Analysis: Avigdor Liberman's Political Gambit

By announcing he won't join the coalition, Liberman is throwing down the gauntlet to Likud and Jewish Home - but it's a risky move.

Ari Soffer ,

Calculated risk: Avigdor Liberman
Calculated risk: Avigdor Liberman
Miriam Alster/Flash 90

It was a stroke of genius - but an incredibly risky one.

At a press conference Monday afternoon Avigdor Liberman dropped the bombshell announcement that his party, Yisrael Beytenu, will not be joining the incoming coalition government led by Binyamin Netanyahu.

The reason? Principles, insists Liberman, who had officially tendered his resignation as foreign minister prior to his announcement.

"The dilemma was one of principles and seats," Liberman stated to reporters. "We have given up on seats and went on principles." 

The veteran political bruiser was in a fighting mood, lashing out at the government-in-waiting and accusing it of being dysfunctional from birth, doomed to failure and - worse still - devoid of any genuine nationalist agenda.

Among other things, Liberman pointed to the quiet sidelining of the controversial Jewish State Law, the unwillingness to commit to ousting Hamas in Gaza, as well as a lack of clear commitment by Netanyahu to build freely in Jerusalem and the "major settlement blocs" in Judea and Samaria.

"I am telling you: there is no intention to build - not in Judea and Samaria, and not in the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem," he warned.

"I don't intend to build in Jabel Mukaber," he quipped, "but I don't understand why until today we aren't building in Ramot, in Gilo, in Maalei Adumim, or in Ariel."

But the final straw was Clause 5 of the official coalition agreement, which would allow for the expansion of the coalition beyond 70 seats - a clear statement of intent by Netanyahu to replace his nationalist partners Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu with the leftist Zionist Union should the opportunity present itself, Liberman insisted. The prospect of anything but a staunchly nationalist government was out of the question for his party, he said, and he would settle for no less.

Liberman's claim to have made the decision based purely on principles could be taken at face value. After all, even considering the quiet deal reportedly reached between the Jewish Home and Likud for limited construction in Judea and Samaria, what is materializing is hardly the nationalist "dream team" many right-wing voters had hoped for during the election campaign. It certainly is not the government of "no apologies" called for by Naftali Bennett, whose ability to pull the government rightwards has been hamstrung by much of his voter base flocking to Likud at the last minute.

But to do so would be naive, as well as a gross underestimation of Liberman's political acumen. There is no doubt that Liberman's move is at least as much - if not more so - motivated by something other than pure idealism: cold, hard politics. 

During the election campaign, Liberman and his party found themselves in an awkward position; caught between Likud and the Jewish Home, they struggling to define themselves to nationalist voters - or to anyone else for that matter.

Was he the "responsible Right," rebuking the "extremist" Jewish Home for wanting to retain all of Judea and Samaria, and releasing a peace plan advocating significant territorial concessions; or was he still the hawkish "ultranationalist," distributing Charlie Hebdo, calling for the death penalty to be implemented for terrorist murderers and taking ham-fisted swipes at the Arab Joint List head Ayman Odeh during the televised debate, telling him to go join ISIS?

That lack of focus was reflected in the election results: from 13 seats in the 19th Knesset, Yisrael Beytenu fell to just six. Even then, party officials were breathing a sigh of relief that things hadn't gone even worse (as some polls showed they might.)

Make no mistake: the recent corruption scandal had little, if anything to do with Yisrael Beytenu's poor showing. In fact, as one expert asserted during the campaign, the timing of the scandal may have actually helped the party win back some of its core voters, by casting the image of a right-wing party under attack by a leftist-dominated judiciary.

Instead, eclipsed by Likud, overshadowed by even a humbled Jewish Home party, and with a raft of senior MKs resigning, Yisrael Beytenu seemed destined to fade into oblivion, cast aside by a fickle electorate as yet another political carcass strewn on the wayside of Israel's constantly shifting, highly unpredictable political landscape.

But fading into oblivion isn't something Avigdor Liberman plans on doing any time soon. Instead, he played his gambit: he would sacrifice a place in government - even with the ludicrously handsome offer of retaining the foreign ministry he had reportedly secured - in return for a chance to save his party's future, and his own future along with it.

For in leaving Netanyahu with a wafer-thin majority of 61 MKs, Liberman was banking on either one of two outcomes, both of them beneficial to him.

Either Netanyahu will let him walk, and settle for his 1-MK majority. In this scenario, Liberman's prophecies will almost certainly become self-fulfilling: a dysfunctional government, always teetering on the verge of collapse, unable to accomplish key pledges, culminating in its eventual implosion - either before or after the eventual replacement of the Jewish Home with the Zionist Union (or just Labor, if the cracks beginning to emerge in the joint list widen into a fully-fledged divorce). 

During the course of that government, Yisrael Beytenu and its acerbic leader will thoroughly relish the opportunity to attack it at every turn: for being weak in the face of international pressure and not building in Jerusalem, and for abandoning the residents of Judea and Samaria; for allowing Hamas and co. to remain to fight another day when hostilities inevitably resume; for handing too much power over religious life to the haredi parties; and so on. With each criticism it will win more supporters from an increasingly frustrated nationalist constituency - and when the coalition fails, all he'll need to do is say "I told you so."

Liberman would emerge as the champion of the Right, masterfully turning the tables on his political rivals - no longer squeezed between Netanyahu and Bennett but openly challenging both at the same time from the safety of the opposition.

The other (far less likely) alternative would be even better: that his carefully-choreographed theatrics would cause Netanyahu to give in on the key issues he highlighted to bring him back into government - instantly granting Yisrael Beytenu that status as the hero of the Right, without the need for a long and lonely (not to mention risky) stint in an otherwise thoroughly left-wing opposition.

Despite his ridiculing during the press conference of the "cliches" which would inevitably be written about him in the Israeli press following the announcement, it is indeed trademark Avigdor Liberman: ruthless, unafraid of taking risks, and always focused on strengthening his and his party's position.

Of course, the move could backfire. The government could succeed against the odds, the Jewish Home could find its footing and win over Yisrael Beytenu voters frustrated at their party's stint in the political wilderness, or something totally unforeseen (a regular feature of Israeli politics) could throw a spanner in the works. In that case, Liberman will spend the duration of the Knesset kicking himself, and Yisrael Beytenu may well not survive the subsequent elections.

Even so, his only other alternative would be to go along with things as the coalition's most junior partner and plod his way towards political irrelevancy - and that is no alternative for Avigdor Liberman.

And although this move is being marketed as a direct challenge to Netanyahu and his betrayal of right-wing voters (which it of course is), it is in fact far more of a challenge to Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home party.

Even if things pan out as Liberman hopes, Yisrael Beytenu is not about to go from a six-seat party to replacing Likud as the largest nationalist party. In the short-to-medium term, the agenda is about survival and clawing back votes to the right of Likud, and in so doing reclaiming its position as the right-wing alternative to Netanyahu's party. That position was taken by Jewish Home after its 2013 election success, and due to Yisrael Beytenu's ill-conceived decision to run jointly with Likud.

Liberman has now thrown down the gauntlet to Naftali Bennett and his party. Which of the two - both bloodied and battered from the election campaign - will present a real alternative for nationalist voters during the 20th Knesset: Yisrael Beytenu in the opposition, or Jewish Home in the government.

The game is on.