Even people with dementia can still remember the mudslinging between the Israeli political system’s Max and Moritz, who called a press conference this week and, in a remarkable act of cynicism declared that their alliance had been renewed. Incoming Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman thanked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his ability to overcome past differences, as if the events in question took place 30 years ago, as opposed to two weeks. The man whose opinions of the PM caused many to shiver, blamed his short fuse. It’s not you, he told his old/new partner. Netanyahu didn’t disappoint either, saying that unfortunate things were said during the heat of the moment.
What moment, what heat, what short fuse? These two exchange nearly zero words in the past year, and when they did mention each other it was to spew poison at their then-bitter rival. You needed to be completely disconnected to miss the hatred, loathing, and contempt these two have for each other. “Past differences?” “A short fuse?” these could, at most, be considered part of a brainstorming session to name the next conflict in Gaza. Because they certainly don’t work as excuses for the rockiness of the pair’s relationship.
The tensions didn’t begin with Lieberman going to the opposition, but much earlier. While Operation Protective Edge was going on, the differences between Lieberman and Netanyahu were clear to anyone who took part in cabinet meetings. Netanyahu, who despises direct conflict, was being driven crazy by the criticism Lieberman was leveling against him, and his frustration eventually burst out. “Which cabinet meetings are you complaining about?” the PM asked the then-foreign minister, “You don’t even spend more than 20 minutes in any meeting anyway.” Lieberman responded by snorting contemptuously and leaving the room once more.
Lieberman is convinced—really, a million percent certain—that Netanyahu caused the police to investigate the fairly-recent Yisrael Beytenu corruption affair (also known as the Faina Kirschenbaum affair). Shortly before a national election, the police seemed to have nothing better to do than spread the story to the media, because indictments were to be presented shortly. More than a year has passed since, and the investigation seems comatose. No arrests, no indictment, barely anyone is being called in for questioning. Under these circumstances, just try to convince Lieberman that this wasn’t politically prescribed by the man from Balfour Street. (Balfour St. in Jerusalem is the location of the Prime Minister’s Residence —ed.)
The two had a hard time faking their body language during the press conference. They barely looked each other in the eye. But what wasn’t expressed by their movements was stated with their words: A little bit of humor, a lame apology, and poof—it’s all behind them. That’s how it is when two people share a dominant trait called cynicism. The ability to overcome principle in order to advance their own personal interests.
Lieberman, we must admit, does it with much more style: He actually manages to fool you. His word is solid. He won’t enter into a government that won’t budge from its path. He won’t set foot in the coalition before the issues his constituents find so important—equality of burden, civil marriage, the death penalty for terrorists—are addressed, as is the destruction of Hamas. No way: Until Yisrael Beytenu’s demands are fulfilled, he stays outside. After all, his word is his bond.
Well, one week after he signaled the prime minister, indicating that he was open to talk about matters, agreements were already reached. How planned was all of this? Probably not at all. Last week, all of Lieberman’s associates swear, no one dreamed of this happening. It’s a classic case of political process: Everyone makes completely illogical moves, everybody lies to everybody else, the result is totally unexpected, and in the end Ze’ev Elkin (the minister of immigrant absorption and Jerusalem affairs) comes along and takes credit for planning everything.
An insurance policy for the ultra-Orthodox
Out of all of the principles Lieberman named, all of his conditions for entering the government—not much was left. Matters regarding the separation of religion and state were thrown out. The ultra-Orthodox parties (both of which are members of the coalition government) can sleep soundly: Lieberman’s entering the coalition doesn’t pose a threat to their achievements in this government. On the contrary: It insures their advancement. Everything Lieberman managed to achieve in the last government alongside his friend Lapid (chairman of Yesh Atid) will be kept outside the halls of the Knesset this time.
In addition, Lieberman has promised to stay away from the prime minister’s delicate soul when it comes to media matter, and even gave up the former dealbreaker condition of a death penalty for terrorists.
Lieberman’s claim of handling the matter of pensions is, at best, inaccurate. In fact, NIS 1.3 billion has been allocated for old-age pensions ever since Lapid’s days at the Finance Ministry. So either Kahlon (the current finance minister) re-sold Lieberman expired goods, or Lieberman sold the Russian-Israeli public a bag of goods in order to justify his entry into the Ministry of Defense. Either way, the NIS 1.3 billion in question won’t all be handed out this year, but will be spread over four years, and aimed at all of the elderly people who are living off subsidized incomes (about 220, 000 people, half of whom are not of Russian decent), in fairly thin slices. Seniors will receive just a few dozen shekels the first year. Not a sum that’s going to save anyone from starvation.
Oh, wait, we still have the issue of destroying Hamas. Well, we’ll see about that. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like Ismail Haniyeh should be running scared.
Lieberman is expected to be sworn in as defense minister next week. As of this writing, Education Minister (and head of the Bayit Yehudi party) Naftali Bennett is sticking to his guns on this matter, saying his party will vote against the appointment. Don’t hold your breath, though: A solution will be found by the time of the government’s vote on the matter, and Bennett’s principles will probably end up where all politicians’ principles do.
Israel’s most right-wing government ever is nearly underway. How long will it hold? Tough to tell. Lieberman will be most obedient and loyal in the coming months. He knows how to pull that off. He has a long adjustment period in front of him—much longer than those Security Cabinet meetings he’d leave after one third of an hour. But every honeymoon has its end, and at some point Lieberman will have to separate himself if he wants to contend for leadership status.
Someone gave me a wonderful metaphor for this government: It’s a firing squad, standing in a circle.