11.02.12

Israel: Inside Bibi’s Backroom Deal

For roughly a year, an American political strategist had been pushing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to merge his party with that of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The dramatic political merger last week between the parties of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was in the makings for more than a year and was agreed upon in principle at the Regency hotel in New York five weeks ago, according to Israeli officials familiar with the negotiation.

Netanyahu and Lieberman stayed at the hotel while attending the annual gathering of the United Nations General Assembly in late September. They were visited there one night by American political strategist Arthur Finkelstein, who has worked with both men on Israeli campaigns over the years.

Finkelstein, who advises Republican candidates in the U.S., had been pushing the two Israelis to run jointly in a future election. This time he had polls results to help make his case, according to the officials. They showed that a union of Likud and Israel Beitenu, as their two parties are called, would garner as many as 47 parliamentary seats—five more than the sum of the two parties in the current 120-member legislature.

A parliamentary election wasn’t scheduled for another year but Netanyahu, facing dissent from coalition members over his 2013 budget bill, was already considering moving up the vote to January. Lieberman’s willingness to enter into the agreement and the favorable poll numbers helped clinch the decision, which he officially made on Oct. 9.

But Netanyahu and Lieberman kept the merger a secret for another two weeks, a surprising achievement in a country where even the most sensitive information tends to find its way to the press. When they did reveal it at a joint news conference on Oct. 25, almost a full month after striking the deal, the timing was meant to upstage an announcement by former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he was entering the race, the officials told The Daily Beast. (Olmert remains undecided).

The details shed light on a political maneuver that could have broad implications for Israel. Lieberman, an ultranationalist who wants to redraw Israel’s map to exclude its Arab citizens, is one of the country’s most polarizing political figures. Though he had already been a member of Netanyahu’s coalition, government critics say his return to the ruling Likud party (where he started his political career in the late 1980s) pushes Israel further to the right, away from peacemaking with the Palestinian and towards more settlement expansion in the West Bank.

While Netanyahu anticipated such criticism, he saw significant electoral benefits to the agreement, according to the officials. The combined strength of the two factions would help him secure another term as prime minister and give him control of the largest political party Israel has known in two decades. They said Netanyahu took into account the possibility that the merger could also alienate some traditional Likud voters, including observant Jews who feel Israel Beitenu is too stridently anti-religious.

Lieberman, an ultranationalist who wants to redraw Israel’s map to exclude its Arab citizens, is one of the country’s most polarizing political figures.

Lieberman, who was born in Moldova and whose party draws most of its support from Israel’s Russian-speaking immigrants, viewed the merger as a potential stepping stone to the prime minister’s office. As he saw it, the agreement would propel him from his position as the head of a medium-size sectarian faction to the number two spot in the country’s main ruling party.

“I don’t think there’s any question he wants to be prime minister one day,” said one of the officials who, like the others, did not want to be named discussing internal party politics. “I’m sure it was part of the calculation [in reaching the agreement].”

Spokesmen for both parties declined to comment on the details. But a senior official in Netanyahu’s office confirmed the two men had been discussing the plan off and on for about a year and that both Netanyahu and Lieberman stayed at the Regency hotel during the General Assembly meeting. He could not say whether a meeting with Finkelstein took place.

The official said even if an understanding had been reached in late September, the two sides were still ironing out the details in the days leading up to the Oct. 25 announcement.

He stressed that Netanyahu would continue pursuing peace talks with the Palestinians regardless of the merger. “In the past four years, Lieberman has in no way prevented negotiations from happening with the Palestinians. In no way does this agreement with Lieberman tie the prime minister’s hands,” the official told the Daily Beast.

Lieberman has given conflicting signals about peacemaking with the Palestinians. He has said repeatedly that he’s willing to vacate his own home in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim for a real peace agreement. But he also believes the land-for-peace formula that has anchored all negotiations over the past two decades is obsolete and should be replaced with the principle of land and populations swaps.

Specifically, Lieberman wants Israel to incorporate Jewish settlements of the West Bank into its borders, while ceding to the Palestinians parts of Israeli territory where Arab citizens are concentrated—effectively revoking their citizenship.

Human rights groups say such disenfranchisement would violate international law.

“The only message to come from this merger is that the settlement program will intensify and that…the peace process has no future,” said Mohammed Shtayeh, a longtime Palestinian peace negotiator.

Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea, writing in the mass circulation Yedioth Ahronoth this week, said political mergers like the one between Likud Israel Beitenu usually end with one side consuming the other.

“The most interesting question pertains to the future: Who will swallow whom—will Netanyahu swallow Lieberman or will Lieberman swallow Netanyahu,” Barnea wrote.

“Lieberman is the strong side in it. He is also the hungry side, the dangerous side.”