Kingmaker Liberman may have ambitions of his own to rule

Is Avigdor Liberman just using Benny Gantz to wipe Netanyahu off the political map?

Shimon Cohen ,

Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman
Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liberman
Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

What's motivating the various players in the current political game? According to Dr. Shlomo Egoz of the Politics and Media Department at Hadassah Academic College, it's a simple matter of personal interest - that is, when it comes to certain personalities.

When discussing MK Avigdor Liberman of the Yisrael Beytenu party, Dr. Egoz makes this point particularly strongly. "Liberman may be using Gantz more than Gantz is using Liberman," he says. "He can do this because he's the powerbroker right now," since the seven MKs from his party have as yet resisted affiliating themselves to either the right-wing or the center-left-wing bloc.

"If we try to make sense of Liberman's behavior during the past year," Dr. Egoz says, "it looks very much like he [has changed tactics and] is no longer demanding an end to the rule of Netanyahu. However, members of his party have been signaling to him that they want him to support a Gantz-led government from the outside, and also lend his support to legislation that will prevent Netanyahu from forming a government.

"On the other hand, Liberman is at heart a right-winger. He once entertained ambitions of reaching the leadership of the Likud or at least the right-wing bloc. Therefore, it's debatable whether he actually intends to join Gantz in a unity government. I consider it more likely that he is using Gantz [to further his own political ambitions]. If he does join Gantz, it could be he expects that this will lead to the formation of a unity government under his leadership, a temporary left-wing government supported [from the outside] by the Joint [Arab List]. The ultimate goal of both Gantz and Liberman in such a scenario would be to force the Likud to agree to a unity government on their terms, namely that Netanyahu can only serve as Prime Minister if he is acquitted of all charges in court," and that meanwhile, Gantz would serve as Prime Minister.

According to Dr. Egoz, however, what Liberman would really prefer is for the Likud to jettison Netanyahu at this stage, without waiting for his trial to run its course. "I don't think Liberman believes that Netanyahu will actually return to politics after his trial," he says. And if he doesn't, "Liberman will no longer have any interest in joining Gantz, and he can scupper Gantz's chances of forming a government, just as he did Netanyahu's [after the previous two rounds of elections]."

What would happen then? Dr. Egoz ventures a guess that Liberman might actually return to the Likud, in return for a truce of sorts. "He would want to receive some kind of reassurance that he has been forgiven for the events of the past year [i.e. preventing the formation of a right-wing government under Netanyahu]." He would probably want even more - real gratitude for having enabled the establishment of a right-wing government led by Likud. "The prospect of the Likud after the Netanyahu era is very tempting for Liberman," Dr. Egoz says. "It will be chaos in terms of leadership," and he nurtures dreams of stepping into the breach.

"Netanyahu has taken great care to ensure that he is surrounded by weak politicians who don't dare to sharpen their knives against him. However, once he's gone, civil war will break out in the Likud, and whoever is chosen as the first leader post-Netanyahu has no guarantee that he will last in the position. In such a case, Liberman may well hope to position himself to ascend to the leadership himself."

Dr. Egoz admits that such a scenario seems far-fetched at present, given the fury toward Liberman felt by many in the upper echelons of Likud. However, political maps are notorious for their fluid borders, and Liberman may expect the fury to dissipate quickly if he condescends to return to Likud and enable their establishment of government.

And if he's wrong, and he is not forgiven? "I'm sure Liberman has more surprises up his sleeve," Dr. Egoz concludes.