Israel Pulse

Is Netanyahu-Liberman power couple making comeback?

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Article Summary
Of all the ministers, it was actually Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's long-year foe, who defended the prime minister on the submarine affair and who stated clearly that the Amona settlement will be evacuated.

The Israeli prime minister's office functioned like a war room on Nov. 17, as it attempted to stop the steady release of new information about the "submarine affair." The scandal, which broke two days earlier, revolves around the purchase of submarines from Germany. As Channel 10 journalist Raviv Drucker discovered, the lawyer representing the German shipbuilding firm in the deal also happens to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's personal attorney David Shimron. Coverage of the scandal intensified when it was revealed that former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon opposed the purchase of the submarines last February.

Then an ally popped up for Netanyahu from an unlikely direction. While Netanyahu's team did everything they could to find spokespersons to hold back the media tsunami, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman volunteered to defend the prime minister's decision to go through with the deal. As guest of honor at a conference in Ashdod, Liberman was asked where he stood on the issue. He answered, "I supported the submarine purchase in every position I held, whether I was foreign minister or a member of the opposition. Specifically, and I am speaking solely from the perspective of the country's defense requirements, it is the right decision. I supported it then and continue to support it now. All the rest is gossip."

As Liberman sees it, the involvement of Netanyahu's lawyer and confidant in the billion-dollar deal is just scandalmongering, plain and simple. "I heard Netanyahu say that he had no idea that his lawyer also represented the German company," Liberman added. "Lawyers have hundreds of clients. The prime minister has no way of knowing who all of his lawyer's clients are."

With the submarine affair attracting more and more criticism, Likud's ministers seem to have gone mute. They disappeared from TV studios and politely declined the opportunity to defend Netanyahu to the press. And so, the one person who did agree to help Netanyahu was someone who, until just a few months ago, never missed an opportunity to humiliate Netanyahu and challenge his discretion as prime minister. Yes, he could have made do with more laconic, general expressions of support for Netanyahu, but Liberman decided to be generous instead.

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This week, Netanyahu experienced one of the toughest political assaults against him as prime minister. While the submarine scandal was unfolding, he was also forced to deal with pressure from the HaBayit HaYehudi party to pass the Regularization law validating West Bank illegal outposts. Here, too, Liberman had his back. The prime minister and defense minister presented a uniform position at all meetings before the problematic law was put up for a vote. They noted that State Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said that the proposal ran counter to international law, and as such, would not survive the test of a Supreme Court hearing.

Netanyahu and Liberman were also furious at HaBayit HaYehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who was quick to announce that “the era of the Palestinian state is over,” after Donald Trump's surprising election victory in the United States. They both demanded that Bennett control himself, claiming that he was causing enormous damage to the country's national interests.

Netanyahu and Liberman have a long and convoluted relationship, which goes back almost 30 years. What happened over the last week should be seen as further evidence that their political partnership is making a comeback. In fact, it has been in comeback mode ever since Liberman was appointed to replace Ya'alon as defense minister in May 2016. It is still premature to announce a renewed political partnership for the next election, as existed with the Likud Beitenu list (combining Likud and Yisrael Beitenu party lists) in 2012. Nevertheless, these two veterans of countless political skirmishes are once again experiencing good times working together. Perhaps it is even more than that. Netanyahu is more isolated now than he has been throughout most of his political career. His relationship with his coalition partner Bennett has deteriorated to sheer loathing and physical revulsion. With Liberman, however, he has found a familiar ally in the Cabinet and government.

The fact that these two men are drawing closer has enormous significance as far as Netanyahu is concerned. This is particularly true when it comes to Bennett's ability/inability to cause him harm within his right-wing electorate. After all, the prime minister may have ranted and raged against the Regularization law, but Bennett was still able to pass it. In the dynamics of the battle for votes from the right, Netanyahu suffered a resounding blow. He is regarded as someone who opposed the authorization of illegal outposts due to his concerns about the response of the international community. Nevertheless, the fact that Liberman is at his side, and that no one suspects Liberman of being weak or leaning left, could help the prime minister get past this hurdle, too.

Liberman came out openly against the Regularization law, without once getting confused about it or apologizing for his stance. He presented a bold, detailed position, with which even the moderate right could identify, not to mention the vast political center. Netanyahu preferred to hide in his office after the law was approved in a preliminary reading. He restrained himself and refused to respond to the cheers of jubilation by Bennett and his people. In contrast, Liberman called a press conference to announce that the Amona settlement (the main drive behind the bill, in an attempt to circumvent a High Court order to evacuate it) would be evacuated despite the passing of the Regularization law. "Anyone who says that it is possible to keep the settlement in its current location is simply spreading illusions and delusions. … As Minister of Defense, it is my obligation to tell the truth. It is impossible to avoid the evacuation. As painful as it is, there is nothing we can do about it, because of a wide range of circumstances: political, legal and international." No one had to read between the lines to see what he was saying: Bennett is spreading false hopes, and by doing this, causing enormous damage.

While Netanyahu is licking his wounds after an especially difficult week, Liberman is winning popularity as a pragmatic leader. On Nov, 16, he announced that Israel must reach a deal with the Trump administration about a freeze on construction in the scattered, small settlements in exchange for recognition of the settlement blocs. This indicates that the chairman of Yisrael Beitenu is adopting a centrist diplomatic position for strategic reasons, while Bennett is tugging Netanyahu toward the realm of the far right. If Liberman does, in fact, make an effort to reach such a deal, and if he receives Netanyahu's backing, it would be a positive turning point in the relationship between Israel and the United States.

Following such a path together could be a dramatic milestone in the Netanyahu-Liberman relationship, too. The relationship between the two men has its ups and downs. There have been bold alliances and bitter fights. On the other hand, their partnership also has the potential and the strength needed to end the current diplomatic stalemate.

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Found in: us-israel relations, submarine, settlements, regulation, naftali bennett, israeli politics, benjamin netanyahu, avigdor liberman

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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