Avigdor Lieberman has been an embarrassment as Israel’s foreign minister. Whether he is praising Vladimir Putin and the recent Russian elections as fair and democratic or being shunned by other world leaders, Lieberman has probably been Israel’s most ineffectual and irrelevant foreign minister in history. His appointment to the post is a result of Israel’s dysfunctional political system in which Netanyahu had no choice but to bring Yisrael Beiteinu into the government, creating tension within his cabinet between the staunchly secular Lieberman and his Haredi coalition partners in Shas. Thankfully, developments are making it likely that Lieberman’s tenure as a figure of importance is over.
In the grand tradition of Israeli politicians such as Ehud Olmert and Ezer Weizman, Lieberman is terribly corrupt and has spent a lifetime engaging in shady and possibly illegal behavior. The attorney general is right now deciding whether to indict Lieberman for fraud, money laundering, corruption, and witness tampering, and if he is indicted or a plea bargain is negotiated, it means that he can no longer serve in the cabinet. The likelihood of this happening is relatively high given that Israel has never shied away from investigating its highest officials – its past president is right now in prison for rape and sexual harassment – and that the list of illegal things that Lieberman is suspected of doing is quite long. Furthermore, the former Israeli ambassador to Belarus was indicted yesterday for illegally alerting Lieberman to the fact that he was being investigated, which suggests that Lieberman himself will be next.
However, in the unlikely event that Lieberman manages to escape the long arm of the law, it looks like his time in government is coming to an end anyway. The crisis that he has instigated within the coalition over the Tal Law has earned him Netanyahu’s ire, and Netanyahu is looking for a way to not have to include him in the next coalition, a move that might be tough given that Likud is expected to win only 30-32 seats and will have to rely on smaller right wing parties. Fortunately, Yair Lapid and his new Yesh Atid party may provide Bibi with a way out. Last month, Lapid announced his willingness to join a future Netanyahu government and criticized Kadima for not doing so following the last elections. Yesterday he took a step toward making this pledge a reality by introducing his own solution for replacing the Tal Law and dealing with Haredi military service by extending their blanket exemption from serving in the IDF for another five years. The reason this is important is because Netanyahu needs to get to 61 seats, and it is going to be next to impossible for him to do so without relying on Haredi parties. The Haredi parties are not going to tolerate Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu in the government coalition again – and Lieberman probably cannot serve alongside Shas after the elections given the preferences of his voter base – so Netanyahu needs to find someone who is acceptable to Shas and UTJ. With his proposal that basically kicks the issue of Haredi military service down the road by calling for “service for all” but not for half a decade (which is an eternity in Israeli politics), Lapid is announcing loud and clear that he is willing to be that guy. It seems shocking that Tommy Lapid’s son is willing to pander to the ultra-orthodox in order to be part of the government, but Yair Lapid is doing just that, and he is giving Netanyahu a great way of getting rid of Lieberman once and for all.
As a jew I find it bothersome how lacking my knowledge is on this part of the world. I appreciate the insights.
Ha – well, you need to have lots of time to spare or be a professional Middle East watcher in order to keep up with things this intently.
Sadly neither apply to me, so I appreciate your blog.
According to recent polls Lapid is expected to receive over 10 mandates in the next elections. However, his promise to be the savior of the Israeli middle class (which can perhaps be narrowed to the secular, military-serving middle class) was up until now very much contingent on his implicit anti-haredi agenda (being his father’s son he was relatively hesitant to express the strong stance against ultra orthodox that his father had, at least not after declaring entering into politics). Yesterday, contrary to common expectations, he proposed to extend the exemption from military service by 5 additional years. While his plan does include massive reform in military service, voters are increasingly impatient and proposing another 5 years of exemption may result in a sharp decline in his popularity (regardless of his promise, I don’t believe Lapid, or anyone else for that matter, will bring a long-lasting change on that front). Lieberman, which may or may not avoid indictment will continue to get at least 10 mandates due to votes from 1st and 2nd generation russian immigrants to Israel. While I hope that Bibi will ultimately find a way to form a coalition that is as removed as possible from the far-right agenda characteristic of the current government, it remains in my view unlikely that things will change much at the next elections. Considering the recent trend in most center-left parties to gain support by attacking Tal-law and haredi economic (and moral) burden on the rest of Israeli society, do you still think that Lapid will be able to gain enough support to offer an alternative to Lieberman?
It’s not an issue so much of offering an alternative to Lieberman as it is getting Bibi over the 61 seat hump. Bibi cannot have both YB and Haredi parties in the government again, since neither side will agree to serve with each other. Let’s assume that the Israel Hayom poll is static and nothing changes between now and the elections. If Bibi starts with Likud, Shas, and UTJ, he is at 45. Where is he going to make up the difference? Even if Kadima under Mofaz comes into the fold, he is still 2 seats short. Given Lapid’s willingness to come into the coalition no matter who else is there and his obvious pandering to the Haredi parties yesterday, I think it means that Yesh Atid joins the coalition.