There may have been covert negotiations between Netanyahu and Lieberman for a long time. But as far as the Likud and Israel Beiteinu leadership and members were concerned – not to mention the public – the announcement was a bolt from the sky.
That Netanyahu and Lieberman could make such an announcement on the recommendations of a foreign political consultant without even adequate prior internal consultations and consideration with other senior party leader, reflects poorly on the inner democracy of their parties and their accountability as leaders.
One is also tempted to question Netanyahu’s judgment in these matters. Had he opted for early elections he would have won handsomely. His impulsive deal with Kadima last May was initiated without adequate pre-planning and backfired disastrously.
Now he appears to have once again made a major strategic move without prior consultations within his inner party circles. This highlights an ongoing deficiency in his leadership approach – the failure to engage party colleagues in decision-making which marks him as a loner and understandably creates resentment.
There is also a question as to whether he has adequately planned this joint venture. What agreements were made in relation to the Haredi draft and other religion and state issues such as conversion, marriage and the role of the rabbinate over which he and Lieberman had previously differed? Did they reach a broad understanding in relation to the peace process? Did they discuss the civil rights issues over which they previously differed? Do they have a view on a future coalition which would not necessarily be based on dependency on the Haredi parties? Did Netanyahu reach an understanding that Lieberman would cease publicly contradicting or rebuking him?
Has Netanyahu taken into consideration the fact that Weinstein could still indict Lieberman on corruption charges?
These are all issues concerning which voters are entitled to clarification.
There is the risk that far from strengthening the two parties, both will lose voters. Currently both parties control 43 seats. Should that be substantially reduced what will be the benefit of the unity ticket?
Some Likud Sephardi voters and those more liberally inclined may object to being associated with a hard-line secular Russian based party. Some Israel Beiteinu voters may defect because they will resent the fact that their efforts to limit the excessive leverage of the ultra-Orthodox will be undermined or that their party will be moving to the center.
Netanyahu prided himself, with good reason, for having moved the political fulcrum of Israeli politics towards a consensus of the center. His latest move could signal a hard line tilt and considerable less flexibility. Is that really what he wants to achieve?
The potentially positive byproduct of such a merger could be if it leads to the elimination of the smaller parties, the emergence of a three party system and a reform of the current electoral system. But beyond paying lip service to the need for reform, have there been any concrete agreements or strategies devised to implement such changes?
The beneficiaries of this move will undoubtedly be Sheli Yachimovitch’s Labor Party, Yair Lapid’s new party Yesh Atid and possibly Shas.
Labor certainly stands to gain a substantial proportion of Kadima’s disaffected voters and could well gain 20 seats, emerging as the new leader of the opposition. Yachimovich is a relative novice to politics but has displayed the capacity of reviving a genuine social Democratic Zionist party and indicated that she has no time for the delusionary far left and post Zionist elements that virtually brought the party to extinction. But unlike Tzipi Livni, she avoids opposition for the sake of opposition and selectively supports government policies, presenting a united front on issues such as the threat of a nuclear Iran. Whilst critical of settlements, she constantly reminds her followers that Labor was responsible for initiating settlement policies and speaks with restraint and compassion about sacrifices that may be required from those living in isolated areas outside the major blocs.
Yair Lapid is also entirely new to politics but has a clean record, is a bright and likable person and likely to gain a substantial number of seats, especially if the Netanyahu Lieberman group fail to commit to a genuine reform in relation to the Haredi issues such as the draft. Unlike his late father, he does not engage in crude Haredi bashing but seeks to cultivate support for the burning resentment against the Haredi draft evasion, their failure to earn livelihoods and attempts to impose stringent religious standards on the entire nation. By making his number two listed candidate the religious Zionist former military chaplain Rabbi Shai Piron, he is sending a message that he wants to change the system but is not an anti-religious bigot.
Shas may also gain a number of disaffected Sephardi voters who will not wish to be aligned with Lieberman’s Russian based party.
The major question is whether a broader national unity government will emerge in which a consensus based on centrist policies is maintained or whether the country’s political leadership will move towards the hard right?
Initially, even Labor had agreed to consider participating in a broader national unity government. With the new constellation including Lieberman, this could be problematic.
Irrespective as to who wins the US elections, Israel is facing extraordinary global challenges over the next few years and we would be well served by a broad unity government. The Iranian nuclear issue poses a long-term existential threat. There could be a revival of calls for a renewal of negotiations based on the indefensible 1949 armistice lines representing the opening benchmark. We face renewed terrorist threats from nearly all our borders and there are upheavals and instability throughout the Arab world.
Ironically, despite the anti-Netanyahu media, our outgoing prime minister has emerged as a true statesman and remains head and shoulders above any other potential leadership contender. His policy towards the Palestinians – a willingness to make major concessions based on reciprocity but no further unilateral concessions – enjoys a consensual support of the nation. Despite ongoing terrorist attempts, a high level of security was sustained.
Netanyahu’s earlier involvement in the Israeli economy combined with persuading Stanley Fischer to assume the post of Governor of the Bank of Israel enabled us to weather the global economic meltdown far better than most European and North American economies. The social protest issues were confronted and whilst there still remains a need to curb the power of the controlling family-owned corporations, the dominant issue during the election is likely to be security rather than the economy.
Will Netanyahu now undermine himself with this Lieberman unity ticket? In this volatile political environment anything goes. Time will tell.