Forward Thinking

Who Won in Bibi-Liberman Divorce?

By Nathan Jeffay

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Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman / Getty Images

Who was the winner in the Liberman-Netanyahu divorce?

The ruling party in Israel has just split, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman pulling his Yisrael Beytenu party out of its year-and-a-half-old alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Liberman said he was leaving Bibi because the latter is too soft on Hamas in Gaza. Despite the fact that the new Gaza campaign began shortly afterwards, Liberman hasn’t changed his mind.

Liberman, in status and in the size of the party he heads, was the junior partner in the relationship. Yet he seems to have gained the most from it — and decided to take his gains and run.

His stint as not only senior minister but also second in command in the ruling party upped his status. In 1999 he set up a small party to represent Russian-speaking immigrants to Israel and won four of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Today, despite controlling only 11 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, and interestingly, despite the waning importance of his ministry for various reasons, he is widely thought of as Israel’s number two politician. This is a status that has been cemented by his alliance with Netanyahu.

He also gained a lot of loyalty. Netanyahu held the Foreign Ministry post free for him throughout his bribery trial, and welcomed him with open arms after his acquittal.

Liberman has his eye on the top job in Israeli politics, namely his frenemy Bibi’s job, and his alliance with Bibi has undoubtedly made this a more realistic target for him.

So what has Netanyahu gained? Seats in parliament until this point, making his premiership more secure? After the election, it was clear that the decision to run together left Likud and Israel Beytenu with a smaller share of Knesset seats between them than if they had run separately. And, paradoxically, having the hard-line Liberman close to him has made it easier for Netanyahu, when it was useful, to cast himself as a relative moderate.

The irony of this last point is, of course, that Liberman appears to have staged his walkout in order to cast himself in the contrasting role, as a strongly right-wing voice calling for harsher action in Gaza. Liberman has certainly gained more in the newly-dissolved alliance, but their double act may not quite be over for good — they could well reunite at some point in the near future, both following their self-interest in attaining their desired image by contrasting themselves with one another.


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