Israel Pulse

Is Israel’s veteran political power couple making comeback?

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Article Summary
Despite past quarrels, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman seem very close and coordinated on Iran, Syria and other issues.

Even without joint photo-ops and major declarations, the past two weeks have clearly been one of the better periods in the long, stormy and complex relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

While the Israel-Gaza war in the summer of 2014, codenamed Operation Protective Edge, resulted in an ugly rift between Netanyahu and Liberman, who was Israel’s foreign minister at the time, in the current cross-border clash the two are working closely and harmoniously. According to the latest Hadashot TV poll on May 9, the two are also reaping the fruit of their successful defense policy. If elections were held now, the poll has Netanyahu’s Likud getting 35 of the 120 Knesset seats (up from 30 in the 2015 elections) and Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party with six (up one), marking a renewed flourishing of their relationship.

Netanyahu’s popularity is stronger now than it has been for years, despite a series of police investigations against him on suspicions of corruption. Liberman leads a party that has known better times, but he has managed to bounce back in recent weeks to the position of a responsible, levelheaded minister of defense. Those monitoring his recent pronouncements are struck by his measured tones vis-a-vis Israel’s military and diplomatic achievements: the US pullout from the nuclear agreement with Iran, and the Israel air force strikes on Iranian-linked targets in Syria. These are dramatic moves that do not have Israelis running into shelters, for now. Liberman repeatedly reiterates the importance of avoiding arrogance and displaying contempt of the Iranian enemy, particularly at this time.

Speaking at his Knesset faction’s May 7 meeting and again at the annual Herzliya Conference May 10, Liberman insisted that Israel was not seeking all-out war. “It's all limited to a conflict between us and the Iranian Quds Force in Syria. … We have no interest in escalating the situation, but we must be focused,” Liberman said at the Herzliya Conference. He then warned that Israel must “remain cautious and modest and avoid getting carried away.” Liberman of May 2018 comes across as a serious, responsible defense chief working in tandem with military Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot and with Netanyahu — far from the reputation he has earned as an impetuous, belligerent politician.

As the next elections near, the possibility of renewed political cooperation between the Netanyahu-Liberman duo is once again on the politicians’ agenda. Senior figures in Netanyahu’s Likud Party are starting to suspect that something is cooking under their nose. The recent Knesset approval of an amendment that allows the prime minister and defense minister to declare war in extreme cases on their own contributes to the sense that the veteran couple is making a comeback. In January, Liberman told the Makor Rishon newspaper that after the next elections he would be recommending to the president that he allow Netanyahu to form the new government — an additional signal of the burgeoning ties between the two. The defense minister has also been assiduous in backing Netanyahu throughout the police investigations of his conduct.

Netanyahu is known to favor coalition deals prior to elections. That was the case on the eve of the 2013 elections when Netanyahu and Liberman put together a joint Likud-Yisrael Beitenu ticket, and when Netanyahu cemented agreements with the ultra-Orthodox parties during the last three election campaigns. The logic dictating such arrangements is simple risk reduction.

The stronger Netanyahu gets, as indicated by the latest polls, the harder it will be for the Likud apparatus to oppose a joint run with Yisrael Beitenu. Such an alliance would necessarily harm senior Likud politicians who would have to make way for Liberman in second place on the party’s Knesset list and for other associates of his in other realistic positions. Such a scenario depends on the extent of Netanyahu’s popularity at the time it plays out and his ability to impose his will on the Likud Central Committee.

“I find it hard to see how we would be able to stand up to Netanyahu if he continues to be so strong in the polls,” a senior Likud source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “This week, all the ministers praised him for the abrogation of the nuclear agreement. Also coming up is the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem [on May 14], another of his achievements. No one in the Likud would declare war against him under such conditions.”

A joint run with Netanyahu would save Liberman from a high-risk election campaign, at the end of which he could find himself out of the Knesset. Going by polls conducted in recent months, his party was verging on the electoral threshold, which means it risked getting insufficient votes to enter the legislature. Hooking up with the Likud could also give Liberman a realistic chance in the battle for Netanyahu’s succession from within the Likud.

Joining up with the Likud Party would be a return to Liberman’s first political home, to the start of his career as a powerful chief executive of the party who helped Netanyahu capture the prime minister’s position for the first time in 1996. Netanyahu was 47 at the time, Liberman was 38 — two relatively young, ambitious men, confidants who were more alike than met the eye despite their different backgrounds.

The immigrant from the former Soviet Union who never shed his heavy Russian accent, and the Israeli-born officer in an elite unit, with his perfect English, have since broken up, fought, reconciled and reunited so many times that it’s hard to follow the ebb and flow of their relationship. What is so riveting and surprising each time is their ability to focus and work together closely barely minutes after yet another record low in their relationship.

The relationship ran aground once again in the months leading up to Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and Liberman openly attacked what he viewed as Netanyahu's weak defense policy vis-a-vis Hamas. Following the 2015 elections, Liberman surprised Netanyahu when he refused to join his coalition government, leaving the prime minister with a precarious Knesset majority of 61 seats.

Their relationship seemed doomed at that time, especially after an April 2016 interview on Israel Army Radio in which Liberman called Netanyahu “a liar, a fraud and a crook,” as well as “a desperate prime minister who cannot even push through one law. That’s a coalition? That’s a joke.” The Likud was quick to hit back with a particularly derisive response. Most memorable was the sentence describing Liberman as someone who “never heard bullets whizzing by his ear, only the buzz of tennis balls” — a reference to his love for the sport. The Likud went on to revile Liberman as “a man who never led a single soldier into the battlefield and never made operational decisions in his life, a man who never survived a single defense Cabinet meeting from start to finish.”

This vicious repartee did not stop the two men from mounting a cloyingly saccharine comeback in front of the cameras several weeks later, with Liberman’s appointment as minister of defense. Now nothing comes as a surprise anymore.

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Found in: Governance

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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