Will ‘Bieberman’ bring down Netanyahu sooner than he thinks?

The reappearance of some veteran politicians on the scene had Netanyahu worried enough to merge with Lieberman. But while Bibi may be ensured another term, he will ultimately pay for the toll of his economic and political policies on Israelis and Palestinians.

By Yacov Ben Efrat

Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for early elections initially evoked an instinctive response: Who needs this? The result of normal elections, scheduled for next fall, was predictable: Bibi could look forward to another four years as prime minister. He had split the Labor Party and pulverized his main rival, Kadima, dispersing its 29 mandates in all directions, with the result that no one on the political horizon could even come close to posing a threat. Nevertheless, elections are always a step into the unknown. Before Bibi’s announcement, his predecessor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert—who had been ousted because of corruption charges—won a court victory and was able to contemplate a return to political life. There was also action from Haim Ramon, who had been forced into early political retirement because of an illicit kiss. Ramon is working to return Tzipi Livni to the arena and unite forces with Olmert. Ramon’s close friend, Aryeh Deri of the Sephardic religious party Shas, is returning to politics after ten years, two of which he spent in prison for bribery. This pool of old-time sharks was enough to scare Netanyahu.

The Likud has also suffered a shock with the retirement of the popular Moshe Kahlon, the communications minister who engineered a drastic reduction in Israeli phone bills. Kahlon has said that “the Likud might lose the government” and that “if Olmert returns to the political arena, this could prove a problem for Netanyahu” (Yedioth Ahronoth on October 23, 2012).

And then the big surprise. On Thursday, October 25, 2012, Bibi appeared at a joint press conference with Avigdor Lieberman (foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beitenu party) to announce a new election list called “Likud Beitenu.” This combination, he thought, would ensure his grasp on power.

As an old political salt, Netanyahu is no less salty than all his rivals put together. In the elections of 2009 he rose from the ashes, propelling the Likud from 12 to 27 mandates. He also knows how to reap the results in advance. In 2009, for instance, although the Likud fell one mandate short of Livni’s Kadima, he knew that Shas would not enter a coalition with her, for he had already closed a deal with it (and a Livni-Lieberman duet was out of the question). This time, though, his gut feeling told him that such a deal wouldn’t work. Olmert is capable of closing the deal of deals, a combo of past and potential jailbirds: Olmert, Lieberman, and Deri together could bring him down.

If Lieberman read Kahlon’s statements in Yedioth, he understood that the public again wants to punish Bibi. He understood that the protest movement of summer 2011 is having, after all, a political effect. This catalyzed his contacts with Netanyahu. On the surface it might seem that Bibi could have cut a deal with Lieberman just as well without uniting their forces in a single list, just as he did in 2009 with Shas. Apparently Lieberman refused, raising his price. From his viewpoint, unity with the Likud is advantageous: it is a stepping stone toward taking command of the Likud, his first political home. On the other hand, it is also clear that the merger is by no means a natural one. Until now 80 percent of Likud voters were Mizrahis [Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origins], many of them religious; their share in the party is likely to contract, yielding ground to Lieberman’s pork-eating “Russians.”

The merger expresses the coinciding interests of two leaders who share a lust for power and a hatred for Arabs. It does not express, however, homogeneity among the targeted constituents in the two parties. Quite possibly, it may not go down well with those who previously voted Likud or Yisrael Beitenu. The number of mandates may fail to increase, and the whole move may turn out to be less than the sum of its parts. Political surprises of this sort sometimes create strange bedfellows, as in the case of Kadima, placing such opposed interests within a single party that it soon bursts into pieces. At the end of the day, this merger may dismember the right wing rather than strengthen it.

Netanyahu’s step demonstrates how far the sands of Israel’s politics can shift. Until now the political map could be divided into (1) special-interest parties (which today hold 49 of the 120 Knesset seats), and (2) three principal parties: the Likud, Kadima, and Labor. Since the ideological differences among the three big parties are small, each of the special-interest parties (except the Arab groups) could choose which one to join in order to establish a ruling coalition. Because of the big parties’ similar agendas, during the past three decades all governments have pursued the same neoliberal economic policies.

As for the peace front, fearing problems from the coalition partners and the settlers, recent governments have all have set conditions that the Palestinians could not accept. The public either splits its vote among the major parties or disperses it among the special interests, because it sees no serious alternative to the regime. All three big parties speak in favor of “settlement blocs,” a united Jerusalem, and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; they argue about taxation policy — whose burden to lighten and whose to increase — while accepting the eternal sanctity of the huge defense budget.

On this basis we can see why Bibi hastened to close the deal with Lieberman. He headed off a potential coalition between Lieberman, Olmert, Deri and Shelly Yachimovich [head of the Labor Party], the aim of which would be to reconstitute the “successful” term of Olmert as prime minister.

The protest movement of summer 2011 attempted to fill the political void that had developed in the Knesset. It made sure that no politician would dare  set foot in its demonstrations. It proclaimed that politics had been kidnapped by the tycoons while the working public was forgotten and marginalized. However, the protest movement, like Shelly Yachimovich today, neglected the issue of the Occupation. They neglected the question of peace, which is today the existential issue par excellence. They are in no position, therefore, to form an alternative to the right wing. It is no accident that important leaders of the protest movement have joined Yachimovich in Labor, burying the hope for real political change. Making eyes at voters on the right, Labor has remade itself as Likud B. Today, after the fusion of Bibi and Lieberman, it becomes less relevant than ever, and it will have to choose between sterile opposition and a place within the “Bieberman” coalition. Knowing Labor’s other leaders — Avishai Braverman, Buji Herzog, and Ofer Eini — we can already congratulate Yachimovich on her appointment as the next Minister of Welfare.

Anyone who wants to build an alternative to the weird right-wing tragedy that is taking shape must adopt a social-economic platform that will turn the current system on its head: instead of favoring the tycoons, encourage working people; instead of selling factories and “exits,” create jobs; instead of migrant workers and workers on contract without benefits, provide job stability to local workers; instead of racist legislation, promote employment and development among the Arab population; instead of settlement blocs, make peace with the Palestinians on the basis of two states; instead of a defense budget, create a budget of peace and welfare.

On the basis of this platform, we can again go into the street to protest the cost of living and the fabrication of pointless wars. That is what is at issue today. There is no reason to strengthen Netanyahu by voting for parties that are likely to join his coalition, such as Lapid’s or Yachimovich’s. On the other hand, there are many reasons to vote for a party such as Da’am, which views the protest movement as an act of direct democracy that can change the situation toward favoring the workers instead of the rich. We need a spring of our own in the spirit of the Arab Spring. The protest can succeed where the politicians have failed. It can convey a message from our hearts to those of the revolutionary youth in the Arab world who seek progress and democracy.

The fusion of Bibi and Lieberman may promise Netanyahu another term, but it does not solve the problems that afflict Israeli society. It is not the “governance system” and the citizenship law that trouble the citizens, it is rather issues of bread, education, housing, and employment. To these issues Bibi’s only answer is more cuts. But the biggest problem, which the politicians do not see, is the fate of the five million Palestinians who live in poverty, scarcity, and oppression. This is the trap that awaits Israel. Bibi and colleagues are playing with fire. Politics is not the art of keeping one’s chair, but a means for advancing the welfare of the citizens. Bibi and colleagues cannot provide this, and they will pay the price sooner than they think.

Yacov Ben Efrat is secretary-general of Da’am – Workers Party. The piece was originally published in Challenge, a magazine covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.