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Netanyahu, Liberman locked in ultimate battle

Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz an ultimatum: a unity government, or else he will join the one who agrees to his conditions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem November 10, 2019. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS - RC2B8D9BTK59

Israeli roller coaster politics continues to break its own records. Over one weekend, two dramatic records were broken that turned the political map upside down, created a new reality and updated the rules of the game toward the showdown anticipated in the coming weeks.

The impression is that a real struggle is taking place between two veteran wolves who were once allies, but became bitter adversaries: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman. The opening shots were fired by Netanyahu who, on the afternoon of Nov. 8, only a few minutes before Shabbat, announced that he had decided to appoint New Right senior Naftali Bennett as defense minister in the transition government under his aegis. This surprising turn of events, which aroused much talk throughout the entire Middle East, is the result of the heavy pressures on Netanyahu. It was rumored that Bennett and his partner Ayelet Shaked were in contact with the Blue and White heads and were seriously considering jumping Netanyahu’s ship and crossing the lines to join the other side.

These contacts were part of the psychological warfare that Bennett inflicted on Netanyahu — and it worked. In his nightmares, Netanyahu saw the three Knesset members of the New Right — Bennett, Shaked and Matan Kahane — join the Gantz government, thus enabling it to pass the government confidence vote in the Knesset even without the support of the Arab members of Knesset (who could choose to absent themselves on the day of the vote, or appear but abstain from the vote). Netanyahu made the decision to eat the frog; he even ignored his wife’s forceful opposition to entrust the person who had once been chief of Netanyahu’s staff, to be the new patron of the entire Israeli army.

Netanyahu’s decision reflects the level of his panic. It complicated his position in his inner front within the Likud, where heavyweights — such as Knesset member Avi Dichter, the former Shin Bet head, and Knesset member Gen. (Res.) Yoav Galant — were vying for the important position. But Netanyahu is not interested in Likud-internal politics now. His highest ultimate is to retain the right-wing, ultra-Orthodox bloc he created, at any price. Fifty-five Knesset members swore allegiance to him: They are the insurance policy for his political life, and perhaps also for his personal liberty.

But then came Saturday night (Nov. 9): Liberman in person made an appearance on Channel 12 News, igniting the tempest all over again. The Yisrael Beitenu leader announced that he would meet this week with Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, and demand that both make a concession enabling the consolidation of the long-awaited liberal unity government: Liberman will redemand Gantz to agree to the outline proposed by President Reuven Rivlin, thus allowing Netanyahu to be first in the rotation as prime minister. According to this outline, Netanyahu would enter the “incapacitation” category if and when he is indicted. This would mean that indicted Netanyahu would keep the title of prime minister, but the acting prime minister would become Gantz. As for Netanyahu, Liberman will redemand him to say goodbye to the right-wing, ultra-Orthodox bloc he nurtured so carefully, and join the unity government with only the Likud. (Liberman had insisted from the beginning on a liberal-secular unity government, without the ultra-Orthodox.)

But that’s not all: Liberman announced that if Liberman and Gantz do not reach a unity government, he would join the side willing to make the concession. The significance of this is clear: If Gantz agrees to accept the president’s outline while Netanyahu refused to dismantle his bloc, then Liberman will join Gantz’s narrow government. The reverse is also true: Should Netanyahu agree to waive his bloc but Gantz refuses to join a coalition headed by Netanyahu — even for a few months — then Liberman will join the narrow right-wing coalition government with Netanyahu and the Likud.

This is a multi-participatory game of "chicken." Netanyahu fears that the moment he turns his back on his bloc, the bloc will defect right into Gantz’s arms. But Gantz, on his part, is wary of a possible trap that would allow Netanyahu to play for time and remain prime minister even after an indictment is filed against him. On the other hand, Gantz knows that if he says “yes” to Liberman, Liberman will never ever defect to the right. And Gantz believes that if that’s a done deal, then he could also deal with everything else.

Thus, ultimately, Liberman has transformed himself into the responsible adult of Israeli politics. Nonetheless, this responsible adult is also (politically) violent and dangerous. The threats he made during the television interview left no room for the imagination, and he seemed to love every minute. On the other hand, it is not clear if a narrow government headed by Gantz is realistic. The Arab Joint List will not be happy about supporting a government with Liberman in it. Even Liberman never dreamed of facing such a bizarre situation. But as of this moment, this Joint List, Liberman reluctance is Netanyahu’s last hope.

And what fate awaits Bennett? If Liberman succeeds in averting a third election campaign and forcing the establishment of a government (whether wide or narrow), Bennet would become a laughing stock. He will be sworn in as defense minister, and then leave his position after a few weeks. In his “former defense minister” resume, he will also receive the title of “political buffoon.” On the other hand, Bennett has dreamed about this portfolio for years; he is talented, energetic, creative and thinks outside the box. He believes that he will be able to reinvent himself in this ministry, known as “a state within a state,” and determined to assume his position as quickly as possible. Does this mean that Bennett will immediately drag Israel into war? Not necessarily. “What you see from here is not what you see from there” is a known Israeli cliche about the Defense Ministry, i.e., belligerent politicians who later were appointed defense ministers often adopt after their appointment a "statelier" approach. But cliches are often true in Israeli politics. Bennett will not drag Israel into escapades and even if he tries to do so, there will be someone (in the security system) to put on the brakes.

At least, that is what the defense establishment hopes.

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