The Hour of Avigdor

The connections between America and Israel are deep: grounded on religious cultural, and political ties that go well back before Israel’s founding.

What’s more, Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s whole political existence has been a decades-long struggle against globalist leaders and transnational institutions that aim to subvert national independence and democratic rule. The stability and success that Netanyahu has brought to Israel in the past 10 years are the foundation of the Trump Administration’s Middle East policy.

Netanyahu’s governance also provides an example that President Trump and his supporters know America should heed, at least when it comes to confident but reasonable self-assertion and immigration policy that puts fellow citizens first. Anything, therefore, that threatens the continuation of the populist conservative free-market-oriented Netanyahu government is both an omen and an obstacle for the populist conservative, market-oriented Trump Administration.

Yet Netanyahu now faces the most serious political crisis of his second premiership. Having seemingly won the April elections, Netanyahu has found himself without a governing coalition.

Though Israelis just went through a general election barely two months ago, they will head to the polls again on September 17. For the first time in 70 years and 21 elections, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, will have convened and been dissolved without any party having successfully formed a coalition.

Although 65 of the120 members elected in April supported Netanyahu to remain as prime minister, Netanyahu was nonetheless unable to get a majority coalition because of disagreement on what might seem from an American point of view to be an odd issue of principle: The parties that supported Netanyahu could not agree as to whether the wide exemption of young ultra-orthodox Jewish men from the draft should be enshrined in a law protected from judicial meddling.

The political impasse that has stymied Netanyahu was the product of many forces, but one person is key: Veteran Russian-Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman, who founded and has led the Yisrael Beiteinu party since 1999, refused to support an exemption law that would be acceptable to the ultra-orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Under the shadow of Israeli leaders of world renown such as Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, Lieberman is little known outside Israel, though he has been foreign minister, defense minister, and deputy prime minister, and first entered the cabinet in 2001. He is also poorly understood inside Israel, labeled in the anti-Netanyahu media as more hawkish than Netanyahu, even though he favors a two-state solution and substantial territorial concessions to a Palestinian state.

Like Netanyahu and other nationalist politicians, Lieberman has been targeted repeatedly by the police and prosecutors acting in concert with the press (the Israeli version of the deep state), but the one time the charges were truly menacing, the process ended with a unanimous acquittal.

Lieberman got his start in politics, as did so many Israeli politicians of his generation, in student government. At the beginning of the 1980s he along with other future politicians founded the first successful discotheque in Jerusalem on the campus of the Hebrew University. While his friends were partying inside, Lieberman worked as the bouncer, filling the time waiting to expel the drunk and unruly by reading Nietzsche.

Lieberman subsequently held a sheaf of political jobs culminating in a short stint as director of the Prime Minister’s Office in Netanyahu’s first government. But after falling out with Netanyahu over the handling of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, Lieberman founded his own political party and has managed to win seats in the Knesset at every election since 1999.

After 20 years in elective office, it seems the hour of Avigdor has finally arrived, thanks also to the political ineptitude of Israel’s center and center-Left. Former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz led his “Blue and White” bloc to 35 seats, tying Netanyahu’s Likud; but when Netanyahu was unable to close a coalition deal, Gantz proved utterly incapable of exploiting Netanyahu’s failure through backroom deals. A majority of the Knesset preferred to risk their seats in a new election, rather than see President Reuven Rivlin give Gantz the chance to form a government in Netanyahu’s stead.

In the April elections, Gantz united a crowd of centrist and center-Left Bibi-haters, but he offered no constructive policy alternative. Since the April votes were counted, Gantz has displayed no talent for political maneuvering. The consultants and the Israeli press successfully marketed him as the alternative to Netanyahu, but they will not be able to repeat the performance with the same success.

A few of Lieberman’s voters will punish him for his intransigence, but he will be more than rewarded by centrist voters from secular homes: Those voters are overwhelmingly veterans or the parents of veterans, and they do not see why ultra-orthodox boys should continue to be exempted when their boys serve.

Netanyahu can shore himself up to some extent on the right by demonizing Lieberman—the result will be to build up Lieberman as Netanyahu’s rival. Center-left voters would return in substantial numbers from Gantz to Labor, but for many Netanyahu-haters Lieberman is likely to stand out as the sensible alternative to the man they detest.

Can Lieberman be the not-Netanyahu fashion for fall as Gantz was for spring? It would shocking and novel for a politician with a thick Russian accent and a short and uneventful military service record to beat the generals. But despite two decades of centrist whining about the ultra-orthodox draft exemption, until Lieberman nobody has managed to transform those complaints into political action. Having failed to beat Netanyahu with Gantz the political amateur, the haters may be smart enough to try again with Lieberman the consummate professional.

Lieberman’s party won five seats in April, and he was able to bring about an unprecedented impasse. In the hour of Avigdor, the Israeli centrist voter may be willing to experiment with what he can do with 25.

What for Israel, America, and the world, heralds the hour of Avigdor? Israel’s greatest weakness is that Netanyahu, while seemingly indispensable, is politically mortal. Legal troubles, physical or mental exhaustion, or electoral defeat will eventually bring his career to a close.

Avigdor is not Bibi, in ways both good and bad. But if he can use the present crisis to enlarge his political base, he may be the best prospect for transition to a post-Netanyahu era in which the methods and policies that Netanyahu has used to make Israel greater are continued as far as possible. That would be a good sign for sensible American aspirations in the Middle East, as well as for the future of populist, market-oriented conservative politics in America and worldwide.

Photo Credit: Amir Levy/Getty Images

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About Michael S. Kochin

Michael S. Kochin is Professor Extraordinarius in the School of Political Science, Government, and International Relations at Tel Aviv University. He received his A.B. in mathematics from Harvard and his M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He has held visiting appointments at Yale, Princeton, Toronto, Claremont McKenna College, and the Catholic University of America. He has written widely on the comparative analysis of institutions, political thought, politics and literature, and political rhetoric. With the historian Michael Taylor he has written An Independent Empire: Diplomacy & War in the Making of the United States (University of Michigan Press, 2020).