Anshel Pfeffer is a leading Israeli journalist and the author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu. In this candid interview with Samuel Nurding on 4 September he assessed the pivotal figure of Avigdor Lieberman, the man who blocked Netanyahu forming a coalition in the Spring and who could yet be kingmaker when polls close tomorrow. Pfeffer explains why this has been a difficult campaign for the prime minister and why he sees no reason to alter the claim he made in Fathom in the Spring, that we are entering ‘the end of the Netanyahu era’.
Why Lieberman Forced a Second Election
In the weeks before the April election, it seemed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would once again eke out the same kind of small majority that he had before, made up of the Likud plus the religious and other right-wing parties. And, on cue, a few hours after the polls closed, he arrived at a Likud rally in Tel Aviv and gave a victory speech. We all reported (myself included) that Netanyahu seemed to have won.
But not all those parties that we thought, and he thought, comprised his majority were actually with him. Yisrael Beitenu, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, had five seats and were not with him. And without them he had no Knesset majority.
Even if Lieberman had joined the coalition, and we had a government, Netanyahu would still be facing the legal issues that could yet bring him down. The view of the Attorney General is that he should be indicted, so I still think that we would be looking at ‘the end of the Netanyahu era’ as I put it in Fathom in the Spring. But Lieberman decided not to join his government, making Netanyahu take the ‘nuclear option’ of dissolving the Knesset.
Lieberman reached the conclusion that he could position himself for the post-Netanyahu era. While many right-wingers and Likudniks do not want to be seen as being responsible for bringing Netanyahu down, because he is still very popular among large sections of the political right and certainly among Likud supporters, Lieberman sees things differently. While they do not want to be the ones wielding the dagger, on the old principle that he who wields the dagger rarely sits on the throne, Lieberman is taking the risk.
Why? Well, Lieberman’s own party has been in danger of extinction for a while now. Its base is comprised of elderly and dwindling Russian-speaking voters. So he decided to try and use this twilight period during the end of the Netanyahu era to boost his own party. How? He is still a right-winger; he’s not pretending to be a centrist. But he thinks he can add an additional chunk of voters to his traditional base by attracting those people who prioritise tackling what they see as the undue and coercive influence of the ultra-orthodox over many aspects of Israeli life. It is not a large constituency, but it is worth at least a few seats. So Lieberman seized the issue of the draft of Haredi students and used it at the critical moment when Netanyahu needed his five seats to become a champion for those people.
Lieberman’s tactic has not been pursued for a long time. In fact, we have not seen a right-wing party with a secular agenda running during an Israeli election since Tzomet in 1992. And if the polls are to be taken seriously, the tactic seems to be working. He has doubled his tally from 5 to 10 seats and Netanyahu is unlikely to get 61 seats without him. Polls showing that Netanyahu and the remaining parties loyal to him are missing about four or five seats for a majority.
Why this has been a difficult campaign for Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaigns have always been based on the political right firing on the political left. Netanyahu taints his opponents as leftist, defeatist, weak, treacherous and allied with disloyal Arabs. That has worked before, but the problem this time is that Lieberman is not a left-winger. There was an incredible scene when the Knesset had just voted to dissolve itself on 29 May. Netanyahu had angrily stormed out of the Knesset into the corridor where the journalists were waiting and he started fuming to them saying ‘you see Lieberman is a leftist’. The words came out of his mouth and suddenly you heard laughter everywhere. The worst thing in politics is not people attacking you or hating you but people laughing at you. And they were laughing because the idea that Lieberman, a settler who supports death sentences for terrorists and other right-wing policies, is a ‘leftist’ is, frankly, a joke.
At that moment it became clear that the Likud campaign had a serious problem. Likud have not mentioned Lieberman during this campaign because they realise that they cannot use that traditional tactic on him. Yes, they can carry on attacking the left, and they can add that ‘Lieberman will help them’, but that is not really the way you want to be attacking your main challenger; you want to be attacking them head on. So, this has been an incurably difficult and quite incoherent campaign for Netanyahu, a man who likes to run very clear black/white campaigns.
Can Netanyahu win? Well, he understands the importance of getting the vote out. He knows even if your campaign is not great, you can always get an extra seat or two by organising well and that can give him an edge;. The Likud party machine is well oiled; he has done this many times and he knows the orders to give. These are the things that he will be working very hard on, because the polls are static. Yes, the Likud are losing votes to Lieberman (though Blue and White are also losing votes to Lieberman) but besides that shift, there has not been a dramatic movement between the left/right and the religious/secular blocs.
To secure 61 Knesset seats without Yisrael Beitenu, Netanyahu has had to buy off [libertarian, right wing] Zehut with offers, including to make its leader Moshe Feiglin a minister and to support various pieces of legislation that the party wants, such as the legalisation of the importation of medicinal marijuana. He spent a lot of time on that because he realises that getting rid of another right-wing party gives him maybe a seat or half a seat, but he realises that every little bit counts. Every little difference he can make, he will spend hours and days on that.
Likud is even going door knocking. This is common in the UK and other European countries but not in Israel. Why? We are a small country so it is thought to be easier to spread the message around. Also, people are very engaged in politics, so it has been thought that parties do not need this physical contact that door knocking gives you. The Likud are putting a lot of resources into door knocking because they are trying to maximise their vote and because they know that some right-wing voters have had enough of Netanyahu. Those voters do not want a left-wing government but they have had enough of Bibi. Likud know from their focus groups that they really have to work hard to get their vote out this time.
Netanyahu has always successfully undertaken last minute campaigns, including his ‘Arabs are voting in droves’ campaign in 2015. This time he is pushing the possibility of ‘Arab voter fraud’. But he lacks a clear individual target. Attacks against Benny Gantz are becoming less effective because they do not stick. He is not giving Netanyahu much to attack him about. Gantz is so bland and lacking in real policies that it is hard to paint him as a ‘leftist’. In fact, I think Netanyahu would prefer having a coalition with Blue and White and Benny Gantz if he could, rather with the Yemina party which is headed by Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, who he detests and mistrusts.
Indictments and Immunity
Netanyahu knows that in the weeks after the election his lawyers will be going to his indictment hearing. He is extremely focused on winning this election so that he can boost his chances of gaining immunity from prosecution.
The law used to be that Knesset members are immune from prosecution, though if the police and the attorney general present sufficient evidence, a Knesset committee could remove that immunity. The law was changed in 2005: automatic immunity was proscribed. Now you can request that the committee give you immunity, but without that you can be prosecuted. Presuming indictments arrives and he is still a Knesset member, Netanyahu can and will ask for immunity. But if he hasn’t got a majority in the Knesset then the chances of him gaining immunity are very small.
But even if he has that majority and the Knesset gives him immunity, this will immediately be challenged in the High Court, which is likely to conclude that immunity is not there to shield a politician in his position. So Netanyahu will need another law explicitly legislating that the High Court cannot intervene in Knesset decision-making. These are the things that Netanyahu discussed immediately after the April election, when he thought he had won a majority, and he is likely to return to them again if he gains a majority in this election. The deal with different parties will likely include supporting an immunity law and the High Court Bypass law, which many right-wing parties support anyway because they resent the power of the High Court. But to have any realistic hope of doing these things, he first needs to gain a majority after 17 September; if not then he does not have any legal defence.
Why The Coalition May Surprise Us
If Bibi can gain 61 seats without Lieberman then everyone will say that ‘he is a magician’ and ‘he’s defied the polls’ and ‘he’s pulled it off again’. Some people, including senior left wing politicians who I have been in contact with, are privately very anxious that the pollsters are wrong and Bibi will indeed reach 61 seats. That is the way people have become accustomed to feeling about Israeli politics. In football there is a saying that it is ‘a simple game – 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win. ’. Many feel Israeli politics is a game of four years at the end of which Netanyahu always wins.
But if the polls are right, this time neither bloc will be able to put together a coalition. Lieberman is not going to back down from his course of bringing Netanyahu down by utilising this ultra-orthodox wedge issue. Lieberman is after power rather than a portfolio. When he was foreign minister, he was not that interested in foreign policy and when he was defence minister, he was not that involved in military affairs. He is much more of a politician than a minister. You have ministers whose politics is bound up in running their ministry and you have politicians who have a ministry but most of their time is devoted to politics, and that’s Lieberman. Maybe he has a desire to be finance minister. Maybe he will have policy demands in the negotiations (death sentences for terrorists included). But once he is in government he is not interested in policies; he is interested in his power and position.
Benny Gantz’s potential majority spans the ideological and political spectrum from Yisrael Beitenu to the Joint List, and both those forces cannot serve in a coalition together. So what’s the alternative? Assuming that Bibi cannot form a coalition, it’s either Gantz or a member of the Likud who is not Netanyahu. Likud will one day replace Netanyahu as its leader and that will be a very long and difficult process – the Likud does not easily replace its leaders. So it will probably be down to Gantz to form a coalition, which could incorporate parties of the centre-left, Yisrael Beitenu, parts of Yemina and perhaps parts of the Likud if the party splits or Netanyahu resigns.
For the leaders of the projected two largest parties (Likud and Blue and White) to form a coalition, they will have to make drastic changes to their parties: Blue and White will have a very difficult time forming a coalition without splitting with Lapid, while the Likud will have a difficult time forming coalition without removing Benjamin Netanyahu. To try and describe exactly how it works out now is premature; we will have to wait to see what the numbers are exactly.