Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been viewed with disapproval by Israeli democratic watchdog groups and derided by the nation's security establishment. With his latest maneuver, he has outdone himself in placing Israel's democracy and strategic interests at risk for base political considerations.
On Monday, Netanyahu received a boost of sorts when his Likud party voted to approve the merger he has worked out with Avigdor Lieberman's ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party in preparation for the Israeli elections, scheduled to take place on January 22. The unity arrangement -- commonly referred to as the "Biberman" deal -- was the brainchild of Arthur Finkelstein, a Republican Party consultant who helped engineer Netanyahu's razor-thin victory over Shimon Peres in 1996 and who in recent years has been advising Lieberman, Netanyahu's foreign minister. Finkelstein managed to convince both Netanyahu and Lieberman that a large right-wing bloc will garner up to 45 Knesset seats in the upcoming elections. (The two parties currently have 42 seats combined.)
Time will tell whether Netanyahu's gambit will pay off at the polls or result in a net loss of seats for his party. What is certain is that, in elevating Lieberman's status, he is effectively putting Israel's strategic interests in jeopardy while threatening the democratic fabric of society.
That Lieberman is no democrat is an understatement. As of this writing, he is facing possible indictment for charges of fraud, breach of trust, money laundering and witness harassment. The Moldovan-born former nightclub bouncer entered politics as Netanyahu's right-hand man, eventually becoming the head of his own mid-sized party that appeals primarily to Russian immigrants and right-wing youth, many of whom hold outright racist views. No stranger to controversy, in 2001, he was convicted for assaulting a 12-year old boy who had beaten his son. Earlier this year, he called a Bedouin Member of Knesset a "terrorist." Beyond his thuggish behavior, Lieberman has flirted with overtly fascist ideas. He has proposed that Palestinian prisoners be drowned in the Dead Sea; advocated population exchanges that would effectively strip some Israeli Arabs of their citizenship; and introduced legislation aimed at limiting the rights of Israeli Arabs. A more dominant role for him in the next government would provide him with a platform for carrying out his nefarious ideas, putting Israeli democracy at risk.
A more robust role for Lieberman and his like-minded party colleagues would also jeopardize Israel's strategic interests. Although nominally the foreign minister, it is defense minister Ehud Barak who has largely served as Israel's emissary to the world, with Lieberman regarded as a persona non grata in the Arab world and in much of the Western world. Indeed, the government's top diplomat is anything but diplomatic. He has recklessly suggested that Israel could bomb the Aswan Dam if Egypt and Israel were to face off militarily. Lieberman has not hidden his disdain for the peace process, suggesting that the "peace industry" is unrealistic and a waste of money. He has opposed every peace initiative to date and he has called the moderate Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, "the biggest obstacle to peace," earning him a sharp rebuke from Barak. A strong proponent of Jewish settlements in the West Bank -- he is a settler himself -- he opposes the dismantling of even the illegal settlement outposts. His party rejects not only the two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but even the very notion of territorial compromise. According to its platform, "The belief that the root of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is territorial, and therefore can be solved by giving up territory, is a grave error."
Another Netanyahu government, with greater influence from Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu faction, could mean war with Iran, increased tensions with Israel's neighbors, a deterioration in Israel's relationship with the U.S., further international isolation, and a death knell to the two state solution, without which Israel cannot remain a Jewish and democratic state.
In his effort to secure his reelection, Netanyahu has offered Lieberman, in effect, a partnership of equals, declaring that Lieberman will be able to choose any of the top portfolios in his next government -- defense, finance or foreign affairs. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has stated that allowing Lieberman to choose the defense portfolio would amount to an "existential threat" to Israel. It has also been rumored that Netanyahu and Lieberman have agreed on a rotation on the prime minister's seat, a report both parties deny. Lieberman, indeed, is said to be eying the premiership.
Netanyahu has long put his political ambitions above Israel's security needs. In his first term as prime minister, he constantly fought with the security establishment over reckless adventures. In his current term, too, he has been repeatedly challenged by the nation's recently-retired top security officials, from ex-Shin Bet-head Yuval Diskin to ex-Mossad director Meir Dagan to ex-IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi over his saber rattling toward Iran, his failure to advance the peace process with the Palestinians, and his poor handling of U.S.-Israel relations. Diskin, for instance, has publicly stated that he has "no faith" in Israel's current leadership which, he believes, has been misleading the public about Iran. More recently, Netanyahu has butted heads with Defense Minister Barak and President Shimon Peres over these significant strategic priorities.
Netanyahu's decision to form a partnership with Lieberman is the latest and arguably the most consequential move to shore up his right-wing base while jeopardizing Israel's democratic character and undercutting the nation's security needs. "Biberman," in short, does not portend well for Israel's future.