Lieberman’s Distraction

Brent E. Sasley on how Avigdor Lieberman's indictment won't (yet) slow his rise to power.

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman attends a party meeting in Jerusalem on Jul. 6, 2009. (Photo: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)

A week ago I argued in Open Zion that Avigdor Lieberman has been working hard toward his goal of becoming Prime Minister of Israel. I wrote: “It remains to be seen whether, as the challenges become more difficult, Lieberman will be able to maneuver around or storm over them as he has done until now.” His latest obstacle is the Attorney General’s decision to indict him on breach of trust and fraud.

Lieberman has just made a public announcement that, once you clear away the attacks on Europe, essentially says he’s not resigning due to the indictment (even though he had once promised he would do just that). Instead, he’ll “consider the will of the voters” while he consults with his lawyers. Given that polling still shows Likud Beiteinu getting close to 40 mandates, that sounds like code for: I’m not leaving unless forced to. He did, though, add that he’s asked the Knesset t remove his immunity so the prosecution can go forward, in order to clear his name.

Before his announcement there was some anticipation on my Twitter feed that Lieberman might resign as Foreign Minister, and that this would be good for Israel. It’s hard to argue with the latter. We might not be able to say he’s been a disaster in that position, but he has certainly not been helpful, and often done more harm than good.

In general Lieberman has been bombastic, hyperbolic, and belligerent in a position that, given Israel’s challenges in making its case to the world, requires tact, finesse, and wisdom.

It’s been Lieberman who stood fast against any apology to Turkey for the killing of its citizens in the Mavi Marmara affair. It’s not clear that an apology would have actually helped repair the fraying of Turkish-Israeli relations, given that the break was a long time coming. But Turkey is an important ally for Israel, and Lieberman made no constructive effort to bring down tensions.

Similarly, he’s been aggressive and angry toward the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas, despite the fact that undermining the PA only strengthens Hamas and makes it harder for Israel to claim it’s interested in peace talks.

But it’s clear that Lieberman sees the Attorney General’s decision as a distraction—not even a setback. He’s worked too hard—and come too close to the center of power—to give up over a minor legal issue. That the most serious charges have been dropped must be encouraging. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already said he’ll stand by Lieberman. And it’s not like Israel hasn’t had leaders under investigation before (Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak) or even convicted (Aryeh Deri) who then return to politics.

At the moment, Yisrael Beiteinu is the linchpin of the coming rightist government. In theory, a coalition after January 22 could be composed of a range of rightwing, centrist, and leftwing parties. But Lieberman’s party is already legally running on a joint ticket with the core right-learning party, Likud, and together they form the largest ticket in the election. Whether Netanyahu moves away from him after the elections will depend on how badly other parties want into the government and how Netanyahu calculates his interests. In the meantime, though, Netanyahu needs Lieberman’s seats and votes.

There’s nothing in the indictment that says Lieberman can’t become Foreign Minister again after the election. It’s not clear how long the trial will take, and the issue of precedent is vague enough that there is lots of room to maneuver back into public life. Resigning from the Knesset now would have allowed him to both claim he’s respecting the legal process, and pave the way for him to return with a new Knesset. But he somewhat covered for that by asking for his immunity to be removed.

In short, the indictment and Lieberman’s non-resignation is an important event, but it’s not necessarily determinative of his future. For now, I think this is simply another bump in the road to the prime ministry, even if it’s bigger than the others have been thus far.