Israel goes to the polls next Tuesday in what’s surely the strangest election in that country’s history. It’s an Israeli version of Groundhog Day, where voters are being asked to replay an election that took place just months ago. The leading candidates are the same. The issues are the same. And the political crisis that got them to this peculiar pass? The same.
A bit of background: Israel doesn’t have a dominant political party anymore, only a shifting menu of lesser ones. After last April’s election, Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was unable to muster enough Knesset seats to form a governing majority, mostly thanks to fellow right-winger Avigdor “Evet” Lieberman, who pulled his own party’s support at the last minute. Instead, Netanyahu proposed a re-do, and, incredibly, the just elected Knesset agreed, unceremoniously dissolving itself only a month after being sworn in.
You can see what they were thinking. Imagine if Hillary Clinton or Al Gore had had this chance. It’s every losing politician’s idea of wish fulfillment, and in this case, a traumatized nation’s experiment in alternative history.
But here’s the thing about alternative histories: they can get a little freaky. And freaky is exactly what Israeli politics is right now. It’s as if the Italians and British were bragging about their own parliamentary chaos and Israel responded, “Hold my beer.”
For more than a decade, Bibi has been by far the shrewdest politician in Israel. He usually runs rings around his opponents. But this year something has gone dreadfully wrong. Not because the opposition parties to his left have finally overcome their differences and united against him—far from it. They remain as fractured as ever. Instead, he’s losing his grip because of a rival from his own camp, a former protégé who has gone completely rogue. The outcome of next week’s election, and Bibi’s fate, hangs entirely on the vote of one man. Next week’s election is all about Lieberman.
It’s as if the Italians and British were bragging about their own parliamentary chaos and Israel responded, “Hold my beer.”
Born in the Soviet Union, Lieberman joined the Likud party and served his political apprenticeship as Smithers to Bibi’s Mr. Burns. Later, he founded his own party, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), by channeling the aspirations of the roughly one million Russian-speaking immigrants who arrived after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. (Picture a poor but highly educated army of belligerent techies, or bouncers with physics degrees.) They propelled Lieberman into Bibi’s Cabinet, where his demagogic manner and extreme views—he’s routinely called a racist—serve a useful purpose: they make his boss look reasonable and moderate by comparison.
But Netanyahu has never been good at grooming successors. He isn’t called King Bibi for nothing. And Lieberman outgrew a supporting role. Yisrael Beiteinu still supported Bibi, but the two men were butting heads over security issues (Lieberman is more hawkish) and the power of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israeli life (Lieberman’s supporters can’t stand it) until finally Lieberman resigned.
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Fast-forward to this summer. Bibi is ensnared in multiple corruption cases that have the potential to land him in prison if he is convicted. His party has reportedly demanded that all his coalition partners commit to legislation granting him immunity from prosecution, offering to support practically anything in return. That’s a problem for Lieberman and his followers, who are resolutely secular. They can’t abide religious control over Sabbath closures, marriage, and divorce, and are furious that ultra-Orthodox youth can be exempted from military service.
Picture a poor but highly educated army of belligerent techies, or bouncers with physics degrees.
So, this spring, Lieberman surprised everyone by refusing at the last minute to join Bibi’s coalition. He repositioned himself as Israel’s secular savior, ready to take on the ultra-Orthodox and throw Bibi under the bus.
Whether he was driven to destroy Bibi solely because of personal animus or because of genuine political differences is hard to discern. Whatever his motives, the man has become Israel’s own Eve Harrington, just this time with a potbelly and a goatee.
Betraying Bibi and taking on the ultra-Orthodox was a Hail Mary pass, since Lieberman’s voter base has been shrinking. But it worked. Yisrael Beiteinu now stands to double its Knesset tally, and everyone wants to kiss his ring. If all goes according to plan, Lieberman will control the largest bloc of uncommitted votes and will decide who becomes the next prime minister.
If he casts his lot with Bibi’s Likud party, he may demand that Bibi himself step aside, and that they join forces with the centrist Blue and White party in a national-unity government that excludes the two ultra-Orthodox parties. If he sides with Blue and White, elevating its leader, ex-general Benny Gantz, to prime minister, it’s basically the same deal: a national-unity government that excludes the extreme right and left. Not bad for someone who only controls, at best, fewer than a dozen seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
Israel’s own Eve Harrington, just this time with a potbelly and a goatee.
Lieberman’s resurgence is a shock to outsiders. As a Cabinet minister, he was at times shunned by diplomats because of his anti-Arab rhetoric. His vulgarity and occasional buffoonery repelled Western journalists, but they view the country through a reductionist lens: Israel is moving to the right and that explains everything. Lieberman, however, can be full of surprises. He lives in a West Bank settlement, but he’s willing to entertain the creation of a Palestinian state—even if it means he has to relocate. His war on the religious right is winning praise from many on the left. This flexibility—what others would call opportunism—gives him strength. And his latest gambit, if successful, will move the political center of gravity back toward the middle, suggesting there’s more fluidity and unpredictability in Israeli politics than observers have allowed for.
Bibi is sweating out the campaign’s final days, frantically searching for last-minute ploys to keep his fractious and rebellious allies in line. Likud has asked for loyalty oaths from party members, fearful that Lieberman is trying to convince them to oust him. He’s promised the religious nationalists that he will annex more of the West Bank. He’s playing his Trump card, though the American president, perhaps sensing weakness, doesn’t seem to be playing along. He was hoping to suppress the Arab vote by placing cameras in polling places, and he’s already accused the opposition of election fraud, borrowing a page from the Trump playbook.
Yet most polls suggest that very little has changed since April. The two largest parties, Likud and Blue and White, are still neck and neck, but well short of a majority, which is good news for Lieberman. It is unlikely that either party can win without his help.
Despite his summer of discontent, don’t count Netanyahu out. He’s the Tom Brady of Middle Eastern politics. But if Lieberman has his way, and he gets to cast the deciding vote in the post-election negotiations, Israel will be looking at life after Netanyahu, something nobody’s had to think about in more than a decade. Blue and White’s Benny Gantz might end up prime minister. But the winner will be Avigdor Lieberman.
Mark Horowitz is a contributing writer at Tablet magazine