Here We Go Again

In a right-wing power-play Avigdor Lieberman has forced Israelis back to the polls, but the former defense minister may not be in as strong a position as he reckons.

Avigdor Lieberman, former Israeli Defence Minister and head of Yisrael Beitenu party speaks during a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel May 30, 2019. Amir Cohen/Reuters

As of midnight May 29, 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli Prime Minister to win and lose the same election. After weeks of bargaining, the 65-seat coalition that was his to form was shattered by the recalcitrance of his former aide, two-time defense minister, and newly anointed arch enemy, Avigdor Lieberman. As a result, Israel will be heading to elections—this time scheduled for September 17, 2019.

Ostensibly, a principled disagreement over the merits of drafting ultra-orthodox Yeshiva students into the Israeli armed forces precipitated the final plot twist in an already peripatetic election cycle. Although a majority of Israelis agree with Lieberman’s bid to end the costly perk, which dates back to the first Knesset, coalition politics have long granted the ultra-orthodox the leverage they need to extend the exception.  Having spearheaded a draft bill that passed three readings just under a year ago, Lieberman contends that enough ultra-orthodox extortion is enough—even at the cost of new elections.

The more likely explanation is that last minute revisions in the final seat counts made Lieberman believe he could extract a bigger price for cooperating with Netanyahu’s ploy to avoid criminal indictment. It is important to remember that when the election results were first announced, the breakdown of seats on the religious right gave Netanyahu a path to a majority that did not include Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party. When Likud had 36 seats and the ultra-orthodox parties 16, it would only take Kulanu’s four seats and the five won by Union of Right-Wing Party’s to reach the requisite 61. If Lieberman wanted to join, and make it a formidable 66-seat majority, he would have to take what he was offered.

However, an error in recording the vote count revealed by the Israeli Elections Commission revised the final seat tally to 35 for Likud, and 15 for the ultra-orthodox parties (eight for United Torah Judaism and seven for Shas). This two seat difference was enough to transform Lieberman from coalition crumb-catcher to Kingmaker, and whatever messages had been exchanged in that brief window before the final results were released prompted Lieberman to drive a harder bargain.

Triangulating across the different coalition rumors, it is clear that Lieberman was offered at least the defense ministry, and some fig-leaf concessions on the draft bill. Perhaps relishing having Netanyahu’s fate in his hands, Lieberman reportedly pushed for more—as many as three ministries and concessions on the draft law unacceptable to his other nemesis: Shas leader Aryeh Deri. When Netanyahu balked, Lieberman called his bluff—perhaps banking on a handful of polls showing his party might gain as many as four seats if they went back to elections.

Unfortunately for Lieberman, however, his delusions of electoral grandeur are based on some pretty high margins of error and willful disregard for some of the fundamental lessons of the last few elections—the first of which the capricious nature of  pre-election polls, and the second is the perils of crossing Netanyahu.

Lieberman would do well to remember the number of polls in the last round showing Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party earning six to seven seats, and Yisrael Beitanu falling below the 3.25% electoral threshold. It is not unreasonable to conclude that the only reason Lieberman’s party survived the April 9th elections was because Feiglin, as well as the New Right party led by now fired Justice and Education ministers Aylet Shaked and Naftali Bennett fell short of the four seat minimum.

Beyond some flat-footed ads and bizarre campaign stunts, the only difference between the three parties is who annoyed Netanyahu more. Moshe Feiglin’s third temple messianism has repeatedly dragged Netanyahu into costly confrontations with Jordan, and Shaked and Bennett’s questions and allegations forced the Israeli premier to call early elections. It is no accident that the leaders of the hastily formed Union of Right-Wing parties were reportedly being offered the same two ministries held by Bennett and Shaked: it was pay back. Bennett and Shaked’s unceremonious dismissal from their respective ministries, as well as the cool reception to the latter’s bid to rejoin the Likud only underscores Netanyahu’s capacity to nurture a political grudge. Lieberman would do well to remember that his transgressions are far worse.

Whatever Lieberman’s calculations, or miscalculations, opening salvos suggest this next election is going to be even uglier than the last. Netanyahu has already come out and branded Lieberman a leftist—the ultimate smear, and other Likud members are piling on with charges the former defense minister has imperiled the nation by preventing the formation of a right-wing government. It does not take too much imagination to predict that Lieberman, one of the main architects of the national state law, will soon be accused of handing the country over to the Arabs. One thing is for certain; Israeli politics knows no fury like a Netanyahu scorned.

Allison Hodgkins is an assistant professor of international security and conflict management at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Prior to joining AUC, she directed the CIEE Study Center at the University of Jordan from 2006 to 2012, and served as academic director at the Middle East Peace and Conflict Studies program of the School for International Training between 1995 and 2001. She taught at the University of Jordan, Bentley College, and Northeastern University. She is a regular contributor at Political Violence @ a Glance. On Twitter: @ABHodgkins.

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