What sort of game is Avigdor Liberman playing?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is very worried that Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman will agree to cooperate with the Joint List in an effort to bring him down, thereby allowing Benny Gantz to form a minority government.

al-monitor Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman delivers a statement following his party faction meeting, Neve Ilan, Israel, Sept. 22, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Oct 11, 2019

In May, it looked like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was about to announce that he had just formed his fifth government. It seemed like it would happen any given minute, so that even if he couldn’t form a coalition in the requisite 28 days, there was no reason to suspect that something big was taking place behind the scenes. But as soon as he received the 14-day extension, as allowed by law, Netanyahu summoned his Cabinet Secretary Tzahi Braverman and asked him to prepare legislation to dissolve the new Knesset. Netanyahu told Braverman that he had no government, and that Liberman won’t come on board. Yes, Braverman was shocked by this extraordinary request, but he did what Netanyahu asked and secretly prepared the necessary legislation. Eventually, indeed the Knesset was dissolved, and Israel was on its way to rerun elections.

By requesting a legislation to disband the Knesset, Netanyahu prepared himself for the day when it becomes painfully obvious that he cannot form a new government. Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman refused to join his right-wing coalition. Netanyahu was convinced that Liberman was coordinating with Blue and White party’s No. 2 Yair Lapid, but also with a group of Likud Knesset members, led by former Minister Gideon Saar. Netanyahu also believed that as soon as the mandate to form a new government is taken from him and handed to Blue and White Chairman Benny Gantz, a new government will be formed without him. His decision to dissolve the 21st Knesset on May 30 was intended to be a preventive strike, designed to keep him from losing his seat in the prime minister’s office. Now, again, Netanyahu is certain that Liberman and Lapid threw a monkey wrench into his plans.

While this is the first time this story is being released, it explains the enormity of the rift between Netanyahu and Liberman. But what actually happened between these two men, to cause Liberman to thwart Netanyahu’s every attempt to form an “immunity government” and leave him exposed to indictment and the loss of power? Liberman is mum. And yet it seems, based on other things he’s said and the tone with which he said them, it involved a serious crisis of trust and a stinging personal affront.

In an interview with my colleague Ben Caspit, which appeared in Maariv on the eve of Yom Kippur eve, on Oct. 8, Liberman said, “I would not be surprised if Netanyahu and his people are using private investigators against me and my family. That is how they intimidate. Regrettably, Bibi is incapable of understanding concepts such as friendship and loyalty.”

Liberman made a point of stating that there was nothing personal about what he was doing. It was all for the good of the nation. He also said that he does not rule out sitting in the same government with Netanyahu, making the issue all the more confusing.

Right after Yom Kippur, Liberman presented his own outline for a unity government consisting of the Likud, his own Yisrael Beitenu, and the Blue and White party. Not included in his proposed coalition were the ultra-Orthodox, parties on the far left and far right, and the Arab Joint List. For Netanyahu to join this coalition, he would have to abandon his allies in the right-wing, ultra-Orthodox bloc.

Liberman called it a “broad-based secular unity government,” which could contend with all the major economic and security issues on the table, while passing laws in keeping with a secular, liberal agenda. The outline got a cool reception. The Likud rejected it outright. And while the Blue and White party was accommodating, it seemed obvious to everyone that this proposal would not serve as the basis for progress. In other words, no such government would be formed. As long as the Blue and White party rejects Netanyahu because of the pending charges against him, negotiations over such a government would lead nowhere.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is still finding room to maneuver. On the evening of Oct. 10, the Likud Central Committee confirmed his position as chairman of the party as long as the current Knesset is in session. The event was more like a bizarre declaration of loyalty. More so, Netanyahu was not even present. Al-Monitor found out that the prime minister waited at his office in Tel Aviv for the event to start. When his people reported to him that only few Likud members arrived, he decided to forego the meeting, so as not to embarrass himself. He did not want his picture in front of a half empty hall. In any case, it was certainly a gathering that lacked energy. Still, it guaranteed Netanyahu that none of the Likud’s current members of Knesset could lead a putsch against him in the next few weeks, when he is forced to return his mandate to form a new government. Should that happen, Gantz will be asked to form a government. If he fails, the president could ask another Knesset member to try. What Netanyahu did Oct. 10 was block any Knesset member from the Likud from accepting the president’s request if Gantz fails.

But now that he has fortified his position within the Likud, Netanyahu is worried about the possibility that Liberman will go all the way and even cooperate with the Joint List in order to bring him down. In Netanyahu’s nightmare scenario, Gantz will swear in a minority government, made up of the Blue and White party, the Democratic Camp, Labor-Gesher and the Joint List. Though this would have the support of just 57 members of Knesset, Liberman would support it from outside, by instructing the members of his party to abstain on the vote to approve the new government or to absent themselves from the plenum when the vote is taken.

While it is highly unlikely that this will actually happen, Netanyahu and other senior members of the Likud have been claiming over the last few days that this is exactly what Liberman is planning. One interesting point is that the Blue and White party has yet to deny it. A senior Blue and White member even told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Anything is possible. Even this scenario is on the table. When it comes time to vote for the government, Liberman’s Knesset members will go to lunch. Gantz will be prime minister, and all the rest will fall into place.”

More than being an actual plan of action, this statement seems intended to apply even more pressure on Netanyahu. It is hard to imagine Liberman violating his oath that he would only join a unity government made up of the Likud, Blue and White, and his Yisrael Beitenu, or that he would cooperate in any way with the Joint List. Nevertheless, he is treating this like a game of poker, and he refuses to fold. On Oct. 10, he attacked Netanyahu in an interview with Channel 12 and said that Netanyahu is doing everything he can to generate a third round of elections. Referring to himself, he added, “I’m in no hurry to go anywhere. We are waiting for the task of forming a new government is handed over to Gantz. Only then will we really start to talk.”

The Likud was quick to claim that this was how Liberman revealed his true intent: “Liberman announces that he is waiting for the mandate to pass to Gantz and he continues to refuse to vote against a left-wing minority government supported by the Arab parties. The Likud is working to establish a broad national unity government, and as the president proposed without the disqualification of any party. The one who opposes it is Liberman, who is completely in tune with Yair Lapid.”

Where will all this lead? Now that Netanyahu has entrenched himself in the Likud and closed any option to depose him as party leader or enable some other Knesset member from the Likud to form a new government, the ball is in the Blue and White party’s court. They will have to decide whether they will lift their veto on sitting in a government with Netanyahu (and the ultra-Orthodox and parties on the right). Should they do that, Liberman will walk away the big loser. Meanwhile, this scenario is still far from happening, and it is not even clear if it is possible. “There is no way we will sit with Netanyahu. We’ll go to a third round of elections instead,” one of Blue and White leaders told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

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