The acquittal of Avigdor Lieberman and his expected return to the cabinet table will usher in a new phase of this government’s story. In the immediate future, Lieberman is unlikely to make any bold separatist moves, as his number one priority now will be to rehabilitate his national image, from that of a serial-suspect under perpetual suspicion, to that of political kingmaker and senior statesman. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will also seek to portray Lieberman’s return to the government as the return of a strong and supportive pillar, further cementing Netanyahu’s credentials as the head of a solid, united coalition facing a tough international battle against Iran’s campaign of deception and Palestinian intransigence — and the world’s misunderstanding of both.
There might even be warm talk of the strength of the Likud Beytenu alliance, and how Lieberman’s return to the cabinet table gives it added gravitas and stability. But make no mistake, there is growing bad blood between the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, and several top politicians in both parties who will be working toward a split in the alliance.
Sooner or later, Lieberman’s political ambition will start to itch at him, and he’ll want to show the world that his political acumen — which took a severe beating with the defeat of his candidate Moshe Lion for the Jerusalem mayoral race — is still as sharp and powerful as ever. We already got a taste of this on Monday, when Lieberman, in a joint Likud Beytenu faction meeting, offered Netanyahu some advice on how to keep his coalition, which has seemed fractious as of late, under control. “Over the past two days, I’ve witnessed several internal arguments within the coalition,” Lieberman said, turning to Netanyahu. “I recommend that you and coalition chairman Yariv Levin, as well as Deputy Minister for Coordination Between the Government and the Knesset Ofir Akunis, set up a weekly forum of heads of coalition parties to overcome the unnecessary arguments that arise.”
Netanyahu’s own sharp political ears must have picked up the nuanced music in Lieberman’s ‘advice.’
The last two major issues the two parties fought over were the release of 26 Palestinian terrorists from prison as part of the negotiations process [Yisrael Beytenu ministers voted against the release], and the fact that Likud-Beytenu couldn’t support one candidate for the Jerusalem mayoral race.
The fate of the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu political alliance will be decided in the coming weeks. A tense period of waiting will clear up, and the two parties will have to decide on their paths going forward.
There are a lot of voices in both parties that believe the alliance has served its purpose: It returned a right wing government to power, with Netanyahu at its helm. The January election result wasn’t as good as they had hoped, but the main goal was achieved.
The two entities have acted as two separate parties but as one faction in the Knesset. For most of the last eight months they have acted as one, voting together on a range of bills, with only minor infractions on separate occasions when they acted differently. This, as stated above, ended on the issue of the release of terrorists. On most legislative issues there wasn’t much difference between them and whether they stay together or split in the near term won’t have much bearing on the way this government continues to function.
However, two things could shake up this picture: An Israeli-Palestinian peace deal should one be reached, and if general elections are moved forward for any reason before their scheduled 2017 date.
From Yisrael Beytenu’s standpoint, there is more to gain from eventually splitting off from the Likud. The longer Yisrael Beytenu stays with the Likud the longer they are thought of as a satellite party to the Likud, and thus in danger of losing its identity ahead of the next elections. Yisrael Beytenu has, from its inception, traditionally put reforming the system of government, civil and religious issues and universal draft as its core issues – way before Yesh Atid was even dreamt up in Yair Lapid’s head. The longer Yisrael Beytenu stays with Likud, the less reason there will be for voters to think of it as a separate entity, and the members of Yisrael Beytenu are not interested in that. For the Likud, Yisrael Beytenu’s platform of radical changes to the religious status-quo are far removed from traditional Likud values, which espouse slow, mediated reform. On a more granular level, many in Likud blame the alliance with Yisrael Beytenu for a significant loss of traditional voters, who preferred Habayit Hayehudi’s less anti-religious, more traditional makeup.
The longstanding issues that brought Yisrael Beytenu electoral success in previous elections, namely universal service for all, civil unions, electoral reform, and reforming [or abolishing] the chief rabbinate, have now been taken up as the main platform of Yesh Atid who have made it their own, and that could potentially hurt Yisrael Beytenu. Furthermore, an analysis of the January elections shows that Likud-Beytenu also hemorrhaged votes to Yesh Atid, not only to Habayit Hayehudi. With Likud Beytenu staking the nationalist ground on the right, the dismal election results for the joint list  saw a severe backlash within both parties to the merger, with top politicians in both parties believing their parties would have done better alone.
Now, with Lieberman’s acquittal, Yisrael Beytenu will seek to reassert itself. It will most likely start with trying to reclaim its core issues back from Yesh Atid, especially in the service for all arena as well as in chipping away at the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religious bureaucracy. Both of these areas has seen the Likud move slowly, mostly so as not to alienate the ultra-Orthodox parties too much or create chaos and rupture within the population in general. As soon as Yisrael Beytenu starts to reassert itself in these areas again, sparks should start flying with the Likud.
By next May, when the nine-month deadline for the John Kerry-led peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians approaches, there will be another test for the Likud-Beytenu alliance. As a united faction but separate party, Yisrael Beytenu can still vote against any deal that Netanyahu brings to the cabinet table, but that would be extremely awkward, and possibly even untenable.
Lieberman himself is not against a two state solution in principle but believes it can’t be achieve in this generation, with these Palestinian leaders, and within the current climate of upheaval in the Middle East. For the past few years, Lieberman has been leading a campaign against PA President Mahmoud Abbas, a campaign which leaves few doubts as to the former Moldovan nightclub bouncer’s feelings for the man. Lieberman is very skeptical of the peace negotiations as well as the possibility that they will reach a positive conclusion at this time, a view shared by Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett. Bennett and Lieberman have grown closer over the past few months. While it has always been assured that Bennett’s party will not support a deal that sees the creation of a Palestinian state, it was also always assumed that Lieberman’s party would support one, on condition that it provides watertight security, and an end to all further claims. But Lieberman’s acquittal and renewed strength, plus his party’s need to begin asserting itself, places that assumption back on the table.
Netanyahu and Lieberman have a close yet complex relationship. The way these two handle each other’s interests in the coming weeks and months could set the course for the political future of this government.