-left in Israel that they need to unite and place their personal aspirations aside in order to save the Israeli democracy.
*For more on the upcoming Israeli elections, and my point of view, please follow me on Twitter @istanbultelaviv, or find me by searching Louis Fishman