After months of negotiations to bring the Labor party into his government, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu changed tack and signed a coalition deal with former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beitenu. This expands the government’s one-seat coalition majority in parliament. However, it comes with its own problems.
A Moldova-born West Bank settler known for his sharp and appropriate language against Arabs, Liberman takes over the defense minister’s job from Moshe Ya’alon, who was pushed out after criticizing what he considered a trampling of Israel’s democratic values. In his resignation announcement, Ya’alon warned that “extremist elements have taken control of the country.”
Q: What does Liberman’s joining mean for political stability?
A: The agreement widens the government’s margin in parliament to six seats from one. Yet while Netanyahu may appear to have solidified his hold on power, Liberman has broken and allied with him multiple times since the prime minister’s first term in the 1990s. Seen as a political rival to his ex-boss as much as an ally, Liberman declined to join the government when it was formed a year ago, and he and Netanyahu’s Likud party were sniping at each other just days before their new tie-up was announced.
Q: What does Liberman’s appointment mean for economic policy?
A: Liberman champions free markets, something that could be crucial for the budding natural gas industry. If the Supreme Court again strikes down the government’s proposed policy for developing the country’s largest gas field, Netanyahu now would have coalition backing to pass legislation to circumvent the bench. Liberman is also seeking billions of shekels in added pension benefits for his primarily Russian-speaking constituency.
Q: Will his tough talk translate into tougher military responses?
A: A former army corporal, Liberman criticized Netanyahu as too soft on militants during the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip and called for the reoccupation of the Hamas-ruled enclave. He’s been quoted advocating a “disproportionate” response against hostile acts by Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group and once talked about bombing Egypt’s Aswan dam.
Most defense ministers use their military expertise and knowledge to restrain other members of government “who shoot from the hip and don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Mark Heller, a research fellow in regional politics at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
“If his historical record is worth anything at all, it’s a cause of concern,” Heller said, while adding that as foreign minister, Liberman “occasionally” showed self-restraint.
Q: Can the new coalition renew peace talks with the Palestinians?
A: France is pushing an international peace conference and Egypt has offered to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians, but there’s no sign either side is willing to make concessions to get negotiations moving. Liberman’s past talk won’t grease the wheels.
He’s called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas an obstacle to peace and has spoken of assassinating Gaza-based Hamas leaders. He’s questioned the loyalty of Israel’s Arab minority and wants to redraw Israel’s borders to incorporate settlements and shift some Arab citizens to Palestinian jurisdiction.
Unlike other nationalists in Netanyahu’s government, Liberman accepts the principle of a Palestinian state and has said he’d be willing to leave his West Bank home for a deal he approved. On Sunday the prime minister said his broadened government “will continue to strive for a diplomatic process.”
The coalition agreement “will just make it more complicated for Arab countries and Israel to engage more closely and more openly,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based consulting firm Cornerstone Global Associates. “We will have to see how he acts as a representative of the Israeli state, as opposed to a representative of an Israeli party. This will be a test of leadership for Netanyahu and Liberman as well.”
(c) 2016, Bloomberg · David Wainer