March 8, 2020
It seems increasingly clear, for those who read between the lines of Avigdor Lieberman's words, that he and his Yisrael Beytenu party will leave the religious wars for another day if only he can oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now. He wants him out more than anything else in the world, and he may yet get his putsch.
Through three consecutive elections now, Lieberman has held the balance of power in his hands. The Likud-Religious bloc has emerged serially with 60 seats, 55, and now 58. In each case the center-left alliance Blue-and-White has emerged with allies on the Left with approximately 40 seats. The Arab coalition of four anti-Zionist parties under the rubric of their "Joint List" keeps emerging with more seats: the first time 4, the second time 13, and this time 15. Meanwhile, Lieberman keeps getting 5-8 seats.
Lieberman's party base is composed of older Russian immigrants who are fiercely anti-communist but secular. They will not sit in a government with Arab parties, and the Arab parties will not sit with them. The Arabs know that Lieberman's dream peace plan envisions new borders that would have as many Arabs as possible left out of sovereign Israel, perhaps handing over the entire northern region landmass known as the "Triangle" in exchange for agreement by the Palestine Authority to concede Israel's rights to the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria.
No self-respecting Arab party can sit with Yisrael Beytenu, and Lieberman's voters came for a Jewish life in Israel and encountered a region with Muslim terrorism that they never had to accept as a necessary part of life back in the USSR.
So it is a stalemate. Three times in a row, the Likud-haredim bloc emerged near the 61 seats needed to form a Knesset majority, but not close enough. Three consecutive times, Benny Gantz's results are even more distant.
Blue and White simply cannot form a government because, since they cannot get the Arabs and Lieberman to sit together, they cannot reach 61 unless Likud agrees to give away its predominant status among a Jewish Israeli electorate whose votes repeatedly orient distinctly to the right.
Not only do the right-wing votes secured by the right-wing bloc and Lieberman tally together in the mid-60s, but it is manifest that Moshe Yaalon's Telem wing of Blue and White also inherently are Likud-right oriented, only disdaining Netanyahu on a personal basis.
Moreover, there are any number of additional "Never Bibi" Likud-oriented votes absorbed within Blue and White. Any fair assessment from three consecutive national elections in one year points to a Jewish electorate that is close to two-thirds right wing but only one-third Center-Left.
Lieberman knows this, and he also knows that he will bear his share of blame if this third election yet again results in the need for yet another do-over. He obtained 173,000 votes in the election of April 2019. He was rewarded for his anti-religious obstinacy in the second round, in September, when he garnered 310,000 votes. But something changed this third time in March, as his vote total dropped precipitously to 263,000.
Lieberman is a skilled and wily politician, and he can read tea leaves, even in a samovar. If he initially was seen as heroic after holding his ground in April, some fifteen percent of his September second-round voters backed off this time, seeing him more as petty and stubborn to the point of driving the country to ruin.
He lost a seat, and he can see the downward direction his party is trending for next time, even as his caprice is resulting in growing and expanding the Joint Arab List he reviles. He has peaked, and voters are piqued.
Lieberman, who has favored annexing Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria and has advocated a mercilessly fierce response to Hamas rocket fire from Gaza, does not want the Joint Arab List's Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh impacting Israeli security policy.
He knows that no matter what he does and demands, the Likud-Right bloc is set at 55 seats or more, and the Jewish Center-Left cannot break 40-45. The Likud cannot, dare not, and will not sell out its religious-political partners in Shas (Sephardi haredi), United Torah Judaism (Ashkenazic haredi), and Yamina (religious zionist) because not only are they Likud's critical core to block Blue and White, but also because Likud actually draws a significant number of direct votes now from religious zionists who have moved over from Yamina, feeling certain that their votes for Likud also secure Yeminah.
One need only look at the constellation of Likud Knesset members to see more and more knitted kippot and Orthodox women among their number, like the high-ranking Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Minister Tzipi Hotovely.
Lieberman knows he has to do something to break the deadlock, or he will be blamed for compelling a fourth round of national voting. He realizes, though will not concede, that he cannot break the religious status quo at this time. But is that what he really wants most anyway? He did, after all, sit with the UTJ and Shas for years in coalition harmony. It appears, most of all, that his primary goal is to break Netanyahu. But why?
Ultimately the matter is one of speculation. Here is my best guess. Nearly a decade ago, police conducted a wide-ranging corruption investigation within Lieberman's party. Gil Messing, then a director of communications for the Strauss food manufacturer, wore a wire and help the police.
As a result, one of the party's leaders, former Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov, was convicted and sentenced to fifteen months' imprisonment for using state funds to help a romantic friend get employment, and others in the party also were convicted.
Ronen Moshe, a party spokesman, was convicted of corruption and money laundering, while Tali Keidar, a former Misezhnikov adviser, was convicted of bribery. The scandal almost destroyed Lieberman's party and markedly reduced its Knesset size, weakening his claim to head the Ministry of Defense.
Lieberman, who himself never was a suspect in the investigations, condemned the era as a "witch hunt." When the same Gil Messing later was named by IDF chief Aviv Kochavi to serve as spokesman for the Israel military, Israel's then-acting Minister of Defense approved the appointment. That person was Benjamin Netanyahu.
With Netanyahu trial set to begin on March 17, Lieberman can deny Netanyahu the 61-seat majority he needs. When early polls on election night predicted a 60-seat Likud-Religious bloc emerging from the voting, it was conceivable that a single Knesset cross-over could be induced to make a government. However, it is hard to see three jumping ship.
Could Lieberman be gumming the wheels of Israeli government for a year just because he is harboring a driving desire for personal revenge to see the same Netanyahu pay a price for the same kinds of charges that include bribery and corruption? If vengeance is a dish best served cold, can Lieberman be that frosty? If yes, he will deliver his seven Yisrael Beytenu seats to Likud's 58-seat bloc in return for Netanyahu stepping down. And he will leave the religious wars for another day.