Thursday, May 19, 2016

Lieberman is new Minister of Defence: Major Political Development in Israel

Wading into the waters of Israeli political analysis can be hazardous.  The unexpected sometimes becomes reality.  Other times, one can be lulled into believing that there is a period of relative tranquility, only to face a sudden political earthquake.

I provided a few different comments on the last Israeli election in this blog in April and May 2015.  They are listed in the Contents By Topic.  One of my columns dealt with the decision of Avigdor Lieberman and his "Yisrael Beitenu" Party ("Israel, Our Home"), at the time, to remain outside of the government coalition.  It appeared, at the time, that Lieberman was not prepared to concede on all issues relating to the tension between religion and state in Israel.  In particular, he was not willing to participate in a government that had just turned over an enormous amount of power to several ultra-religious parties.

After a year of playing a vocal, active role in the opposition, Lieberman has suddenly and dramatically agreed to join the current government will become the country's new Minister of Defence.

The events leading up to this announcement were political theatre at is best - riveting, Machiavellian, and, for some political players, tragic.

As you may have read, the leader of the Zionist Union, Yitzhak Herzog ("Bougie") was named in a corruption investigation in late March 2016.  Perhaps coincidentally and perhaps concurrently, he became involved in talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu to bring his Zionist Union group into the current governing coalition and form a "national unity" government.  These reports seemed very strange.

On the one hand, it is hard to fathom that Bougie would be able to extract any palatable concessions from Netanyahu, given the current governing coalition.  Either Bougie would have had to convince Netanyahu to abandon several of his current coalition partners to form an entirely new government - or Bougie would have had to agree to join the coalition with little in the way of political gains to show for it.

Over the past several weeks, news reports in Israel were bubbling with stories that Bougie and the Zionist Union were about to join the government.  In fact, a press conference was scheduled for yesterday morning, presumably to provide some type of announcement as to where things stood.

However, at the last minute (or, according to plan, depending on what one might believe...), Prime Minister Netanyahu met with opposition MK Avigdor Lieberman and offered him the post of Defence Minister.  Lieberman accepted and the talks between Netanyahu and Bougie promptly came to a conclusion.  Lieberman will now take over the post of Minister of Defence, displacing the highly qualified Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon, who had formerly between the Chief of Staff of the IDF.

This was a complete and total humiliation for Bougie Herzog.  He put his party's credibility on the line, as well as his own, by investing a significant time negotiating with Netanyahu.  According to Herzog, he and Netanyahu had come to an agreement on just about every issue and were all set to proceed with a deal when the rug was suddenly pulled out from underneath and Netanyahu decided to take a different partner to the ball.  The clock hadn't even struck 12 O'clock and Bougie turned into a pumpkin.

Herzog held a press conference last night.  He spelled out what he maintained were a whole range of political gains that he had achieved in his negotiations with Netanyahu.  According to Herzog, Netanyahu had agreed to work towards a two-state solution, to hold a regional peace conference immediately, to freeze certain settlement construction, and to take several other steps on peace initiatives.  However, Herzog noted that Netanyahu would not put any of this in writing.  Moreover, Herzog devoted a significant part of his apr├Ęs press conference to attacking Labour's number two in command and former leader, Shelly Yacomovitch, accusing her of sabotaging his efforts.  He vowed to stay on as leader and "rip apart the government from the opposition."

For Netanyahu, this was shrewd, Machiavellian machination.  He left Herzog and the Zionist Union utterly defeated and stabilized his governing coalition by adding several more Knesset members.  Netanyahu paid a moderately high price.  He exchanged a stable, predictable, well qualified, former IDF Chief as Defence Minister for the highly unpredictable Lieberman, who can be a loose cannon.  However, after more than a year since the last election, he has now managed to complete the exchange of Yair Lapid's "Yesh Atid" party for a a group of ultra-religious parties and can proceed unfettered with a right wing political agenda.  Herzog has been outed as hopelessly naive, impotent, incompetent or all three. 

It is hard to imagine that Netanyahu actually agreed to all of the concessions that Herzog claims.  Netanyahu would have had to pull apart his coalition completely and would have had to agree to many items that are diametrically opposed to his party's platforms.  It seems much more likely that he signaled some level of flexibility without any specific commitments.  It also seems more likely that this was all a series of political steps taken by Netanyahu to weaken the opposition, strengthen his governing coalition and secure three more years of mandate for his government.  Whether or not this is all in Israel's "best interests" may really depend on one's political perspective and philosophy.

 I will admit that I am surprised that the current governing coalition lasted this long.  Hanging on by a thread with 61 seats (in a 120 seat Knesset), the government seemed destined to break apart at any time since the last election.  However, it held together and this coalition, or a close version of it, is now likely to hold power until 2019.

Leading up to yesterday's announcement, Yair Lapid and the Yesh Atid party were the big beneficiaries of these coalition talks.  Polls suggested that Lapid's party had nearly doubled in support since the last election and the Zionist Union was bleeding support at an astounding rate.  If an election were held today, according to some of these polls, Lapid may have had a shot at winning the election.

However, mid-mandate polls may not mean that much when an actual election is distant.  A government that was barely hanging on by a thread has now been bolstered and that is a big blow indeed for the opposition parties and for Israel's centre-left.

The international fall-out will also be interesting.  Egypt has already expressed grave disappointment at this latest turn of events and other countries have provided less than flattering assessments of this development.

Unfortunately, I am quite concerned that some very rocky times lie ahead for Israel and the region.  Hopefully, Lieberman will demonstrated an unexpectedly high level of competence, diplomacy, tact and forethought in the coming days, weeks and months ahead.