Why Netanyahu Brought Lieberman In from the Cold

What may have motivated Israel’s prime minister to invite his rival back in.

It looks certain now that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu will draw Avigdor Lieberman and his nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party into the ruling coalition, expanding his parliamentary majority by five seats. Lieberman, a hawk and former foreign minister, would become defense minister in the new arrangement, replacing Moshe Ya’alon.

The news comes after speculation that Netanyahu was working out a deal with Labor’s Isaac Herzog instead.

I talked about this surprising development today with the Atlantic Sentinel‘s man in Tel Aviv, Ariel Reichard.

Ariel said not to pay too much attention to those who now fear Lieberman will begin transferring Arabs or upset Israel’s foreign relations.

“Lieberman is one of the most pragmatic politicians in Israel and I suspect he won’t diverge much from what Ya’alon did as defense minister,” he argued. “But Bibi’s move here is interesting on many levels.”

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Nick: It rather looks like Netanyahu might have floated the possibility of joining forces with Labor in order to get a better deal from Lieberman, no?

Ariel: It’s possible, but I think in reality everything that happened was less by design and more by chance. I think Netanyahu preferred Herzog, which would have broken the Labor Party from within, but went with Lieberman in the end because he realized that Herzog could never really come into the coalition without risking his own leadership position (and public image for that matter).

I also think Netanyahu calculated that Lieberman was building himself up in opposition and was irritated by Liebarman’s constant criticism of him, especially on security matters. But giving him the defense portfolio is a huge risk. Netanyahu is bringing Lieberman “in from the cold” and giving him a chance to position himself as a future prime ministerial condidate.

I think Netanyahu had a dual consideration here:

  1. To balance Naftali Bennett. Netanyahu prefers Lieberman as opposition leader to himself in the right-wing camp. He could work much better with Lieberman than with Bennett, who leads the religious, nationalist Jewish Home party.
  2. To end Ya’alon’s career. Ya’alon is not very popular in the Likud party, especially after taking a highly unpopular position against Israeli soldiers who stood accused of shooting a neutralized Palestinian would-be attacker. Without a ministry he has very little to offer as a politician since he has no base of his own. Then again, that is exactly what made him an ideal defense minister. Why remove a non-rival in favor of a potential threat?

Nick: The balancing Bennett argument sounds most convincing to me. Drawing in Lieberman gives Netanyahu some leeway. I guess he decided it was worth the risk of elevating Lieberman, who doesn’t strike me as a viable candidate for prime minister anyway. His base is confined to immigrants from the former Soviet Union whereas Bennett seems to have wider appeal and might just one day eclipse the Likud.

Ariel: True, but changing the status quo is a big risk to take for just five extra seats. (Yisrael Beiteinu‘s sixth lawmaker, Orly Levy-Abekasis, left the party on Thursday.)

And again, maybe Netanyahu also just had enough of Lieberman criticizing him at every turn.

Anyway, nothing is final! As you know, in Israel everything can change in an instant.

Nick: Indeed, your coalition politics are even more fickle than those here in the Netherlands. Thanks for your time, Ariel!