Israel’s uncertain domestic political situation just took a small step closer to resolution, but also one step closer to re-inflaming an uptick in Arab-Jewish hostilities. Avigdor Lieberman, two-time former Defense Minister of Israel and current leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party – Israel Our Home – announced he won’t support another direct election. He stated further that Israel’s centrist Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) Party led by Benny Gantz and Likud Party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must agree to form a unity government or he will side against whoever does not agree to the unity plan. More of a political stage show than a real difference, the announcement nonetheless crystallizes certain issues going on in who might lead Israel in the future. Heading into this week Israelis could be looking at a shaky unity government cobbled together by Lieberman’s shot across the bow, Netanyahu securing power even further or a Gantz government with a jumbled centre-left coalition.

What Is Lieberman’s Motivation?

Israel has held two inconclusive elections on April 9 and Sept. 17 of this year and looks unable to form a coalition or resolution to their current political gridlock. Lieberman’s motivation is to move Israeli politics into forming a government and to claim a role as kingmaker. He also wants to undermine Netanyahu’s defence pick, Naftali Bennett (who has bragged about how many Arabs he has killed), who will be gone if a new government is formed. Indeed, Lieberman’s masterstroke of political manoeuvring came shortly after Netanyahu announced he would put Bennett in place as Defense Minister this past Friday, after enormous behind-the-scenes manoeuvring and sly moves by Bennett against Netanyahu. There are only ten days left before Israel’s Attorney General decides on indicting Netanyahu for Bezeq-Walla, meaning Netanyahu has nothing to lose by at least trying to keep Bennett onboard and pretend at solidarity considering that an indictment would end the whole endeavour. However, what should have been an impassable roadblock to Gantz and move toward signalling that Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition was secure ended up fading into the background as Lieberman came out of the background with a haymaker. Lieberman’s remarks could catalyze to forge together a shaky unity government and make him a significant power broker. The right does not like Lieberman, broadly, for abandoning their political side, while the Israeli left despises him as a bigot disguised as a centrist.

Rivlin’s Unity Government Proposal

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has drafted a proposal for a unity government which involves rotating leadership in two-year cycles, starting with Netanyahu and transitioning to Gantz. The fact that Netanyahu is currently subject to a potential indictment on corruption charges makes Lieberman’s position risky to him since Rivlin’s plan makes clear Netanyahu would step aside if indicted. Lieberman’s remarks push the situation forward to some kind of shaky resolution, but are also undoubtedly particularly unwelcome in the Netanyahu but also the Gantz camp because they put the brakes on their ambitions to fully lead the government. Attempts by Netanyahu’s right-wing power bloc to get Lieberman to join forces with them have been unsuccessful.

Bibi’s Reaction To Lieberman

Netanyahu is suspicious of Lieberman’s ploy and believes the former defence head wants him gone. He has said Lieberman is playing a cynical game with the left to form a shaky and “dangerous” unity government that is supposedly accommodating to Israel’s domestic and external enemies. Showing any compromise to Lieberman could lead to the crumbling of his bloc and Gantz and Lieberman switching up their moderate stance to nab right-wing Israeli politicians who are disaffected with Likud into their odd-pair bloc. Even as the Israeli left accuses Netanyahu of helping create the anti-Arab climate that led to the assassination of pro-peace Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, he has pursued the tactic of playing the anti-Arab card against Lieberman, a man known to be none too open-minded towards Israel’s Arab peoples. This shows how all the sides involved in Israel’s ongoing political quagmire are cynically exploiting tensions and prejudice to try to secure power.

The View From Team Gantz

Gantz also has no reason to be overly pleased with the demand to form a unity government. They essentially see Lieberman as trying to play hardball and up the value of the right in enticing him back, which would also protect Netanyahu from prosecution on corruption. Moreover, Gantz may have difficulty persuading some of his anti-Netanyahu colleagues to sign on to a unity government. Nonetheless, at least Gantz has more leverage, since his potential agreement with Lieberman and Rivlin’s plan would drive Netanyahu into a harder corner than Netanyahu accepting. Still, for Israelis, it would be hard to imagine the fiercely Zionist Lieberman truly giving the green light to a left-centre coalition headed by Gantz, and Lieberman’s gambit rests on taking him seriously that he would indeed greenlight it.

What’s Next?

Israel has less than a month to form a government before the Knesset calls a new election. Whatever the precise motivations of Lieberman in playing powerbroker to the right and left and inhabiting different roles as it suits the context, he is undeniably newly relevant in the national conversation. Still, if Lieberman takes it too far and burns his political bridges on the religious right he could find himself in the position of having to join forces with the left that he does not support.

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