Israeli Political Fiasco: A Megalomaniac’s Gambit Or The Changing Of The Guard?

Lieberman’s blowup of Israel’s political scene is all about the post-Netanyahu era and his bid to replace the long-serving prime minister at the helm of the Jewish State

Avigdor Lieberman, the man who would remake Israel in his image
Copyright: Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr [CC BY 3.0 br (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/deed.en)]

As has been widely reported, for the first time in Israeli history the person clearly chosen by Israeli voters to lead the government, the only person who had a conceivable shot at forming a governing coalition, had failed to do so. The ostensible cause for this unprecedented political fiasco, one that will light a renewed fire under the already overheated political scene in Israel and cost upwards of one hundred million American dollars is the fight between the secularist Israel Beiteinu party and the ultra-Orthodox parties regarding the issue of military draft. But if one were to accept this explanation at face value, the question arises why now? Why at this point in time and not at any earlier time did the leader of Israel Beiteinu Avigdor Lieberman not only chose not swerve at the last minute before colliding head on with the ultra-Orthodox, he actively maneuvered so that they couldn’t swerve either.

Lieberman scuttled every compromise made by the religious parties, leveraging his five mandates in a way that left PM Netanyahu with naught but a less than majority 60 Knesset seats in his kitty. As pointed out by many political observers in Israel, this move by Lieberman was not emotional or hotheaded, neither was it miscalculated. It was a premeditated cold-blooded hit job against the longest serving Israeli prime minister of all time and an icon of the Israeli right wing, Benjamin Netanyahu.

It is easy to assign Lieberman petty personal motives of revenge against a guy who had been his mentor and who had sponsored him into Israeli politics, but with whom he had had a highly fraught relationship for many years. Easy, yes, correct, no. Lieberman would not have taken the risk of being politically eliminated by his voter base in the new election scheduled for September 17th for this kind of emotional gratification. It can very well be that Lieberman’s calculus was different and consisted of two separate parts. On one hand, everyone knows that the Netanyahu era in Israeli politics is coming to its inevitable conclusion. Even if he manages to win the next election at the head of the Likud party and even if he survives the IED’s that the Israeli left through its control of the judiciary and the Attorney General’s office had planted in his path, Netanyahu’s time at the helm is coming to an end.

Netanyahu’s bigger than life persona on the Israeli and the global political stages and his reshaping of Israel from a socialist, unionized, limping third world economy to its current status as the world’s reserve of technological innovation and the poster child for Milton Friedman’s economic miracles make his departure a seismic event in Israel not only politically, but culturally, economically, and even existentially. Modern Israel’s identity is all Netanyahu: brash, never really taking a day off, always working, always scheming how to get ahead, always putting the good things in life first.

There are no real claimants to Netanyahu’s throne in Israel today among the usual suspects. Nobody homegrown in the Likud is nearly big enough and neither is Benny Gantz, the leader of the opposition. An entire generation of Israelis came of age in the age of Netanyahu, who, with his Biblical name straight form the Book of Kings reigned more than governed, shaping the country in his image. This generation of Israelis knew unprecedented prosperity and world-wide recognition as denizens of one of the most successful countries among the nations, but they also suffered from runaway cost of living and personal security challenges due to Netanyahu’s reluctance to put on hold Israel’s roaring economy and its strides on the world scene in exchange for cleaning out the terror nests in Gaza and in Southern Lebanon.

Israelis are ready for a change, but they are not ready to trade down. They are not ready to return to pre-Netanyahu days of small-time leaders who spoke broken English with heavy accents and who looked provincial on the world stage. “How would he look next to Trump?” is the standard for Israeli leadership today. Netanyahu looks like an equal. Who would fill those shoes?

Lieberman feels that he has what it takes. Maybe his English is not up to native language standard, but his Russian is and he has spent many hours negotiating with Putin and top Russian brass, in their shared native tongue, no doubt. Lieberman fancies himself to be the only Israeli politician that can measure up to Trump and to Putin, to Xi and to Bolsonaro. But first, he must do something extraordinary, something that will transform him from the leader of a small sectorial party catering to Israelis who repatriated in the 1990’s from parts of the erstwhile USSR to a national leader with the stature to replace Netanyahu, either when he is ready to depart or when he is forced out.

For Lieberman, this feat, this Herculean deed would be the slaying of the ultra-Orthodox beast, the laying waste to what many see as the stranglehold by the haredim, the non-Zionist ultra-religious parties on the Israeli power centers. Since the inception of the State of Israel 71 years ago, relations between non-observant Israelis and those for whom religious observance is everything have been at the center of Israeli politics. No governing coalition could be created or long govern without ultra-Orthodox parties. For their support, they have extracted heavy prices in government support for their own education system, stipends for Yeshiva students, limitations on public transport and commerce on the Sabbath, and most importantly indefinite deferrals from mandatory military service.

No amount of moaning and complaining by the secularist forces in Israel could, until now, change this power equation, not the least because the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community wield the power available to them exceptionally well and because they are united behind the few issues of critical importance to them, while the secularist forces are much more divided and diverse. And then there are the demographics. Ultra-Orthodox have very large families. Secular Israelis usually settle for two or three kids. The balance favored the religious side. Until now. The large, one million strong migration from the collapsing USSR thirty years ago is now ripe to take its rightful place at the helm of the country that gave them refuge and to which they so massively contributed. These people have long had a seat at the table, now Lieberman is offering them to take a seat at its head.

It is a huge gamble that he had taken, the big ex-bar bouncer from Moldova. There is an expression that soldiers in the IDF use for this kind of gambit: medal or demotion to the rank of private, which rhymes in Hebrew. If Lieberman can double his strength from five to ten Knesset seats in this election without stealing them from the Likud, there will, for the first time ever, be a right wing government in Israel that does not require the participation of the ultra-Orthodox. This will be a true earthquake in Israeli politics with far-reaching ramifications across all sectors of Israeli life. The person who will have made it possible will become the king maker and one way or another he will place the crown on his own head.

If, on the other hand, Lieberman’s voters turn away from him in disgust for dragging the country to new elections and aborting a center-right government a minute before it was born, his party will not cross the four seat threshold and he will be left outside of Israeli politics never to return. There is much more substance than show in Lieberman’s all-in gamble. If successful, he will have remade Israeli politics forever and brought his voters, the so-called “Russian” Jews from the political wilderness all the way to the prime minister’s office, leaving the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) forces on the margins of history where they, in his opinion, belong. It will be a true revolution in the now not so young, not so small, and not so insignificant country called Israel; a whole new adventure. Will it happen? We will have to wait almost until the Jewish New Year, Rosh Ha’Shana to find out, but find out we will.

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