Together Forever? Netanyahu, Liberman and the New Israeli Government | Wilson Center

Together Forever? Netanyahu, Liberman and the New Israeli Government

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The expansion of the Netanyahu Government carries major ramifications for Israeli politics, relations with Palestinians and the Arab World and the U.S-Israeli relationship.

In this podcast discussion, three prominent analysts and observers of Israeli politics evaluate the significance of Netanyahu's coalition agreement with Avigdor Liberman, Israel's new Minister of Defense. 

 

 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been struggling to enlarge his Likud-led coalition in the Knesset for months. Until this week, it held just 61 out of 120 seats. Largely out of concern over passing a budget with such a slim majority, he brokered a deal that brought his share of the Knesset from a fragile 61 seats to a firmer 66. Inviting into government the right-wing, nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, Prime Minister Netanyahu has given Avigdor Liberman a cabinet post as Defense Minister. Critics of the decision point to Liberman’s recent inflammatory comments about Arab-Israelis and his scant experience in fields of national security and defense.

On May 26th, prominent members of the Israeli press joined in conversation with Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy for a discussion on Netanyahu’s cabinet shuffle and new government. Nahum Barnea, chief columnist at Tel Aviv’s Yedioth Ahronoth, spoke, along with David Horovitz, founding editor of The Times of Israel. Aaron David Miller, the Wilson Center’s Vice President for New Initiatives, moderated the discussion.

Prime Minister Netanyahu must pass a budget—should he fail, his government will fall by default. Mr. Horowitz explained that while no 61-seat coalition can be particularly safe, there is at least one member of the Likud-led coalition in particular who he did not think Netanyahu “would trust to carry his shopping for him.” As a result the prime minister’s hand was forced. “The key to Bibi’s motivation is political survival,” said Mr. Sachs.

But the political motivations behind the move go beyond merely passing a budget, Mr. Sachs went on to explain. The move consolidates the entire Israeli right wing into government, which Prime Minister Netanyahu believes will serve him well in future elections. Having lost in Israel’s 1999 general elections after pandering to the middle, the prime minister believes that consolidating his base is the key to electoral victory. Mr. Barnea noted that the Prime Minister first considered adding a party to government from Likud’s ideological left, namely Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union. But such a move would not have delivered the same potential electoral advantages—it had to be Yisrael Beiteinu.

For those not well versed in Israeli politics, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to offer Liberman a prominent cabinet position might seem strange. After all, Liberman has been one of the prime minister’s toughest critics of late, and the two have a rocky history stretching back three decades, And yet Mr. Barnea stressed that “this is typical of the political process in the democracy of Israel.” A period of reconciliation may follow. “I imagine that he’s going to play nice for a while,” Mr. Sachs said. But Mr. Horowitz was not so sure. “It’s very dangerous to predict anything about Israeli politics,” he said “but it’s a fairly safe bet that there will be a falling out again between these two sooner or later.”

Mr. Horowitz went on to stress the sense of loss many Israelis feel in watching Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon, the outgoing Defense Minister, leave his position. “He’s not a military adventurer,” Mr. Horowitz said of Ya’alon. Instead he “exuded a concern for prudence” when it came to the use of military force, something that brought considerable peace of mind to parents in a nation with mandatory conscription for most 18 year-olds. Liberman, by contrast, is a “big talker.”

Mr. Barnea ultimately suggested that Liberman’s behavior may not be as radical as many fear. “I think he will be much more pragmatic than people believe,” he said. “Liberman tends to be quite cooperative when he is sitting in the Cabinet. And then, always [with] surprise timing, he decides to go back to his base and become very radical.”

Speakers

  • Jane Harman

    Director, President, and CEO, Wilson Center
  • Nahum Barnea

    Chief Political columnist, Yedioth Ahronoth
  • Natan Sachs

    Director, Center for Middle East Policy, the Brookings Institution; Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy, the Brookings Institution
  • David Horovitz

    Founding Editor of The Times of Israel, a current affairs website based in Jerusalem and former Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Post
  • Aaron David Miller

    Aaron David Miller

    Distinguished Scholar