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Knife Fight Among Israeli Right as Likud Tries to Quash Lieberman for Defense Post

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries to diminish his rivals on the right.

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With the dust settling on the Israeli election, what once looked like an epic battle between left and right for control of the prime minister’s office has devolved into a knife fight on the right wing of Israeli politics.

Already, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is moving to dispatch his rivals and consolidate power in what appears will be a government composed of mostly right-wing parties. To do that, he has to get around Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a rival of Netanyahu’s for the loyalty of Israel’s nationalist, pro-settlement voters.

In the run-up to the election, Lieberman presented himself as the presumptive defense minister in the next government. “When I am defense minister,” he has said, “we will have the last campaign against Hamas.” On Tuesday, Netanyahu’s Likud party tried to quash that idea. “He will not be defense minister. There is a coalition and a right-wing majority without him,” senior Likud sources were quoted as saying by the Times of Israel. “[Moshe] Ya’alon will remain defense minister and we suggest that Lieberman understand his new position.”

But just what is this “new position” that Lieberman finds himself in?

Though he had been trailing in pre-election polls, Netanyahu surged to victory in large part by cannibalizing support for smaller right-wing parties. To do so, he launched a frantic, cynical media campaign to close the gap between Likud and his left-wing rivals. On the day of the election, Netanyahu issued a crudely racist warning to his supporters that Arabs were flocking to the polls and that Likud votes were needed to counteract their influence. On Monday, Netanyahu promised that if elected he would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The net effect of Netanyahu’s scaremongering that Likud was about to lose out to an Arab-backed left-wing coalition appears to have been that voters who would otherwise have voted for smaller right-wing parties instead pulled the lever for the sitting prime minister’s party.

Politicians such as Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party, now find themselves in a diminished position vis-a-vis Netanyahu. Bennett’s party went from 12 to eight seats. In the last election Lieberman won 31 seats while allied with Netanyahu’s Likud. This year, Likud nearly equaled that total while running alone.

While Netanyahu was flirting with the notion of a peace deal with the Palestinians, Bennett and Lieberman had dreamed that they might replace Bibi as the legitimate representatives of Israel’s powerful settler community. That dream has been crushed with Tuesday’s results and Bibi’s swerve to the right on the question of Palestinian statehood.

Keeping Lieberman out of the job he has publicly declared he deserves while securing his party’s seats as part of Likud-led coalition government, would be the ultimate affirmation of Netanyahu’s ascendance over Lieberman among the right.

Stay tuned to see if Netanyahu manages to win this knife fight.

Jim Hollander – Pool/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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