Lieberman Resets Israel’s Political Clock, Reducing Likelihood of a Third Election

With a few measured sentences and the shadow of a smile, Avigdor Lieberman reset Israel's political clock on Saturday, sending an already messy landscape into complete disarray.

The Yisrael Beiteinu chairman killed off the option of a direct election for prime minister, torpedoing the initiative of Interior Minister Arye Dery, his friend-turned-rival. He killed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hopes for immunity, because the plan proposed by President Reuven Rivlin that the prime minister would declare himself incapacitated and step aside if indicted did not include an element of delay. He also reduced the possibility — or threat — of a third general election. What did he actually promote? Who knows.

Assuming that he keeps his word, this week could prove to be decisive. One of three things could happen: A unity government according to the president’s plan; a right-wing-Haredi government headed by Netanyahu; or a center-left government headed by Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz. Yisrael Beiteinu is safely ensconced in the center of each of these three options.

From left to right: Benny Gantz, Naftali Bennett, Arye Dery, Benjamin Netanyahu, during a memorial for Ovadia Yosef at the Knesset, Jerusalem, November 4, 2019Emil Salman

Lieberman could not have been more clear: Whoever rejects his conditions, Gantz or Netanyahu, would lose the government to his rival. On the face of things, it will be easier for Gantz to say yes. All he has to do is persuade his partners, Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, who oppose joining a government headed by Netanyahu, to change their mind. Look, he’ll tell them, it's only for a year. Then Netanyahu will have to keep his pledge and leave.

The compromise Lieberman is demanding of Netanyahu, however, is much greater. For him, leaving the right-wing bloc is sawing off the branch he’s sitting on. Such a separation is a double-edged sword, and the bloc will have its say when the time comes.

From what Lieberman told Dana Weiss of Israel's Channel 12 News on Saturday night, it looks as if he chose opposing a third election over joining a unity government, two pledges that both seemed iron-clad. Either of the two scenarios described by Lieberman — joining a right-wing, ultra-Orthodox government headed by Netanyahu, or a center-left coalition headed by Gantz and supported by the largely Arab Joint List — would cause him severe damage. We’ll have to wait and see what he does.

On Saturday night, Lieberman shoved the key he was handed on election night right into the electoral lock – but he has yet to turn it. What did he do? He stole the headline in today's papers, a bonus in and of itself. Importantly, if a minority government is formed in the next two weeks, according to his conditions, he also cut short the term of the newly minted defense minister.