JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s complicated relationship with an angry former protege has sent Israeli politics into uncharted waters.
By triggering an early election, Avigdor Lieberman has raised questions about the political future of the long-ruling prime minister who is bracing for expected criminal charges in a corruption case.
He also has emerged as a feared kingmaker who could continue to threaten Netanyahu.
“They’ve been going at each other for years,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor in the political science department at Hebrew University.
In coalition negotiations over the years, he said that Lieberman has seemingly enjoyed dragging out talks “until the last minute.”
The latest showdown, in which Lieberman blocked Netanyahu from forming a coalition government, was the culmination of years of up-and-down relations between student and mentor. It ended in a vote early Thursday morning that dissolved parliament less than two months after elections and triggered another national vote in September.
In a further embarrassment to the infuriated Netanyahu, it happened just as President Donald Trump’s Mideast team was arriving to promote a peace initiative. A lengthy Israeli election campaign adds even more uncertainty to the U.S. plan.
The rivals continued to exchange insults Thursday, with Lieberman accusing Netanyahu of creating a “cult of personality” and the prime minister accusing Lieberman of being a “serial toppler” of governments.
Lieberman, a 60-year-old former nightclub bouncer, immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet republic of Moldova in the 1970s.
He got his start in politics as an aide to Netanyahu, serving as his chief of staff during his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s. He quickly resigned, however, to protest concessions Netanyahu made to the Palestinians and launched a new party, Yisrael Beitenu, appealing primarily to fellow Soviet immigrants.
That set the stage for one of the longest and strangest relationships in Israeli politics. While the U.S.-educated Netanyahu has cultivated an image as a telegenic and worldly statesman, Lieberman speaks in a dour, Russian-accented monotone. While Netanyahu presents himself as a leader, Lieberman is seen as a master backroom operator.
The sharp-tongued Lieberman has been the source of countless controversies. He has referred to Arab lawmakers as terrorist “collaborators,” calling for them to face the death penalty, and he led a failed attempt to require Arab citizens to take a loyalty oath. He has infuriated Egypt, a key ally, by suggesting that Israel bomb Egypt’s Aswan Dam, and again by saying angrily that its then-President Hosni Mubarak could “go to hell.”
Yet he has proven to be a valuable ally to Netanyahu, briefly merging their parties earlier this decade. He has used his influence to secure top posts, including foreign minister and defense minister, but also has feuded with him. He resigned as defense minister last year, accusing Netanyahu of being too weak toward Gaza militants.
“Lieberman is very astute,” said Ashley Perry, a former adviser. “He is a chess player literally and figuratively as he thinks long term and he sees the situation long term.”
Perry said that despite Lieberman’s reputation as a polarizing figure, he has enjoyed strong working relationships across the political map.
After the April 9 election, Netanyahu appeared to be a lock for a fourth consecutive term and fifth overall, with his Likud party and religious and nationalist allies controlling a solid 65-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament.
But during six weeks of negotiations, Lieberman drove a tough bargain in a dispute over Israel’s military draft law. Unable to secure Lieberman’s support, Netanyahu was left one seat short of a majority and was forced to push for the new election.
Lieberman appeared to be motivated by both political and personal reasons.
Though a staunch hard liner toward the Palestinians, Lieberman also champions a secular agenda and has pledged to confront ultra-Orthodox influence over the country’s secular majority. The dispute with Netanyahu focused on draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men, a sore spot among secular Jews who are required to serve.
As his core immigrant constituency grows older or integrates into Israeli society, Lieberman has sought to appeal to hard-line secular Israelis and rebrand his fast-shrinking party. Yisrael Beitenu won just five seats in the April election, down from 15 a decade ago.
Hazan, the political scientist, said Lieberman realized during the campaign that the issue of secular rights was a winning one.
“There’s nothing you can give him that is going to get him any further with his voter base. What he decided is to cut Netanyahu down to size,” he said.
But the collapse of the new parliament also unleashed deep personal animosity. At a news conference Thursday, Netanyahu accused Lieberman of betraying the public to save his party from extinction. “Lieberman is the national toppler. He is a serial toppler of right-wing governments,” he said.
Earlier Thursday, Lieberman said the issue had nothing to do with political ideology.
“This is about a cult of personality,” he said.
The new election campaign has suddenly made the long-dominant Netanyahu appear vulnerable. Israel’s attorney general already has recommended that Netanyahu be charged with bribery and fraud in a series of corruption scandals, subject to a hearing scheduled in October.
With an election coming just weeks before the hearing, the corruption case is sure to be a key issue. And if Netanyahu wins, the corruption case will complicate his efforts to form a coalition, with his hopes shrinking for passing legislation granting him immunity.
For now, Netanyahu will continue to lead in a weakened capacity, as he has done since December, when he declared the previous election.
Throughout this period, Netanyahu has maintained a tough policy toward Iranian troops and their Hezbollah allies in neighboring Syria and has managed sporadic flare-ups of fighting in Gaza.
He tried to portray a business-as-usual image on Thursday, boasting to reporters about a series of meetings with U.S. officials, including presidential adviser Jared Kushner.
But as the U.S. promises to roll out a peace plan at an economic conference in Bahrain next month, it will likely be difficult for him to make any sweeping concessions.
Despite their tense relationship, Netanyahu and Lieberman could still find themselves together after the September election. Lieberman said he would not back opposition leader Benny Gantz as prime minister. That could mean another round of tense negotiations between the old rivals.
Perry, the former adviser, said if Likud emerges as the largest party in September, he thinks Lieberman will again recommend Netanyahu as prime minister and be ready to negotiate.
“What would be the reaction to that remains an open question,” he said.