Cold revenge, hot impulses in pre-election scramble

December 7, 2012
Sarah Benton

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman gazes at his deputy Danny Ayalon before dumping him. Photo by Uri Lenz/Flash90

The real reason Lieberman ousted Deputy FM Danny Ayalon

Quoted by Yossi Verter, Ha’aretz, December 06, 2012

“Ayalon was in love with himself,” one source said. “He went crazy. He had to see himself in the media every day. He turned into a compulsive leaker. Lieberman couldn’t stand this. He views leaks as the root of all evil. More than once this term, he has convened his faction and told his 14 MKs, ‘I’m not prepared to tolerate a situation in which secrets can’t be kept. Our meetings haven’t even ended when I’m already hearing reports in the media about what was said here. I want to tell you, I don’t forget. In the end, I’ll settle accounts.”

Cold Revenge

By Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom
December 08, 2012

“Revenge is a dish that is best eaten cold,” is a saying attributed to Stalin. I don’t know if he really said that. All the possible witnesses were executed long ago.

Anyhow, a taste for delayed revenge is not an Israeli trait. Israelis are more impulsive. More immediate. They don’t plan. They improvise.

In this respect, too, Avigdor Lieberman is not Israeli. He is Russian.

WHEN “IVET”, as he is called in Russian, selected his Knesset faction four years ago, he acted, as always, according to his mood of the moment. No nonsense about democracy, primaries and such. There is a leader, and the leader decides.

There was this very beautiful young woman from St. Petersburg, Anastassia Michaeli. Not very bright, perhaps, but good to look at during boring Knesset sessions.

Then there was this nice man with the very Russian name, Stas Misezhnikov, which no Israeli can pronounce. He is popular among the Russian immigrants. Davay, let’s take him.

And this Israeli diplomat, Danny Ayalon, may be useful if I become Foreign Secretary.

But moods pass, and people elected stay elected for four years.

The beauty turned out to be a bully, in addition to being stupid. In a public Knesset committee meeting, she stood up and poured a glass of water over an Arab member. On another occasion, she physically attacked a female Arab member on the Knesset rostrum.

The nice Russian man was rather too nice. He regularly got drunk and organized parties for his mistress abroad, expenses paid by his ministry. Even his bodyguards complained.

And the diplomat trumped the lot, when he invited journalists to witness his humiliation of the Turkish ambassador, putting him on a very low seat during a meeting. This led on to the famous Turkish Flotilla incident and did – is still doing – incalculable damage to Israel’s strategic interests. Also, Ayalon was a compulsive leaker.

Lieberman did not react to all this. He defended his people and criticized their critics, who were anyhow leftist trash.

But now has come the time to appoint Lieberman’s faction to the next Knesset, again without democratic nonsense. To their utter consternation, the three were dismissed with five minutes’ notice. All without any display of emotion. Cold. Cold.

Don’t mess with the likes of Lieberman. Any more than with Vladimir Putin and Co.

IF I were Binyamin Netanyahu, I would not worry about Abbas, Ahmadinejad, Obama, Morsi and the combined opposition in the Knesset. All I would worry about would be Lieberman, somewhere behind my back. I would worry very, very much. Every minute, every second.

Two weeks ago, two fateful things happened that may hasten the political demise of “King Bibi”. One was not of his making, the other was.

In the Likud primaries, dominated by ugly deal-making and manipulations, a new Knesset faction was selected that was almost exclusively composed of extreme rightists, including outright fascists, many of them settlers and their appointees. Against Netanyahu’s wishes, all the moderate rightists were unceremoniously booted out.

Netanyahu is, of course, an extreme rightist himself. But he likes to pose as a moderate, responsible, mature statesman. The moderates served as his alibi.

The new Likud has nothing to do with the original “revisionist” party that was its forerunner. The founder of the party some 85 years ago, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, an Odessa-born and Italian-educated journalist and poet, was an extreme nationalist and very liberal democrat. He invented a special Hebrew word (“Hadar”) for the ideal Jew he envisioned: just, honest, decent, a hard fighter for his ideals but also magnanimous and generous towards his adversaries.

If Jabotinsky could view his latest heirs, he would be revolted. (He once advised Menachem Begin, one of his pupils, to jump into the river Vistula if he did not believe in the conscience of mankind.)

JUST BEFORE the Likud primaries, Netanyahu did something incredible: he made an agreement with Lieberman to combine their two election lists.

Why? His election victory already seemed assured. But Netanyahu is a compulsive tactician without a strategy. He is also a coward. He wants to play safe. With Lieberman, his majority is as sound as Fort Knox.

But what is going to happen within the fortress?

Lieberman, now No. 2, will pick for himself the most important and powerful ministry: defense. He will wait patiently, like a hunter for his prey. The joint faction will be much closer in spirit to Lieberman than to Netanyahu. Lieberman, the cold calculator, will wait until Netanyahu is compelled by international pressure to make some concessions to the Palestinians. Then he will pounce.

This week we saw the prelude. After the UN overwhelmingly recognized Palestine as a state, Netanyahu “retaliated” by announcing his plan to build 3000 new homes in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, the inevitable future capital of Palestine.

He emphasized his determination to fill up the area called E1, the still empty space between West Jerusalem and the giant settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim (which alone has a municipal area larger than Tel Aviv). This would in effect cut off the northern West Bank from the southern part, apart from a narrow bottleneck near Jericho.

World reaction was stronger than ever before. Undoubtedly encouraged behind the scenes by President Obama, the European countries summoned Lieberman’s ambassadors to protest the move. (Obama himself is far too cowardly to do so himself.) Angela Merkel, usually a mat under Netanyahu’s feet, warned him that Israel risked being totally isolated.

If Merkel thinks that this would intimidate Netanyahu or the Israelis at large, she is vastly mistaken. Israelis actually welcome isolation. Not because it is “splendid”, as the British used to think, but because it confirms again that the entire world is anti-Semitic, and not to be trusted. So, to hell with them.

WHAT ABOUT the other parties? I almost asked: what parties?

In Israeli politics, with their dozens of parties, what really count are the two blocs: the rightist-religious and the…well, the other one.

There is no “leftist” bloc in Israel. Leftism is now, like Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality, “the love that dares not speak its name”. Instead, everybody claims now to be “in the center”.

A seemingly small matter aroused much attention this week. Shelly Yachimovich’s Labor party has terminated its long-standing “spare votes” agreement with Meretz, and made a new one with Ya’ir Lapid’s “There is a Future”.

In the Israeli electoral system, which is strictly proportional, great care is taken that no vote is wasted. Therefore, two election lists can make a deal in advance to combine the leftover votes that remain to them after the allocation of the seats, so that one of them can obtain another. In certain situations, this additional seat can be decisive in the final division between the two major blocs.

Labor and Meretz had a natural alliance. Both were socialist. You could vote for Labor and still be satisfied that your vote may end up helping another Meretz member to get elected. Displacing this arrangement with one with another party is meaningful – especially if the other is a hollow list, devoid of serious ideas, eager to join Netanyahu’s government.

By representing nothing but the personal charm of Lapid, this party may garner some eight seats. The same goes for Tzipi Livni’s brand-new “the Movement”, cobbled together at the last moment.

Meretz is a loyal old party, saying all the right things, unblemished by corruption. Unfortunately it has the lackluster charisma of an old kettle. No exciting new faces, in an age where faces count more than ideas.

The communists are considered an “Arab” party, though they do have a Jewish candidate. Like the other two “Arab” parties, they have little clout, especially since about half the Arab citizens don’t vote at all, out of indifference or disgust.

That leaves Labor. Yachimovich has succeeded in raising her party from the half-dead and imbued it with new life. Fresh new faces enliven the election list, though some of the candidates don’t speak with each other. In the last few hours, Amir Peretz, the former Minister of Defense, left Shelly for Tzipi.

But is this the new opposition? Not if it concerns little matters like peace (a word not to be mentioned), the huge military budget (ditto), the occupation, the settlers ( Shelly likes them), the Orthodox ( Shelly likes them, too). Under pressure, Shelly concedes that she is “for the two-state solution”, but in today’s Israel that means next to nothing. More importantly, she categorically refuses to undertake not to join a Netanyahu-Lieberman coalition.

It may well turn out that the victor of the elections, six weeks from now, will be Avigdor Lieberman, the man of the cold revenge. And that will be the beginning of a new chapter altogether.

The curious case of the party leader who inexplicably sacked his deputy

What on earth prompted Avigdor Liberman, foreign minister and head of Yisrael Beytenu, to so brusquely eject Danny Ayalon, his No. 2 at the ministry, from his party’s Knesset slate?

By Raphael Ahren, Times of Israel
December 05, 2012

The current election season is full of surprises, but no one expected a major bombshell when Yisrael Beytenu called a press conference on Tuesday night to announce the party’s list for the next Knesset.

Two troublemakers — Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov and MK Anastassia Michaeli — had already been purged, and everybody anticipated it would be smooth sailing till the January 22 elections. So for the foreign minister and party leader Avigdor Liberman to fire his deputy, Danny Ayalon? No one saw that coming, and a day later, voters, party members, the media and even Ayalon’s closest aides still have no clue as to what lies behind the decision.

According to the deputy foreign minister’s spokesperson, Ofri Eliyahu, Ayalon himself was shocked over his dismissal two days before the deadline for parties to submit their election slates. Ayalon was reportedly in his car on his way to a party event in Jerusalem Tuesday evening when Liberman called and informed him that his presence would not be required for the next Knesset.

There are several theories as to why Liberman sacked his deputy so abruptly, but no definitive explanation. Yet.

Initially, observers surmised that Ayalon, 56, was booted from the party’s list for the same reasons Misezhnikov and Michaeli had to bow out — one or more missteps that ostensibly embarrassed the party. The former, a rather successful tourism minister, was accused earlier this year of regularly indulging in alcohol to excess, visiting strip clubs and leading a hard-partying, after-hours lifestyle. The latter was mainly known for clashing publicly with fellow MKs — as when she dumped a glass of water on Labor’s Raleb Majadele — and for making homophobic statements.

Ayalon, who was seventh on Yisrael Beytenu’s list for the 2009 elections, memorably embarrassed the Turkish ambassador when, in early 2010, the deputy minister invited Ankara’s envoy in Tel Aviv, Ahmed Oguz Celikkol, to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. Celikkol was summoned to protest his country’s harsh criticism of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

Before the meeting, Ayalon said he wouldn’t shake Celikkol’s hand, and once the envoy arrived, Ayalon made sure the Turk was seated humiliatingly below his Israeli hosts — on a low sofa — and had to look up at them. Furthermore, Ayalon told television crews in Hebrew to take note of the fact that the Israeli officials were not smiling and that no Turkish flag was placed on the table.

The episode caused a stir, and Ayalon was forced to apologize. It could be argued that Ayalon’s handling of the incident contributed significantly to the current frostiness of Jerusalem’s relations with Ankara. But was that the reason that Liberman, himself not known for excessive fondness for Turkey’s current government — or excessive diplomacy in his interactions, for that matter — gave Ayalon the boot three years later? Seems unlikely.

Some observers speculate that Liberman didn’t like the fact that Ayalon — a former Israeli ambassador to Washington – was outgoing and often interacted effectively with the media, and feared leaks to the press. According to one party official, Liberman had “lost trust” in his deputy.

But Liberman and Ayalon worked together pretty closely for four years, and it was often apparent to observers that the foreign minister approved of his deputy’s initiatives. Liberman doesn’t much like the press, and he seemed more than happy for Ayalon to be the one to present his policies to the outside world.

Lately, Ayalon’s work focused a lot on the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab countries who made their homes in Israel. He tried to elevate this issue to high on the international agenda, hoping to offset world attention on the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” to Israel for their refugees and descendants. Yet Liberman supported the project, and the party proudly lists it as one of its accomplishments in the Knesset term.

Another possibility is that Liberman axed Ayalon at the behest of prime minister and Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu. Faced with heavy criticism about a Likud list that tilts too much to the right — and unable to make changes to the democratically selected Likud part of the joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu Knesset slate — Netanyahu might have asked Liberman to purge his party’s contribution to the list of some of its more right-wing elements.

Anastassia Michaeli certainly fit that category. And more than the local minor embarrassment Michaeli, Ayalon was known internationally as a nationalist firebrand. Thus, gruffly showing Ayalon the door could convey the message that Likud-Yisrael Beytenu is distancing itself — to the extent that it can — from some of its more notorious hawks. But even this explanation is hard to accept, since Yisrael Beytenu is a hawkish party, its leader regularly calls Mahmoud Abbas “a political terrorist,” Ayalon did not steer a notably more radical course, and ditching him does very little to offset the radical impression underlined by the high placement of hawks like Danny Danon, Miri Regev and Moshe Feiglin on the Likud roster.

It’s true, too that while Ayalon is popular, especially among English-speaking Israelis, he is not one of Yisrael Beytenu’s superstars. Newcomer Yair Shamir, the son of former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, veteran MK and Energy and Water Minister Uzi Landau, and Immigration Minister Sofa Landver are more highly regarded among party members. Still, that hardly amounts to grounds for dismissal.

In Haaretz on Wednesday, political analyst Yossi Verter gave three possible reasons for Ayalon’s surprise ouster. It could be Liberman’s belated response to the Turkish ambassador business — “It seems Liberman neither forgets nor forgives,” Verter mused. Alternatively, Verter speculates, Liberman hopes to become defense minister in the next government and therefore no longer needs a diplomat like Ayalon hanging around. Or, finally, it was a “preemptive step by Liberman concerning an issue involving Ayalon that has yet to be revealed.”

We’ve already ruled out the first of these as particularly unlikely. And militating against the second possibility is both the fact that Liberman has credibly expressed a preference to stay on as foreign minister, and the brusqueness with which Ayalon was told that he needs to find himself a new job. So of Verter’s trio, we’re left with the final possibility — the “issue… that has yet to be revealed.” Very intriguing.

Fact is, Ayalon didn’t even merit a gracious political obituary from his boss of the kind awarded the highly problematic Misezhnikov. Liberman expressed “great regret” at Misezhnikov’s ostensible decision to quit politics, saying that he “was supposed to be placed at a very high spot on the Knesset list and play a senior role in the future government.”

For now, Liberman is staying resolutely silent, and Ayalon resolutely diplomatic. Before heading to the airport on Wednesday to accompany Netanyahu on a difficult trip to Berlin — Liberman was originally scheduled to go too, but canceled at the last minute to “take care of party business” — Ayalon wished Yisrael Beytenu the best of luck in the elections, and had not a single bitter word for Liberman. “I certainly respect him,” Ayalon said. “The world of politics has its own rules.”

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