Five years later, we see the same old Avigdor Lieberman — an ambitious and shrewd politician whose inconsistent ideology will always be subordinated to brazen opportunism
ive years is an eternity in politics, but for Avigdor Lieberman, it feels like yesterday.
Back in February 2014 (Issue #498), I wrote a news column that I headlined “Has Lieberman Left the Right?”
The occasion was Lieberman’s uncharacteristic acceptance of Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for a two-state solution, forsaking his longstanding position of chopping the Palestinian Authority into noncontiguous, self-ruling cantons.
I surmised then that Lieberman’s sudden conversion was motivated by his fourth-place finish in a poll that asked Israelis to name the politician they trusted most to lead the national (right-wing) camp. Scorned by the right, Lieberman reckoned he could attract new followers on the left without antagonizing his base of Russian immigrants, who are foreign policy hardliners but share a strong affinity with the left on social and economic issues.
Five years later, we see the same old Avigdor Lieberman — an ambitious and shrewd politician whose inconsistent ideology will always be subordinated to brazen opportunism.
When Lieberman’s uncompromising stance on the chareidi draft law blocked Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ability to form a coalition after the March election, many pundits assumed that Lieberman had committed political hara-kiri. He could have resumed his post as defense minister in a stable coalition. Instead, he shouldered thunderous blame for forcing a do-over election in September that nobody wants.
Underestimate Avigdor Lieberman’s political skills at your own risk.
With support slipping for Israel’s two biggest vote-getters in March — Likud, and Blue and White — Lieberman, who played spoiler in March, might be crowned kingmaker in September. The polls show his Yisrael Beitenu party leaping to eight seats from five, making it the Knesset’s third-largest Jewish party.
There is method to Lieberman’s madness.
The conventional wisdom held that Netanyahu would wreak political revenge by poaching Lieberman voters, but Lieberman understood that Bibi, weakened by pending indictments and Likud rivals who are tiring of him, will be playing more defense than offense.
Lieberman gambled that even after the national camp wasted 200,000 votes in the last election on parties that didn’t pass the threshold, the right would fail to unite into a cohesive electoral bloc. We will have more clarity on that in two weeks, when the deadline arrives for all parties to submit their final slate of candidates, but for now, the right is politically disheveled.
Lieberman also cast his eyes at the disintegrating left — now marred further by their selection of retreads such as Ehud Barak and Amir Peretz to lead them in September — and correctly foresaw that his latest left turn would position him to compete for their disenchanted voters.
For chareidim, Lieberman’s campaign, centered on an anti-religious platform, has unleashed sentiment that had been dormant for the past five years. Mayors of Israeli cities feel newly emboldened to breach the status quo governing Israel’s precarious balance between religion and state, launching plans for public transportation on Shabbos in Ramat Gan, and showing open hostility toward chareidim in Tiberias and Arad.
Chareidi parties have vowed to fight this trend with all of their might, and are taking pains to show that the rift with Lieberman is neither personal nor irreparable, but unless the polls shift and begin to show that all of Lieberman’s scheming was to no avail, the ideal political constellation for chareidim — in coalition with the Likud and the national camp — has never looked more tenuous.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 769)