Israel Pulse

Netanyahu's coalition stable — with or without Liberman

Article Summary
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feels confident about the stability of his coalition, whatever the outcome in Avigdor Liberman's trial or Labor Party primaries.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is feeling the pressure increase as the verdict nears for former foreign minister and present Knesset member Avigdor Liberman, he hides it well. The culmination of one of the biggest court cases in Israel's political and legal system will come Wednesday, Nov. 6, when the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court is scheduled to announce the verdict in the Belarus ambassador affair, over which Liberman faces charges of fraud and breach of public trust.

Even seasoned legal commentators find it difficult to predict the ultimate fate of Liberman, Netanyahu's partner in leading the Likud-Beiteinu faction. The options range from total exoneration to conviction without moral turpitude, to conviction with moral turpitude. The first two possibilities would allow him to return to the Foreign Ministry immediately, a post that has been set aside for him since elections at the beginning of 2013. During this time, the prime minister functioned as foreign minister. In the event of a conviction with moral turpitude, Liberman would be forced to quit the Knesset immediately. He could, however, run in the coming elections.

Simple political calculations show us that under such circumstances, the chair of Yisrael Beiteinu would immediately have a great vested interest in dissolving the coalition and holding new elections. This extreme scenario, which emerges in the articles of commentators as well as in talks within the political system, has generated great tension around the judges' decision. Many believe that the fate of the third Netanyahu government will also be decided that morning. The reality that is emerging is evidently much more drab and anticlimactic than that. Even Netanyahu, who is known for his tendency to see a tempest in a teapot, understands this time that even under the worst-case scenario (from Liberman's point of view), many long months will pass until it would affect the coalition.

Netanyahu's relatively confident, secure stance these days is the result, first and foremost, of the calming messages that the Yisrael Beiteinu chair takes pains to send him, even through the media. In an interview with journalist Sima Kadmon that was published Nov. 1 in the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Liberman made every possible effort to clarify that he has no intentions of dismantling the partnership — on the contrary. According to Liberman, one of the first things he plans to do after Wednesday is to sit with representatives from the coalition's factions and examine methods for improving their work together. Liberman liberally used superlatives to describe his relationship with Netanyahu when he said that despite the prime minister not supporting Moshe Leon for mayor of the Jerusalem municipality, their relationship "has never been better or closer." People close to Netanyahu described Liberman's words as a positive sign of the coalition's stability.

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The truth is that Netanyahu's confidence these days not only does not stem from the all-clear signal emitted from Liberman's direction, but is not even connected to it. The prime minister recently learned to enjoy the advantages of his coalition. He learned to maneuver and benefit from the dissent and quarrels within his government, between Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, between Bennett and Finance Minister Yair Lapid and between the Likud ministers and Bennett. All try to wrest control of the agenda, each at the expense of the other, while the prime minister remains the responsible adult. Netanyahu is also encouraged by Lapid's crash in the polls; Lapid had described himself as a candidate for the premiership for one brief moment after the elections, then ate his words later on.

Paradoxically, the coalition that Netanyahu tried to avoid with all his heart and soul now benefits him. The prime minister did everything possible to leave his bitter enemy Bennett out of the government and was not exactly enthusiastic regarding a partnership with Lapid. In fact, Netanyahu was willing to grant Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich the treasury portfolio, responsibility for conducting the diplomatic process and other perks and portfolios to Labor higher-ups — anything and everything to redeem him from a partnership with "brothers" Lapid and Bennett. Netanyahu wanted Yachimovich and the ultra-Orthodox in his government. He reckoned that Lapid would try to topple him the moment he could, but in the end he had no choice but to enter into a partnership with the Yesh Atid and HaBayit HaYehudi parties. Now his coalition is characterized by great disagreements that make giant headlines in the media, but also with zero motivation for all its partners to jump ship from the government.

Bennett remains in the government despite the release of Palestinian prisoners, so it is hard to imagine what else could possibly cause him to give up his role as economy and trade minister. Lapid is so politically and publicly weakened that if he goes over to the opposition he may simply disappear from the public agenda. Livni benefits from the excitement of the secret negotiations with the Palestinians, and we can assume that she will remain in the government even if the diplomatic process runs aground. She, too, cannot survive politically on the opposition benches.

This is also the reason why the prime minister does not concern himself too much with the leadership primaries of the Labor party. On Nov. 21, elections will be held between Yachimovich and Knesset member Isaac Herzog. If the unexpected happens and Herzog succeeds in unseating the chairwoman, then Netanyahu can attempt to consolidate a behind-the-scenes alternate coalition in the event of HaBayit HaYehudi's secession on the background of the diplomatic process. Netanyahu would find it a lot easier with Herzog. If Yachimovich wins, no great drama is expected to affect the government. Thus, even if the political system is expected to witness dramatic events in the coming month, these events are not expected to immediately affect the government's stability.

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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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