On Tuesday May 17, as the trees started flowering on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, Israeli liberals smelled something else in the air: hope. Rumor had it that right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the helm of the most conservative coalition in the country’s history, was in serious talks to form a unity government with Labor. The negotiations, set to end by the weekend, could have been the first step to kick-start the moribund peace process with Palestine and shift the government back to the center. Instead, in a move that surprised the nation and devastated its liberals, Netanyahu fired his moderate Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and offered the prized cabinet position to hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman. So why the sharp turn to the right?
To understand the recent developments in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, one must first understand some basics about Israeli politics, parliamentary governance, and the history of some of Israel’s biggest political players.
Israel has a parliamentary system of government, which means that instead of only two there are multiple parties in the Knesset. The legislative body currently has 11 parties represented–and those are just parties with actual seats. With so many parties vying for votes, it is very difficult for one party to achieve any of its political ends alone. Coalitions–groups of parties that have similar interests or goals–are an essential part of effective governance in a parliament, as well as a remedy to the difficulties of multi-party rule.
When the Prime Minister, the leader of the ruling coalition in the Knesset, feels as though his government is not doing a sufficient job, he has the authority to call for new elections and dissolve the current legislative body. And that is exactly what Benjamin Netanyahu, or “Bibi” as he is popularly called, did in December of 2014 when he fired both his Finance and Justice ministers, citing “opposition from within the government” as the reason for new elections. Netanyahu was rolling the dice, so to speak, as his Likud Party and its primary opposition, the Labor-led Zionist Union, were “neck-and-neck” in the polls. His gamble seemed to pay off in March of 2015, with Likud winning 30 seats and the Zionist Union winning 24–but after the formation of both the coalition government (led by Likud) and the opposition (led by the Zionist Union), Bibi and his colleagues held only a 61 to 59 seat lead, the slimmest possible majority. If even one member of his coalition threatened to align with the opposition, Bibi would lose his majority, and possibly his position as Prime Minister. In effect, Netanyahu was beholden to the interests of even the smallest groups in his coalition, as disregarding their support would be tantamount to his political death.
Enter Isaac Herzog, Chairman of the Labor Party and leader of the opposition government. The Herzog family name in Israel is analogous to the Kennedy name in the United States, and both families champion the Judeo-Christian notion of helping those less fortunate than themselves. No clearer example of this value can be found than in Herzog’s support for recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state, and the acceptance of Syrian and Palestinian refugees (read: “You have forgotten what it is to be Jews. Refugees. Persecuted.”)
Though he resembles the Kennedys when it comes to status and liberal values, Herzog lacks the characteristic Kennedy charisma – as one journalist puts it, Herzog has “never been accused of being an inspiring politician.” Perhaps Herzog realized that the best way to advance both himself and his cause would be to join his center-left party with the right-wing government, especially after Senior Likud Officials promised to “upgrade the status of about 15 of the Zionist Union’s 24 Knesset members, with seven or eight of them being given cabinet posts.” Herzog, they said, could also expect to be “appointed to the coveted post of foreign minister.”
Though sources vary, Herzog rejected any idea of forming a unity government, at least in public. But the thought of being Foreign Minister and directly in charge of the Peace Process is one that must have been enticing to Herzog. Even operating under Bibi and the rest of his right-leaning government, Herzog would still have had a major hand in dealing with the Palestinians. Additionally, Netanyahu only stood to gain. He would be seen as a builder-of-bridges, and he would gain at least 13 seats in the Knesset including the leader of the opposition, cementing his position as Prime Minister, a task high on his list of priorities.
But Netanyahu, despite the benefits of bringing a significant portion of the Labor Party–which is itself a significant portion of the Zionist Union Party–would not meet Herzog’s red lines. Perhaps his terms were too idealistic–reigniting peace talks, improving relations with Washington and surrounding Arab countries, and pursuing a more moderate foreign policy are all goals that, while achievable, may have been unthinkable to the precariously positioned Prime Minister. So instead of choosing compromise, and bringing in a new, potentially progressive perspective, Netanyahu chose an ideology more aligned with that of his government–one that may have resounding repercussions for the rest of the Middle East. Bibi broke off the possibility of a unity government with Herzog in favor of a coalition with Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party and a far right-wing conservative.
Netanyahu’s decision to side with Lieberman can be explained in several ways. First, even if Herzog and other members of Labor were to join the coalition, that does not translate to automatic support on every issue, especially with Herzog’s “weak” leadership. Second, during his talks with Herzog, Netanyahu was still courting Lieberman and his party, so the decision to spurn Herzog in favor of Lieberman was not as dramatic as it appeared. Finally, in a climate of hyper-partisanship and unwillingness to compromise, why pick someone from the other side when you have someone more in line with what your coalition believes? And for that matter, who is Avigdor Lieberman and what does he believe?
Lieberman has a long history in Israeli politics. Originally Netanyahu’s political protégé, he and the current Prime Minister began a long and sometimes bitter rivalry over Bibi’s decision to abide by a U.S.-brokered, Israeli-Palestinian agreement known as the Wye River Memorandum. It was shortly after that in 1999 when Lieberman founded Yisrael Beiteinu, which in English translates to “Israel is Our Home.” The party base is made up of Russian immigrants, with Lieberman falling into this category as well. Though Yisrael Beiteinu has had varying degrees of influence over the past decade, and Lieberman has been both Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, his party only won 6 of the 120 seats in the most recent election. Throw those seats from the opposition and into the hands of the ruling government though, and suddenly Netanyahu has a lead of 67 to 53 seats in the Knesset–and a new defense minister.
How will Lieberman function as a defense minister? This is a man who has repeatedly said there will never be a Palestinian state. This is a man who has called for the bombing of the Aswan Dam in Egypt. This is a man who is staunchly pro-settlement, and who will now preside over 4 million Palestinians in the Palestinian territories. We can only conclude that his policies will echo his words.
Though Netanyahu claims the government is still his, though he claims he will continue to pursue peace with the Palestinian Authority, and though he claims that that Lieberman’s appointment will strengthen his control over the Israeli Defense Force, one must wonder whether Bibi’s government can ever be his when he is beholden to the most conservative and religious coalition the Knesset has ever seen. One must wonder if he will realistically be able to pursue peace when his defense minister is a man who has been called a racist and a fascist, and one must also wonder if appointing a man with minimal military experience to the post of Defense Minister–especially if such an appointment is in the name of winning political support–is really a wise decision. Appointing Mr. Lieberman as defense minister is like setting a bull loose in a china shop. Netanyahu’s decision to oust the experienced Moshe Yaalon comes at a time when Israel faces an increasingly influential Iran and the collapse of the Syrian ceasefire. At the moment, the Middle East seems especially volatile. Only time will tell if Netanyahu’s decision to spurn Herzog in favor of Lieberman will make the situation better, or, as seems inevitable, worse.