A Would-Be Netanyahu Nemesis Snipes From the Sidelines

A Would-Be Netanyahu Nemesis Snipes From the Sidelines

NOKDIM, West Bank — He broke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his onetime boss and longtime right-wing coalition ally, in an attempt at ending Mr. Netanyahu’s career that sent Israel tumbling toward a second and third round of elections.

He briefly upended Israeli politics, teaming up with center-left politicians in hopes of reeling in the power of ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who hold a state-sanctioned monopoly over matters like marriage, divorce and religious conversions.

He even tried teaming up with Arab lawmakers, whom he had vilified for years, to pass a law barring Mr. Netanyahu from forming a government while facing prosecution on corruption charges.

For all that, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Liberman, has made no apologies.

Now, he and his party are sidelined in the opposition, while Mr. Netanyahu, still on top, is pressing ahead with a longtime Liberman goal: the annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including Nokdim, the tiny hilltop community overlooking the Judean Desert where Mr. Liberman has lived for 30 years.

Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Yet, Mr. Liberman, 61, insists he likes the view from where he sits just fine. In a season of political flip-flops, he still has his credibility, he says.

“We keep our word,” he said in a rare interview at his home this week. “Today, everybody knows that you can rely on Yisrael Beiteinu. What we promised and what we say is what you will have.”

Mr. Liberman says he has little time for Mr. Netanyahu’s vow to annex occupied territory in the West Bank — a promise that the prime minister rolled out in April last year, on the eve of the first of the three elections to shore up right-wing support, and that he has been dangling before Israeli voters ever since. (The latest promise is to follow through after July 1.)

Mr. Liberman says he is a strong supporter of annexing at least the Jordan Valley, to give Israel a permanent, defensible eastern border for the first time. A former foreign minister and defense minister, he acknowledges that annexation could disrupt Israel’s efforts to expand its formal diplomatic ties with Arab countries, which oppose Israel’s intent to impose its sovereignty over land the Palestinians are counting on for a future state.

“There are risks,” he said. “But also I don’t know any national struggle without any risks. There are risks and a price in everything. And I’m ready to pay the price.”

He said the risks of a violent response among Palestinians on the West Bank were quite real. “I don’t think; I know — it’s serious,” he said, adding that it was “crazy” that Mr. Netanyahu had left the Israeli Army and the Internal Security Agency out of crucial planning for annexation.

Yet, Mr. Liberman scoffed at the idea that Mr. Netanyahu was pursuing annexation as a way to shore up his legacy. Rather, he called it “an attempt to run away” from problems like Mr. Netanyahu’s criminal trial and an economy in tatters.

Why, he said, hadn’t Mr. Netanyahu just gone ahead and annexed the Jordan Valley 14 months ago?


Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Mr. Liberman noted that when Menachem Begin annexed the Golan Heights, in 1981, he did so in a single day without warning anyone.

“You have a majority,” he said. “What’s your problem? You speak about the Jordan Valley. Let’s go.”

Instead, Mr. Netanyahu has kept the discussion about annexation in the future tense, always adding a new twist in the newspapers.

The dragged-out buildup has only “created a lot of noise around this issue,” he said. “And he gave time to all the people that are against it.”

Mr. Liberman also assailed the credibility of Benny Gantz, the former army chief. Mr. Gantz ran against Mr. Netanyahu three times while promising never to serve alongside him, then reversed himself in exchange for the defense minister’s portfolio and a power-sharing agreement that could give him a turn as prime minister in late 2021.

“It really was a betrayal of his promises, his commitments to his voters,” Mr. Liberman said of Mr. Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, which also drew considerable left-wing support.

He added that Mr. Gantz seemed all too willing to give up on the premiership. “I think he is still very weak,” Mr. Liberman said. “He feels that he doesn’t have the power to be a real prime minister. He prefers to be minister of defense in Netanyahu’s government.”

Mr. Gantz has defended his decision to join up with Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party in a bid for national unity at a moment of crisis. But Mr. Liberman is unimpressed.

“It’s not unity when Gantz gave up everything that he promised,” he said. “It’s a fifth Netanyahu government.”


Credit…Dan Balilty for The New York Times

The formation of the new government consigns Mr. Liberman to an unfamiliar role in the opposition, where he will have to vie for attention with the centrist Yair Lapid, who shares similar views about the ultra-Orthodox, and with Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Yamina party, who is even more of a territorial maximalist.

He says he is not worried about being able to stand out. “We’re a real Zionist, liberal, secular party,” he said, “like Likud used to be.”

The opposition also includes the predominantly Arab Joint List, whose leaders Mr. Liberman has long accused of being a “fifth column.” Arab politicians, in turn, refer to him as “the racist.” He also believes that in drawing the map for a potential two-state solution, it would be acceptable to exchange heavily Arab areas of Israel for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

In the interview, Mr. Liberman said that he harbored no bias against Arab citizens, no matter their religion, as long as their loyalty is to Israel, not to a hoped-for Palestinian state.

“If you’re Israeli, you’re Israeli,” he said. “Either you integrate in our society, or please go away.”

Unfamiliar role or not, Mr. Liberman had little trouble finding fault with the new government. He likened Mr. Netanyahu to the former Argentine president, Juan Perón — “without values, without anything, except the desire to stay in power.”

“I think it’s possible to convince our citizens that there are some alternatives, not only one,” he said. Besides, he added, “Menachem Begin called it a great honor to serve the Jewish people in opposition. He sat in opposition for 29 years.”

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