The first thing to understand about Avigdor Lieberman’s move to dissolve his party’s pact with Likud over the correct response to Gaza is this: it’s not about the correct response to Gaza. Or anything else about Gaza. The Gaza Strip is close to irrelevant to the split between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, though it does serve as a convenient pretext.
This is Lieberman’s second departure from Likud. He was close to Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s, managing his campaigns and soon becoming an incredibly influential figure once Netanyahu won the premiership the first time around. Then Lieberman tapped into the Russian immigrant community’s desire to have its representation in the Knesset more closely align with its demographic muscle. (The community also matured politically, having integrated without completely assimilating.) He formed a party to do just that.
Lieberman became a kingmaker by eventually garnering 15 seats in the Knesset in 2009–enough to make or break a coalition but not enough to lead one. Lieberman is both politically shrewd and hugely ambitious, so when he hit Yisrael Beiteinu’s ceiling he went back to the Likud, this time with an embarrassment of electoral riches.
The point was to eventually become prime minister. Netanyahu is a decade older than Lieberman and, crucially, so are Likud’s brightest and most experienced contemporaries. Lieberman understood that he’d have to wait out Bibi but that was probably it. As the last election showed, there are younger, bright stars in the Israeli political solar system, but they formed their own parties. Lieberman would have real competition in the future, but not from within Likud.
So why leave Likud (again)? Lieberman must have seen signs either that he wouldn’t inherit Likud after all or that it wouldn’t matter. The most likely answer is that it was a combination of the two, but more the latter. Lieberman has seen that there is still no serious challenge from the left; it’s other center-right or right-wing parties breathing down Likud’s neck. That means that if he can pull enough votes away from Likud, there is suddenly no real frontrunner, and there might be enough of a vacuum for another party to win now (or soon) instead of waiting out the Likud old guard.
The Likud-Beiteinu union was always an engagement that never turned into a marriage. And it was designed that way. Lieberman obviously learned plenty from his time as Netanyahu’s right-hand man: the two are by far the most politically adroit figures on the Israeli scene. They are not without flaws, of course, and this latest maneuver from Lieberman exposes his greatest weakness: he is a brilliant political operator behind the scenes, but will never have the charismatic command not only of a Yair Lapid or even Naftali Bennett but of any number of politicians who may crop up in the future.
In a parliamentary system, that charisma is less important than in a presidential system, and the ability to operate behind the scenes correspondingly more beneficial. But it is far from clear that it would be enough, in Lieberman’s case. The other potential mistake Lieberman is making has to do with the shifting math of seats in the Knesset. He should not assume that Likud’s vote total will remain stagnant at the number of seats it holds when he officially departs the party.
Likud has the advantage of brand. It’s true, this hasn’t helped Israel’s Labor Party. But the country is center-right, and so is Likud. That means Likud has the ability to attract politicians and voters in a way that other parties don’t: witness, for example, Lieberman’s ceiling at Yisrael Beiteinu, and the consistent disintegration of new parties. It’s also possible that Likud could win back voters who left when the party merged with Lieberman.
In that respect the union between the two parties may have been holding back both leaders. Netanyahu was losing out to voters who liked Lapid’s big-tent message and Bennett’s Anglo relatability more than Lieberman’s gruff polarizing rhetoric and shifting alliances. Lieberman, in turn, may have seen others threatening to do what he thought couldn’t (yet) be done: eclipse the establishment figures while they were still in power, and while he had tied his fortunes to them.
It’s an amicable split, as far as these things go, and it is unlikely to shake up Israeli politics at the moment. The real test will be the next election. In the meantime, it’s quite possible the public will barely notice the breakup of its largest political party.