Can Liberman reinvent himself again in Israeli politics?

Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman has pledged not to sit in a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, but also not to join one supported by the Arab Joint List, creating a dilemma that could lead to an unappealing fourth round of elections.

al-monitor Avigdor Liberman, leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, prepares to cast his ballot at a polling station in the Israeli settlement of Nokdim, occupied West Bank, March 2, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Mar 4, 2020

Just before Israeli polling stations closed at 10:00 p.m. on March 2 and news networks released their exit poll results, Yaakov Bardugo, an Army Radio political pundit with close ties to the Likud, proclaimed that Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman no longer held the balance of power in the Knesset and that his party would almost certainly suffer a significant loss, after winning eight seats in the September 2019 election. The last polls before March 2 predicted a loss in strength for Liberman, after he sent the country into a tailspin in November 2018 by resigning as defense minister. With 92.5% of the votes counted, Yisrael Beitenu appears to have won seven seats. In other words, despite grim expectations and Bardugo’s prediction, Liberman only lost one seat, and that can be attributed to high voter turnout.

It was premature to eulogize Yisrael Beitenu, which had managed to reinvent itself in 2019 by positioning itself as a secular alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc. Nevertheless, Netanyahu increasing Likud's seats by four, to 36 — leaving him only two seats short of his coveted 61-seat majority coalition — presents a challenge to Liberman’s status as the kingmaker who holds the balance of power. The modest press conference on election night at Yisrael Beitenu headquarters and Liberman’s tired face spoke for themselves.

A senior member of Yisrael Beitenu told Al-Monitor that if, as it seems, the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc holds steady at 59 or 60 seats, his party will no longer be able to block the formation of a new government. At the same time, he repeated Liberman’s pledge that he would not be part of a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox government, noting that the party has no problem sitting in opposition, as it has in the past.

The new seating landscape appears to demand that Yisrael Beitenu reassess its position. A year ago, in the April 2019 election, Yisrael Beitenu only won five seats. Nevertheless, Liberman managed to extricate himself from this low point with a bold and unexpected move: He withdrew Yisrael Beitenu from the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc and took an independent stand on matters of state and religion. It immediately made him a hot commodity in the political arena.

Parties on the left, such as Meretz and Labor, as well as centrist parties, like Shinui and Yesh Atid, have over the years dealt with issues of state and religion to varying degrees. Nevertheless, it has been the rare occasion when it became a central issue, pushing security or socioeconomic issues aside on the national agenda. It seemed impossible to make state and religion a major campaign issue — even as important as it is and as much as it impacts the day-to-day lives of Israelis — but then Liberman came along and proved that the impossible is possible.

Yisrael Beitenu, in its twenty years in the Knesset, never made any real progress on issues like civil marriage, public transportation on the Sabbath and a significant liberalizing of the conversion process. In September 2019, however, Liberman's anti-ultra-Orthodox campaign and his refusal to succumb to Netanyahu’s appeals to join his right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc won Yisrael Beitenu an additional three seats. Of note, Liberman did not for the most part pick up the new seats from Russian-speaking Israelis, who have been the backbone of Yisrael Beitenu. By then, his party’s supporters were quite vocal in their assertions that Liberman should lead the State of Israel.

The past few months have been chock full of political, security and diplomatic developments, including a remarkable report that the Israeli army had inflated the number of ultra-Orthodox men being recruited by the IDF when Liberman served as defense minister. Yet, it seemed like matters of state and religion were pushed aside for the main issue in the March election: Netanyahu. Liberman’s campaign slogan advocating “secular, liberal government” failed to gain steam this time around, perhaps because no one could see how such a government might actually be formed.

The question now is what will happen after the dust settles. If there is no change in the breakdown of seats after all the votes are counted, Liberman will have the final say in who holds power. This, however, would present a dilemma.

On the one hand, the chairman of Yisrael Beitenu promised that he would not sit in a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox government. On the other hand, he has also stated that he will not take part in a government that relies on any support, active or passive, from the Arab Joint List, which won an unprecedented 15 seats.

If Liberman won’t join a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox government headed by Netanyahu or a Gantz government supported from the outside by the Joint List, how does he plan to prevent a fourth round of elections? While speculative at the moment, new elections would not be good for Liberman, no matter what happens. When he first split with Netanyahu, he earned himself the reputation of being independent-minded and daring. Now, he could well be perceived as someone who can’t decide to which bloc he actually belongs.

If Netanyahu somehow manages to pluck the two Knesset members he needs from the other parties — Blue and White, Labor, or Gesher — and forms a narrow, right-wing government, Liberman will find himself in the opposition. Although he and the people closest to him say that he is not afraid of sitting on the opposition bench, he is well aware that it would not bode well for him or his party. His electorate appreciates his firm stand against Netanyahu, but it also expects progress on issues of state and religion, not to mention socioeconomic affairs. Liberman will have a hard time keeping the flame lit while in the opposition wilderness, especially when he will be forced to share that space with the Joint List.

Liberman’s preferred option is, of course, a unity government with the Likud and Blue and White, with him serving as a patron of sorts. Given the current situation, however, that is not likely to happen. Netanyahu hardly wants a unity government and is set on forming his new coalition with the same old ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties. Nevertheless, he may take steps to form a unity government if he realizes that he has no other choice. At that point, the final decision will be left to the Blue and White, not to Liberman.

The chairman of Yisrael Beitenu knows how to reinvent himself. At one point, he called for the transfer of Israel's Arab population, and at another time, he protested the diktats of the ultra-Orthodox. He once relied exclusively on the votes of Russian speakers, but in the March election, he received widespread support from Israelis at-large. Liberman once teetered on the electoral threshold, but he has also toyed with the idea of leading the country. To survive the uncertainty that continues to be the only permanent fixture in Israeli politics, he will have to do the impossible and reinvent himself again. Without that, he will disappear from the political map. Politics never forgives anyone who falls asleep on its watch.

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