Avigdor Lieberman may have done Israel a service. Whatever his motives — and they are far from clear — he has sent Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE a message that he is not invincible. In addition, he has, perhaps unwittingly, sent the Trump administration a message that its Middle East peace plan, the “deal of the century,” may never come off. Both are important, indeed critical, messages.
Like other leaders who have served too long in office — Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyib Erdoğan, and Russian President Vladimir Putin spring to mind (German Chancellor Angela Merkel being a notable exception) — Netanyahu has become increasingly autocratic and defiant of the rule of law. In that regard he resembles his ally President TrumpDonald John TrumpLondon mayor says UK is ‘on the wrong side of history’ with Trump visit Hickenlooper booed in San Francisco for denouncing socialism Cuomo calls Trump base ‘mostly middle aged angry white males’ MORE, who openly supported him in April’s election and has reiterated that support for the elections now set for Sept. 17. For his part, Netanyahu is trumpeting his close association with Trump as a reason for Israeli voters to return him to power in the fall.
On its face, Netanyahu should win again; the Israeli electorate has been moving steadily to the right ever since Menachem Begin and his Likud Party emerged victorious in the country’s election of 1977. The influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union, who had no tradition of democracy; the increasing political clout of Sephardic Jews, with their longstanding antipathy toward the Arabs; and growing numbers of both the West Bank settlers and the ultra-Orthodox Haredi communities have combined to give Likud-led coalitions a virtual permanent majority.
What Lieberman demonstrated, however, is that a right-wing majority is not necessarily a majority that will support Netanyahu. On its face, Lieberman brought the government down because he objected to the increasing dominance of the Haredi parties in Israel’s political life. Non-Zionist, with little good to say about a state that is formally secular, the Haredim have not limited themselves to ensuring that the tens of thousands of yeshiva students continue to benefit from military exemptions. In addition, they have demanded — and won — portfolios in ministries that enable them to finance their own independent school systems, subsidize their supporters, and expand Sabbath restrictions on an unwilling population that lives beyond their own enclaves.
The consequences of Lieberman’s refusal to join a new governing coalition go well beyond reining in Haredi power, however. It is likely to derail Netanyahu’s efforts to evade an indictment for corruption that is virtually certain to be handed down in October, shortly after his hearing before Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who ironically once was Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary.
Netanyahu had hoped to commit a new governing coalition to the passage of a law to grant him (and a number of other members of parliament) immunity from prosecution. Moreover, it is rumored that Netanyahu’s game plan was not only to avoid an indictment but to assume the presidency in 2021, when current president Ruby Rivlin’s term expires. Since it is unlikely that Netanyahu could cobble together a governing coalition prior to his October hearing, he has little hope of obtaining parliamentary immunity, much less moving on to the presidency of Israel. Indeed, Netanyahu’s rivals within Likud, notably former Interior and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, are sure to demand his resignation immediately upon his indictment.
Netanyahu will not be the only victim of his failure to form a new government. Trump’s Middle East peace plan, never a truly serious proposition, may never surface. White House adviser Jared Kushner and his team are going ahead with a June conference in Bahrain that is meant to raise funds to bolster the Palestinian economy. The Israelis, Saudis, Emiratis, Qataris and probably the Egyptians and Moroccans will participate. The Palestinians will not, however. It is unclear why Arab governments should commit funds to people who are refusing to ask for them, especially since the Palestinians are not particularly popular in the Gulf, whose leaders recall that Palestinians supported Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Whatever the outcome of the Bahrain economic conference, it will have little impact on a political deal between Israel and the Palestinians, because the Palestinians would reject any agreement that does not at least consider their demand for a state that incorporates all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu may well have counted on that rejection to justify annexation of parts of the West Bank, notably the Etzion Bloc that Jews had settled prior to the 1948 war.
In light of the forthcoming election, however, his annexation plans may well go the way of his dreams of the presidency — which is to say, they will go nowhere.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.
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