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Netanyahu’s voters like him, his allies back him, but no one believes him

Speaking in the Knesset plenum on Wednesday, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman cautioned Benny Gantz against giving Benjamin Netanyahu another term as premier.

“Think hard about what you’re going to be doing tomorrow,” he said, “before you hand 61 signatures to Netanyahu [so he can be re-appointed prime minister]…. Besides warning you, there’s nothing more we can do.”

Liberman’s warnings about Netanyahu have been a steady drumbeat in recent weeks. On April 19, he told Gantz, “As someone who knows Netanyahu better than anyone, I predict that he won’t sign with you a coalition agreement, not today and not tomorrow. He’s just stalling for time.” (The next day, Netanyahu and Gantz signed an agreement.)

And on Tuesday he said, “He wants elections so he can escape justice. I don’t believe there will actually be a government with Gantz.”

Liberman’s warnings are obviously a political maneuver, an attempt to compete with Yesh Atid, Gantz’s former partners, for voters unmoored from Blue and White by Gantz’s abandonment of the anti-Netanyahu cause. Liberman has said it openly, as when he declared on Tuesday: “Only I can run against Netanyahu. A vote for me is a sure thing.”

But Liberman’s warnings are also more than mere politicking, and more than, as some have suggested, an attempt to reclaim the spotlight after being sidelined by the Gantz-Netanyahu unity deal.

Liberman told the truth on April 19 when he said he knows the politician Netanyahu “better than anyone.” Liberman helped to create him, and to make him the political juggernaut he would become.

And his story of repeated betrayal by Netanyahu, at least as he sees it, reveals something vital about Netanyahu’s political methods, which have left a long trail of embittered and resentful former allies in his wake.

This isn’t really a story about Netanyahu, but about the political culture he has shaped around him. The comprehensive distrust that he elicits even from his closest allies shapes the new government’s structure and policy priorities, and now echoes through Israel’s constitutional order with the amendments passed this week to the country’s Basic Laws, whose sole purpose, according to the authors of the legislation, is to prevent Netanyahu from going back on his word.

Scorched earth

The Israeli political landscape is littered with former aides and fervent supporters who now view the prime minister as so reliably dishonest that he has become a liability to the country’s political life.

These critics do not belong to the political left, and the dislike isn’t rooted in political views. It’s personal.

At least six prominent former Likud members now lead political factions eager to see Netanyahu’s personal downfall: Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of Yamina, who once ran his bureau; Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser of the tiny breakaway Derech Eretz faction, respectively Netanyahu’s former spokesman and cabinet secretary, who campaigned on their former boss’s unsuitability for his position on ethical grounds; and ex-defense ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Liberman.

There’s Moshe Kahlon, who recently returned to Likud and, he has said, now serving out his final days as finance minister before leaving politics entirely when his replacement is appointed this week.

Kahlon was a popular Likud communications minister in October 2012 when he resigned in frustration over what he viewed as his sidelining by Netanyahu. In a bid to placate him, Netanyahu publicly promised to appoint him head of the Israel Lands Authority — then forgot that promise after forming the 2013 government.

In December 2014, Kahlon announced his return to politics, this time at the head of his own party. “We need a new political party,” he explained at the time, “because our [current] politics aren’t honest.” He won 10 seats in the 2015 election for his Kulanu party – and control over the Israel Lands Authority.

The story is much the same for those who are still in Likud. Likud leaders’ frustration and sense of betrayal at Netanyahu’s hands is one of the unspoken but fundamental facts of the party’s inner political life.

There’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. Netanyahu begged Erdan to stay in the government in 2014, after party no. 2 Gideon Sa’ar announced his abrupt departure from politics. Sa’ar and Erdan, who was no. 3 in the party, both had the same reason for wanting to leave: Netanyahu’s habit of sidelining and humiliating the party’s rising stars. Netanyahu, eager to avoid the appearance of a loss of support from his most popular subordinates, promised Erdan influence commensurate with his high place on the party slate. But when the 2015 government was being established, Erdan found himself shunted to a mid-level ministry. For eleven long days, he flatly refused to join the new government.

Erdan still coexists uneasily with Netanyahu, outwardly loyal, biding his time.

Even Netanyahu’s most fervent loyalists in the party inevitably find themselves abandoned and betrayed. Likud MK David Bitan was one of Netanyahu’s few vocal defenders as his corruption investigations gathered steam over the course of the 20th Knesset. In 2018, in recognition of his loyalty, Netanyahu promised him a cabinet post.

But Netanyahu dithered and made excuses, and Bitan was himself embroiled in a corruption scandal in 2019. By the time Netanyahu brought Bitan’s appointment as agriculture minister to the Knesset for approval in January 2020, it was in an interim capacity in an interim government. Bitan himself turned down the offer.

“It’s unfortunate that an appointment that should have been made two years ago was repeatedly delayed under various pretexts until we’ve come to a point where it is devoid of meaning,” an angry Bitan told the press.

Netanyahu’s former coalition chairman no longer chases after camera crews in the Knesset to defend him.

The list goes on and on, both within Likud and outside it. Netanyahu promised ministerial appointments to Moshe Feiglin and Rafi Peretz for, respectively, dropping out of the race and merging with another party ahead of the March election. Neither has any expectations that he will fulfill those promises. The prime minister has explained that these commitments were made before the unity agreement with Gantz shrank the number of available posts, but that explanation hardly matters; neither man believes he would have followed through even if there was no unity government.

It is an unspoken rule in the Knesset – among right-wing members of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition – that in any political dealings with the prime minister you take payment up front.

The 23-year divorce

Which brings us back to Liberman. It is here, in his tumultuous three-decade relationship with Netanyahu, that one begins to see the depth of this distrust and the costs for the country that accrue from the political culture Netanyahu has helped foster.

Liberman and Netanyahu first met in 1988, when the former was 30 and the latter 39. Netanyahu was returning to Israel from a stint as Israel’s UN ambassador. He was a marginal figure, an outsider overshadowed by the party’s rising “princes,” Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Tzachi Hanegbi and others. Liberman was a Likud student activist otherwise unknown in the party.

The two men struck up a friendship and a political alliance, and Liberman soon became Netanyahu’s most loyal political fixer and aide. He spent the following years visiting Likud chapters up and down the country, painstakingly building Netanyahu’s political organization within the party.

He proved an astoundingly successful political organizer, helping to engineer Netanyahu’s stunning primary victory five years later, in 1993. Now Likud’s chairman, Netanyahu appointed Liberman the party’s CEO, and the ambitious young operator embarked on a purge of the party’s staff and their replacement with Netanyahu loyalists.

So useful did Liberman make himself, and so great was Netanyahu’s reliance on him, that when Netanyahu became prime minister in the upset win against Shimon Peres in 1996, he let Liberman, who would soon become director general of his Prime Minister’s Office, choose many of Likud’s cabinet ministers.

It was the summit of their relationship. Liberman was Netanyahu’s grand vizier and, some charged, the real power behind the throne. But it didn’t last long. In December 1997, ostensibly to protest Netanyahu’s talks with the Palestinians, Liberman resigned from the PMO. A rift had formed between him and his boss around many things: Netanyahu grew to resent Liberman’s view of himself as the architect of his boss’s victories; a series of political miscalculations Netanyahu blamed on Liberman had sparked a growing backlash against Netanyahu’s rule within the party; and the first of many corruption investigations had been launched into Liberman’s affairs, which would later be closed for lack of evidence.

After being summarily ejected from Netanyahu’s orbit and from Likud — Netanyahu ordered that he not be offered a job on the party staff — Liberman left in 1999 to form a new party that would capitalize on the new Russian-speaking electorate. He would spend the next 15 years trying to engineer a return to Likud that would circumvent Netanyahu.

And it almost worked. Liberman’s political rise was meteoric. From four seats in 1999, his Yisrael Beytenu party grew to 11 in 2006 (just one less than a Netanyahu-led Likud that year) and 15 in 2009 — when he returned to Netanyahu’s side as foreign minister in the restored Netanyahu government.

Twelve years after their falling out, with an astonishing 15-seat showing at the ballot box, Liberman believed he had finally proven his mettle as an independent political force and could now forge his own path back to Likud from a position of strength. It was with that expectation that in October 2012 he got up before the news cameras, stood beside Netanyahu and announced the formation of a shared “Likud-Yisrael Beytenu” Knesset slate.

It was another moment of triumph for Liberman and for the relationship — and like the heady days of 1996, presaged another long, ignominious fall.

The joint slate fared poorly, winning just 31 seats in the January 2013 election, a sharp and unexpected drop from the combined 42 seats they’d won running separately in 2009. Later that year, in an effort orchestrated by Netanyahu, the party voted down a proposal to formally unite the two parties. Liberman’s long quest to enter Likud’s top ranks was finally ended.

On July 7, 2014, he formally severed the shared slate with Likud.

From that day forth, the humiliations, as Liberman experienced them, never let up. Netanyahu sidelined the Foreign Ministry while Liberman served as its head. After the 2015 elections, Liberman refused to join Netanyahu’s new coalition, dubbing the new government “the epitome of opportunism” and accusing Netanyahu of abandoning right-wing principles. His refusal left Netanyahu with the narrowest possible Knesset majority of just 61 seats.

Within a year, Netanyahu, tired of catering to the whims of every wayward MK each time he needed to win a Knesset vote, was back at the negotiating table, and handed Liberman a prize that promised real influence: the Defense Ministry.

But that, too, was not to be; a partnership with Netanyahu was never a real one. Throughout Liberman’s two years as defense minister, all decision-making power was excised from the post. The IDF chief of staff would speak directly to Netanyahu, all major decisions skipped over the minister — and the prime minister’s staff made sure that fact was clear to journalists covering the upper echelons of Israel’s defense establishment. Liberman was humiliated. Again.

Liberman’s feud with his former boss is significant not for the personal melodrama, but because it is the longest-lived and most visceral of Netanyahu’s many embittered-ex-ally relationships.

Israelis are discovering that Netanyahu’s brand of cutthroat politics comes at a steep cost, including but not limited to the political deadlock of the past year. When Benny Gantz decided in March to enter into unity talks, his chief concern was not the new government’s policies but his new partner’s integrity. Blue and White has demanded dramatic constitutional changes that all have one purpose: to ensure that Netanyahu doesn’t stab Gantz in the back.

And while many on both left and right have criticized the unity deal, no one, not even Netanyahu’s most fervent supporters, has suggested Gantz’s fears are overblown. Indeed, when the deal’s critics now insist that even the constitutional changes won’t keep Netanyahu honest, that they can only delay the inevitable betrayal by the slippery Likud leader, no one in his party disagrees.

It is axiomatic — again, among Netanyahu’s supporters — that given the opportunity, Netanyahu will cheat.

A new government is expected to be sworn in this week. If it happens, Netanyahu will already have surprised many, including some of those, like Liberman, who know him best. Yet even if the new government is formed, and even if, miraculously, Gantz finds himself in the prime minister’s chair in 18 months’ time as Netanyahu has promised, the constitutional innovations and year-long political deadlock that Netanyahu’s brand of duplicitous politics have inflicted on the country will have already left a permanent mark on Israeli governance and political culture.

Original: HAVVIV RETTIG-GUR – TOI