Israel: Lieberman holds keys to future

JERUSALEM — Israel finds itself in a familiar place after a tumultuous election campaign — with maverick politician Avigdor Lieberman still seemingly in control of the country’s fate.

The run-up to Israel’s third election in less than a year saw criminal charges filed against the prime minister, an American Mideast plan unveiled and various party mergers and machinations. Yet once again, opinion polls suggest that neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor his chief challenger Benny Gantz will be able to form a coalition without Lieberman.

Lieberman remains cagey about his intentions, raising the possibility his brinkmanship could end up forcing yet another election.

Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party bolted from Netanyahu’s right-wing camp last year to spark the unprecedented stalemate in Israeli politics. Though Lieberman has all but ruled out sitting in a government led by his one-time mentor Netanyahu, saying his “era is over,” he has also driven a hard bargain with Gantz and has taken out campaign ads against the former military chief.

Lieberman insists a future coalition cannot include Arab-led parties, whose lawmakers he considers terrorist sympathizers because several have sided with Israel’s adversaries and refused to condemn attackers. He has also ruled out governing jointly with ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that he says have long wielded disproportionate power that has harmed Israel’s secular majority and, in particular, his base of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Lieberman himself immigrated to Israel in the 1970s from the former Soviet republic of Moldova.

His preferred solution after the last election was to play matchmaker between Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party and Netanyahu’s Likud and coax them into a unity government.

But that option appears off the table even if the numbers don’t seem to add up to any other realistic alternative. Gantz refuses to partner with the indicted Netanyahu and Likud appears unwilling to part ways with its longtime leader, even as he goes on trial next month.

Still, Lieberman, who declined interview requests, insists this vote will produce a breakthrough and he’ll be the one to dictate how it all plays out.

“The reality is different. There won’t be another election. This time we will pick a side,” said Eli Avidar, a lawmaker from Lieberman’s party who often serves as his voice to foreign audiences.