The rise and fall of a would-be prime minister

A response to the politician who mocked the frustrated wannabe ministers from the Knesset plenum. Opinion.

Dr. Julio Messer ,

Avigdor Liberman
Avigdor Liberman
Hadas Parush/Flash90

Soon after I became the president of American Friends of Likud in 2000, I had the privilege of having a tête-à-tête breakfast at a Tel-Aviv hotel with a rising star in the Israeli political firmament. When I arrived, he greeted me with his trademark directness: "Nice to meet you. I'm (I can't remember if he said Avigdor or Evet) Liberman, and one day I will be the Prime Minister of Israel. I hope I can count on your support." I was shocked by how much this leader of a mere four-mandate party overestimated himself and also me.

In the ensuing half-hour he laid out his five-step plan: he would grow his Yisrael Beyteinu party, be appointed Foreign Minister, then Defense Minister, merge with the Likud party, and finally be elected Prime Minister.

Over the years, the pieces of his strategy gradually fell into place. His party grew in successive elections to fifteen Members of Knesset, he was appointed Foreign Minister in 2013 and Defense Minister in 2016.

Two and a half years later, however, Lieberman made his first major mistake by resigning as Defense Minister (ostensibly in protest against a ceasefire with Hamas). The move precipitated new elections in which his party fared poorly, barely surpassing the required threshold of 3.25% of the votes.

Not all was lost, however, as Yisrael Beyteinu's five mandates were indispensable for the formation of a Likud-led coalition. Liberman could have demanded any ministerial portfolio, including conceivably that of Vice Prime Minister – but that is when he got greedy, or impatient, or vindictive, or all of the above.

Possibly convinced that Netanyahu's time in power was nearing its end, Liberman demanded from the haredim concessions that he knew they were unwilling to make, thus forcing a second round of elections. Yisrael Beyteinu gained three Knesset seats in the process and, for the second time in a row, Netanyahu could not put together a governing coalition without them.

But Liberman could not resist. After posturing as the kingmaker who could force a unity government with the exclusion of the religious parties, something that Netanyahu had committed to reject, Liberman hoped that the third round of elections that he was once again forcing would bring him even more Knesset seats.

A few days prior to the third round, Liberman issued a series of surprising but revealing statements. "I would be happy to go with Likud, sans Netanyahu." Gantz is a "good guy [but] not yet ready to be prime minister." "The only one who can challenge Netanyahu in the political arena is Avigdor Liberman."

He pledged to "build a government without Netanyahu” and said "there are no more [prospects of a] unity [government]." Since he also ruled out the possibility of joining a Blue & White-led minority government that would count on the outside support of the Arab Joint List, the only logical explanation was that he saw himself as the head of a "Likud minus Netanyahu plus Blue & White plus his own Yisrael Beyteinu" coalition.

From then on it was all downhill for him. After the loss of one seat and another deadlock, Liberman unashamedly agreed to be part of an Arab-dependent government. Nevertheless, Gantz preferred to break up his own party and form an "emergency-unity" government with Netanyahu's right bloc.

Liberman proclaimed that "as someone who knows Netanyahu better than anyone, I assess that he won’t sign a coalition deal with [Gantz], not today and not tomorrow." Finally, and pathetically, he stated that "Netanyahu is laying the groundwork for a fourth election … [he] is trying to avoid trial and a state committee of inquiry regarding coronavirus. The only person who can face Netanyahu is Avigdor Liberman. I do wish to create a governing alternative."

Either because he got tired of waiting for Netanyahu's retirement or because he felt he had been personally mistreated by him, Liberman decided to abandon the methodical plan that he had been following for two decades and made a dash for the light at the end of the tunnel. That light, however, turned out to be a train that pushed him straight to the opposition.

The would-be Prime Minister who recently characterized the Arabs as his enemies and the haredim as his adversaries will now have to sit side-by-side with the former and watch the latter enjoy the religious status quo that he had tried but failed miserably to change.

Writer's note: For an article about Liberman mocking the wannabe ministers, click here. Sour grapes, anyone?

Julio Messer is a former president of American Friends of Likud