Israeli PM’s former protege could now bring his downfall

Polls suggest Netanyahu won’t be able to form a coalition government without Avigdor Lieberman’s support. (File/AP/Bernat Armangue)
Updated 09 September 2019

Israeli PM’s former protege could now bring his downfall

  • Polls suggest Netanyahu won’t be able to form a coalition government without Lieberman’s support
  • For years, Netanyahu and Lieberman have had a roller-coaster relationship

JERUSALEM: Avigdor Lieberman entered Israeli politics as a loyal protégé of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Now, the maverick politician could be the one to topple his former mentor.
Lieberman, a burly, tough-talking immigrant from the former Soviet Union, forced Israel’s unprecedented second election of the year and is poised to be the kingmaker again.
Polls suggest Netanyahu won’t be able to form a coalition government without Lieberman’s support.
Lieberman has played hard to get.
“I don’t have to join at any cost,” he told Channel 12 news over the weekend. “The prime minister’s policy is simply submission to terrorism.”
For years, Netanyahu and Lieberman have had a roller-coaster relationship. Lieberman, once Netanyahu’s chief of staff, has held a series of senior Cabinet posts and was often a staunch partner. But he’s has also been a rival, critic and thorn in Netanyahu’s side.
In a high-stakes gamble, he passed up the post of defense minister in Netanyahu’s government following April’s election, leaving the prime minister without a parliamentary majority and forcing the Sept. 17 do-over vote.
Their dispute, over what Lieberman says is excessive influence of ultra-Orthodox religious parties, has become a central issue in the current campaign.
Lieberman says he will insist on a secular unity government between Netanyahu and his main challenger, Benny Gantz, in order to push out ultra-Orthodox parties. But Netanyahu says his former ally’s real goal is to oust him from office, and Lieberman is suddenly discovering newfound support from those who hope he does just that.
“He is the only one who actually stood up to Netanyahu and didn’t bend over,” said Eli Avidar, a lawmaker from Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party. “Lieberman has known Netanyahu for 31 years. He knows the good and the bad and every angle you can imagine.”
The crisis that led to this month’s election ostensibly revolved around Lieberman’s insistence that young ultra-Orthodox men be drafted into the military, like most other Jewish males. But beneath the surface is a decades-long strained relationship between the two men.
The Moldovan-born Lieberman started as a top Netanyahu aide in the 1990s before embarking on a political career of his own. But he resigned last year because Netanyahu kept blocking his plans to strike hard against Gaza militants.
“When I look at the Gaza Strip it’s unbelievable. The Hamas chiefs know they have immunity from Netanyahu,” Lieberman said Saturday.
Lieberman is often accused of racism for branding Arab lawmakers as enemies of the state and advocating for population swaps that would place many Arab citizens outside Israel’s borders. But he’s also shown signs of pragmatism, such as suggesting he’d be willing to dismantle his own West Bank settlement if Israel’s final borders were redrawn.
Lieberman’s secular agenda has made him a favorite of Israel’s business sector, and his iconoclastic persona and straight talk — delivered in a slow, Russian-accented monotone — made him an unlikely savior for people tired of Netanyahu’s corruption-tainted, decade-long grip on power. That’s despite the fact that Lieberman survived a lengthy corruption scandal himself that exposed his links to shady characters and that allegedly earned his daughter mysterious millions.
“Oddly, the man who was a symbol for the secretive and conspiratorial politician, who runs his party undemocratically, is the hope of Israeli democracy and society,” communications expert Baruch Leshem wrote in a column in the Ynet website.
An irate Netanyahu has made it his mission to destroy Lieberman politically, taking aim in ads and campaigning furiously among his core base of Russian-speaking supporters. He’s branded him a “leftist” and a “serial toppler” of right-wing governments.
“Whoever wants a leftist government should vote for Lieberman,” he said during a recent visit to Ukraine, which critics say he used to target Lieberman’s traditional backers.
But the all-out assault has yet to make a dent. Polls show support for Lieberman’s party has doubled since it came precariously close to elimination in April’s vote.
An emboldened Lieberman recently met with top members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, reportedly discussing the chances of replacing the prime minister if he fails to muster a parliamentary majority. That fear seems to have propelled Netanyahu to demand a “loyalty oath” from party members, which Lieberman compared to practices of a North Korean leader.
Unlike Gantz, Lieberman hasn’t officially ruled out forming a government with Netanyahu again, saying a broad coalition is needed to tackle urgent security challenges and lessen a deficit — which he blames on extortion by smaller religious parties. But he’s done nothing to dispel suggestions that he too wants Netanyahu gone.
“He’s a strategist, he knows how to play politics better than anyone,” said Ashley Perry, a former adviser.
Former officials affiliated with the center-left have been showing up at his campaign events. Lieberman has been warmly welcomed in bastions of liberal Tel Aviv — until recently an unimaginable scene.
Avidar, the lawmaker from Lieberman’s party, said a firm stance against Netanyahu on religious affairs has boosted the party’s wider appeal among secular voters who tend to vote more liberal, but said it remains firmly on the right when it comes to security and negotiations with the Palestinians.
“We are getting a lot of sympathy because people see that we are the only party stopping a Halachic state,” he said, referring to one governed by Jewish law.
Still, the prospect of Lieberman’s newfound crossover appeal is unnerving to those who have tangled with him before.
“Lieberman may have decided that the Netanyahu era is over and that he will be the one to give the final twist of the knife. That would be a fitting end to a Shakespeare play, but what we’ve got here is an Israeli tragedy,” wrote Zahava Galon, a former leader of the dovish Meretz party.
“Lieberman was and remains one of the shadiest and contemptible individuals in Israeli politics, and his belated legitimization only goes to show just how low we have sunk.”

Leaked audio of Assad forces shooting elderly women in Idlib proves civilian killings: Report

Updated 2 min 30 sec ago

Leaked audio of Assad forces shooting elderly women in Idlib proves civilian killings: Report

  • Syrian regime also attacked Turkish military posts in violation of cease-fire deal

LONDON: Syrian regime forces deliberately killed elderly women in the northwestern region of Idlib, leaked recordings obtained by the UK’s Daily Telegraph have shown.

The audio recordings from Feb. 11 also suggest that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad attacked Turkish military posts in violation of a cease-fire deal.

The recordings captured a conversation between soldiers from the infamous elite Tiger Forces, the 25th Division, tracking a vehicle driving into the village of Mizanaz, to the west of Aleppo.

In the audio, intercepted by spotters at an observatory in the local area who picked up the soldiers’ frequency, one soldier can be heard saying: “There are women driving, their car is stuck in the mud and they’re headed to a battlefield.”



A second soldier said: “She looks elderly. It’s clear she’s coming to pack her belongings, then she’s leaving.”

Despite a clear identification of the women, one of the soldiers is heard saying: “I’m watching them. They’re about to enter a house. Yallah, I’m firing now.”

At that point, rapid machine gun fire can be heard on the tape. “Fire, fire, I’m observing for you,” the second soldier replies.

Local media reports from the time and date of the audio recording support the assertion that the women were killed in the attack.

Regime forces have used attacks on civilians as part of their strategy to clear rebel-held areas of the country, while attacking civilian institutions such as schools and hospitals. 

In September 2019, pro-Assad militants reportedly executed an elderly woman who refused to leave her home when it was confiscated after they recaptured the town of Khan Sheikhoun. 

According to figures from the Syrian Network for Human Rights, regime forces and their Russian allies are responsible for 90 percent of civilian deaths in the nine-year conflict, with three-quarters of those people victims of artillery or aerial shelling. The deliberate killing of non-combatants is a war crime under international law.

The Telegraph’s report also revealed recordings showing regime forces actively attacking Turkish posts in Idlib province that were set up as part of a de-escalation deal negotiated with Russia in 2018.

The attacks prompted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday to urge his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to “restrain” Assad’s advance in Idlib.