“Barring any external factors, this government could last two or three years,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin assessed in an interview with Al-Monitor. Levin, now the Likud minister closest to the prime minister, was Benjamin Netanyahu’s point person in the coalition negotiations to expand the government that ended with the surprising entry of Avigdor Liberman as defense minister. “We realized that with a 61-seat coalition, we’d be approaching elections very quickly,” said Levin, explaining the political maneuvering to stabilize the government. He made it clear that as far as Netanyahu is concerned, there would be further attempts to bring all or part of the Zionist Camp into the government too.
The rest of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: The 61-member coalition seemed stable; the fact that any single member of it could have brought it down actually made them more responsible. Was that really the case?
Levin: That’s a mistake. If we had kept it at 61 seats, the government would have collapsed because of internal problems within the Likud. I don’t know what we would have done with the budget, and I have no idea if we would even have been able to get Tzachi Hanegbi’s appointment through [as a minister without portfolio]. Expanding the government reduced all the pressure on us. It made it much harder for individual Knesset members to come up to us with all sorts of demands and threats.
Maybe we would have survived, but not for long. We had already begun being worn down and experienced all sorts of problems in the first year that never should have happened. We lost a lot of votes in the Knesset plenum. It takes a certain wisdom to expand the government before it collapses. We were close to collapsing too. There were two Likud Knesset members, Avraham Neguise and Dudi Amsalem, who extorted us. It was pretty dramatic, because a whole month went by in which we couldn’t bring a single piece of legislation up for a vote. So first we reached a deal with them about bringing the remaining Jews of Ethiopia to Israel. Once we stabilized the government, we took steps to expand it. Our working assumption was that if we didn’t expand it, everything would fall apart during discussions about the budget.
Al-Monitor: Do you feel that there’s still potential for quite a bit of volatility in this government?
Levin: We have no interest in breaking the government apart. That much is obvious. Nor do the ultra-Orthodox factions have any reason to break up the government. After all, we kept all of our commitments to them, and we do work well together after all. They won’t get anything better than what they have now. The only problem is the Supreme Court’s rulings, which keep coming at us like hot potatoes. One example of this is the issue of the Western Wall. I don’t know how we’ll get out of that. If you are asking me about the biggest threat this government faces, it is something like that.
Liberman will definitely want to remain in the government. In my opinion, [Finance Minister Moshe] Kahlon made a strategic decision to stay in too, so that he can spearhead his own initiatives. Besides, he is happy overall. If you ask me, the influence he has as a result of his position is like a dream to him. It is impossible to do anything without him.
The weak link in the government is HaBayit HaYehudi, or more precisely [its head, Education Minister] Naftali Bennett. In this case, we have to distinguish between Bennett and the other members of his party, who have no interest in leaving the coalition. Bennett, however, is a different story. He feels deeply that he has been personally discriminated against in favor of Liberman, who got the defense portfolio. It looks like they have reached the conclusion that they will have to go into the next elections from the opposition.
Al-Monitor: Is that your assessment?
Levin: I know it for a fact. It has to do with Bennett and the network surrounding him. They attribute their disappointing results in the last election to the mistake of embracing Netanyahu. That is why they think that heading into the next elections from outside the government will benefit them. But they have a problem. They could never have dreamed of getting the ministries that they have now, and there is a very good chance that they will not get them again. That is particularly true of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. So on one hand, they want to stay in the government for as long as possible, but on the other hand, they want to leave at the right time. This strategy works very well until it is actually time to leave. Then they will have to bring down a right-wing government, and that’s a problem for their voters. That is why Bennett is confined to this government. He realizes that his electorate will not forgive him if he causes the government to fall. That is why I don’t believe that leaving is a real option for them.
Still, Bennett’s statements are infuriating. You can’t run a coalition like that. I hope that he will calm down. He would be doing the right thing if he switches gears. Unlike the left, the right-wing electorate does not have the instinctive urge to decapitate whoever is in charge.
Al-Monitor: What are the other challenges that this government will have to face in order to survive?
Levin: I am worried about the Supreme Court’s decision to evacuate [the illegal outpost of] Amona, which is supposed to take place by December. I really hope that we can find a solution, because I can’t picture this government carrying out the evacuation. It won’t happen, as far as I am concerned. The situation is intolerable for me personally, too. It is infuriating. It would be a breaking point. The government would not survive it. Just look around: There is an enormous amount of illegal Arab construction everywhere, but instead, the court is focused on two and a half homes that were built there 20 years ago.
Al-Monitor: What about all the investigations into Netanyahu? The latest [accusation] is that he received money from an alleged French con man on trial [Arnaud Mimran].
Levin: The whole thing looks ridiculous to me. Besides, it takes so long for them to investigate anything here that by the time they finish. I am willing to bet that the expiration date for this government will coincide with the end of the investigation. I’ll even sign on that right now.
Al-Monitor: Doesn’t this series of investigations interfere with the prime minister’s ability to function?
Levin: No. On the contrary, I don’t think he knows how to function without there being some investigation or other. That’s the interesting thing about him: He has incredible experience. You can see that in the way that other world leaders react to him, too. He is among the top tier of international leaders, both in terms of experience and international stature. I was with him two days ago [June 5], and by the time I left, it was already past one in the morning. The man was flying to Russia the next day for a very busy trip, a serious trip, including a meeting with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. I thought that he should get some sleep. But he has so much experience, it’s incredible to watch. It’s his job, and he does it without allowing everything around him to interfere. He is focused. In that sense, it is a very big advantage.
Al-Monitor: Did Netanyahu really want the Zionist Camp in his government?
Levin: It is not only that he wanted them then. He still wants them now. It became necessary to stabilize the system, and we had no idea that we would manage to bring Liberman into the government. I think that what ultimately brought Liberman in was the media. They created the impression that we’d be signing a deal with the Labor Party [a major partner of the Zionist Camp] at any minute, even though there were gaping differences between us.
There was suddenly a lot of pressure on Liberman. That was the atmosphere in which he was forced to make his decision. Netanyahu really wanted to bring [Zionist Camp leader Isaac] Herzog in for stability, because he didn’t know if there was another option, and also because it is hard to work with Bennett. The prime minister wanted to approach the world with a more positive attitude.
The problem was that the Zionist Camp wanted things that were impossible for us to give to them. The main thing that they demanded was to get a hold of portfolios like justice and culture, but also that all the statements about a two-state solution and the 2009 Bar Ilan speech would be written into the coalition agreement. They demanded that the government adopt those policies, so the differences between us were huge.
Al-Monitor: After all the bad blood between Netanyahu and Liberman, was it hard to break the ice between them?
Levin: To tell you the truth, it went wonderfully from the very first moment. It even looked like they were waiting for this to happen, in many different ways. So far, it looks like there is full coordination between them. Liberman took some very difficult steps from his starting point toward us. He conceded the freedom to vote his conscience on matters of religion and state, because he realized that it would be impossible. He came with a very practical approach, which was nice.
Al-Monitor: Are you upset that former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon left the government?
Levin: To tell you the truth, I am very angry at him. Coalition negotiations were underway. There were constraints. If we didn’t do what we did, we would have been heading for elections very quickly. There was no choice. He should have understood that and accepted the proposal to be foreign minister. I think he made a mistake. I was disappointed because he is someone who talks about values, but in the end it all came down to seats. Where was he the week before? Did he really lose confidence in the prime minister just because he was no longer minister of defense?
Al-Monitor: What about claims that Liberman was an inappropriate pick for the job and that appointing him was irresponsible?
Levin: Come on. Really? And when [Netanyahu] appointed Liberman foreign minister, that was okay? And when he appointed [Yesh Atid leader] Yair Lapid as finance minister without Lapid understanding anything about economics, that was okay? We live in a democratic country. There is a parliamentary system in place, and it has always been that way. Besides, since when do you put a big X on anyone? Why can’t Liberman be defense minister? He has years of experience in the [Security] Cabinet, and he spent six years as foreign minister. What possible reason could there be to disqualify him? What qualified Ehud Olmert to be prime minister? That he was once minister of health or minister of commerce and trade? And [Zionist Camp co-leader Tzipi] Livni? What qualified her to be foreign minister? What kind of attitude is it that if Ya’alon isn’t minister of defense, the world will fall apart?
Al-Monitor: You are considered to be on the far right of a right-wing government. Aren’t you worried that Netanyahu and Liberman are heading toward a significant diplomatic maneuver?
Levin: Nothing in their statements is new. I just don’t think that anything will ever come of all that, certainly not now. In the end, the two of them will have to face the world. They believe in that personally. As long as the situation is what it is and the other side isn’t interested, it’s fine.