Israel analysts have spent the day speculating about the consequences of PM Netanyahu's decision to offer the Defense portfolio to Avigdor Lieberman and bring Yisrael Beiteinu into the coalition. The offer, which comes days after talks with Labor party leader Yitzhak Herzog appeared to be going well, is a huge surprise. Assuming Lieberman accepts the position, Israel's domestic policy will likely shift to the right, its foreign policy will exacerbate international tensions, and Netanyahu's position as Prime Minister will be solidified.
But even if the offer were to fall through, it is an example of Prime Minister Netanyahu's strategy of destroying viable centrist alternatives to his leadership. Today's deal kills two birds with one stone. It makes it extremely difficult for Herzog to maintain leadership of the Labor Party, and it potentially pushes center-right Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon out of the cabinet. It also punishes Ya'alon for urging IDF soldiers to exercise integrity in thought and expression, and sends a message to those who would challenge the Prime Minister.
This is not the first instance in which Netanyahu has undercut centrist politicians to prevent a viable alternative to his leadership.
In 2012, Yair Lapid announced the creation of the centrist party Yesh Atid. Days later Netanyahu formed a national unity government that would have pushed off elections and delayed Yesh Atid's entrance into politics. When elections did occur in January 2013 and Yesh Atid did unexpectedly well, Netanyahu coopted Lapid. He offered Lapid the Finance portfolio in the context of deep discontent over the government's response to the 2011 economic protests. Lapid went from leading the second most popular party in the Knesset in March 2013 to having a 75% disapproval rating in December of that same year.
Tzipi Livni, after forming the HaTnuah party in 2012, was appointed Justice Minister by the Prime Minister. However, after gaining substantial power - and criticizing several government decisions - Netanyahu fired her along with Lapid on December 2, 2014. Livni, however, was not done with politics. HaTnuah formed a joint list with the Labor Party and its new leader Yitzhak Herzog for the 2015 elections. Since the elections, she has laid low, taking on diplomatic pressures against Israel at the UN and issuing few criticisms of Israel's government. In the long term, Livni is a threat to Netanyahu. In the short term, however, she has shown no interest in challenging him.
Moshe Kahlon and the Kulanu party were coopted by Netanyahu and joined the coalition in 2015. To achieve this cooptation, Netanyahu played Kulanu and Yesh Atid off each other. Yesh Atid and Kulanu are centrist pro-reform parties. Yet by design of the Prime Minister, Yesh Atid is in the opposition and Kulanu is in the government.
Over this past weekend, PM Netanyahu had been in talks with Herzog to bring Labor into the coalition under the pretense of a unity government. Such a move would have coopted an already weak labor leadership. However, by bringing in Yisrael Beiteinu instead, Netanyahu keeps Labor weak and in the opposition, while simultaneously dealing a serious blow to Herzog's political career. By offering Defense Minister Ya'alon's position to Lierberman, he denies Ya'alon a platform to build centrist support.
The fracturing of Israel's political center is not entirely Prime Minister Netanyahu's doing. Egos, party politics, and public opinion play an important role as well. However, today's move is consistent with the Prime Minister's strategy for remaining in power. While it is undoubtedly a brilliant political move, it remains to be seen whether it can create meaningful change for Israelis. Economic hardship, war, international pressure, and lack of a future vision are all real problems facing the Israeli public. Ultimately, the Prime Minister should be judged not by how he attains political power, but how he uses it.