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Lieberman’s momentous decision spells the beginning of the end for the Netanyahu era

Benjamin Netanyahu used to be a winner. In July he became Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, breaking David Ben Gurion’s record. But after ten years in office, his right-wing and ultra-orthodox coalition has fallen apart.

When the results of April’s election were announced, it looked like Netanyahu would be able to recreate his previous coalition and sail past the magic 61 seats required to form a Government in Israel’s 120 member Knesset. But Avigdor Lieberman had other ideas. The maverick, right-wing, fiercely secular politician has been a cabinet minister in every Government for the last 18 years. His first job in politics was to look after an ambitious young politician called Benjamin Netanyahu, later serving as his Chief of Staff. The two men have a long, complex history together.

In April, Lieberman made a momentous decision to end the Netanyahu era, refusing to join his government unless a deal to conscript more ultra-orthodox men into the army was implemented. This forced a stand-off with the ultra-orthodox parties that Netanyahu, weakened by an impending indictment for corruption and desperate for support to grant him immunity, was unable to resolve. The master tactician badly miscalculated. Losing a game of political chicken, he called another election.

Lieberman’s tactic was popular and set off a chain reaction. He energised voters who are tired of the ultra-orthodox hold over secular Israelis and bitter at the inequity that they refuse to serve in the army. Lieberman shook up Israeli politics. He called for the creation of a secular grand coalition with Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party that won an impressive 35 seats in April. By doing this, he gave his seal of approval to Gantz, the former Israeli army chief of staff and made a nonsense of Netanyahu’s claim that Gantz was a ‘leftist.’

The election campaign was a curious threesome. Gantz, the man who could soon be Prime Minister, played the mild-mannered officer and a gentleman, refusing to match Netanyahu’s gutter politics by stressing the need for unity and an end to corruption. Lieberman looked the real challenger, sniping at Netanyahu from his right flank, criticising his policy towards Gaza, and attacking his alliance with the ultra-orthodox which chimed with parties on the centre and left.

Netanyahu’s strategy had three parts. He claimed only he could be trusted with Israel’s security, warning of the dangers of a Gantz-led coalition with leftists and Arab parties. But, forced into an air raid shelter when a campaign rally was attacked by missiles from Gaza it highlighted for many Israelis the absurdity of his current policy – repeatedly threatening to hit Hamas hard but allowing only limited military strikes and seeking a ceasefire deal.

He emphasised the threat from Iran and talked up Israeli action against Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq, when normally Israel doesn’t talk about it at all. His alliance with Donald Trump was presented as a cornerstone of Netanyahu’s successful foreign relations but Trump’s offers to meet the Iranian President for talks contrasted sharply with Netanyahu’s warnings. Rumours of a major Trump announcement to boost Netanyahu came to nothing.

In the final week of the campaign Netanyahu proposed a law to put cameras in polling stations in Arab communities, alleging massive voter fraud. In April, Arab parties lost more than 110,000 votes and voter turnout slumped to 49 per cent compared to 63 per cent in 2015. The Joint List of Arab parties now looks set to win 13 seats, three more than in April. In a deep irony, Arab voters turned out in large numbers to defy Netanyahu’s inflammatory rhetoric.

Lieberman has doubled his support to nine seats, boosted by moderate right-wing voters who were turned off voting for Likud and unimpressed with Netanyahu’s last-minute promise to annex parts of the West Bank. Gantz’s Blue and White party could now become the largest party and that will give them the momentum to try and form a grand coalition. The Likud could even edge Netanyahu out to make that happen.

But the tectonic plates of Israeli public opinion have barely shifted. If Lieberman had stuck with Netanyahu, there would have been no election this week. If he supported him now, the right wing ultra-orthodox coalition would have a clear majority. Instead, Lieberman decided to bring Bibi’s career to a close to bolster his own status.

Netanyahu’s frantic election day campaigning embodied what was at stake, it was not just about keeping his job. He needed 61 votes to grant him immunity. Without that he is now on a path to a criminal trial. Netanyahu won’t go without a huge struggle and he will work every angle to stay in office. But this time, it really does look like the curtain is falling on the great showman of Israeli politics.

Originally published in The Telegraph