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Lia Tarachansky unpacks the power struggle between former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his former ally Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and the split between right-wing secularists and ultra-Orthodox Jews

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.

War has erupted in the Israeli political world. This time it’s not between the right and left, or between Israelis and Palestinians, but between right-wing seculars and right-wing religious fundamentalists. It’s an explosive implosion within the Netanyahu coalition that led to Netanyahu not being able to form a government, and forcing a new election now scheduled for this September. It raises the level of complexity. Netanyahu could be forced out if he’s indicted before the election. The Jared Kushner peace plan, if you can call it that, may never see the light of day. The right-wing hardline seculars are in heightened war with religious parties because of the latter’s youth not having to serve in the armed forces. And, oh, let me not forget to mention Netanyahu’s last-minute racist stand to bring an Ethiopian Jewish Knesset member into the government from the other major party that failed. And what are the implications for Netanyahu’s failure to, for the first time in Israeli history, to be able to form a government?

We’ll delve into all that and more with Lia Tarachansky, who is a journalist, filmmaker, founder of Naretiv Productions, and former Middle East correspondent for The Real News who made the documentary By the Side of the Road. And Lia, welcome. Good to have you back with us here on The Real News.

LIA TARACHANSKY: Thanks for having me, Marc.

MARC STEINER: So let’s begin with this piece to show everybody, and you, which is from both Netanyahu, when he talks about his saying that what happened with Lieberman, and showing what Lieberman said first. We’ll watch this.

AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN: When the military draft bill passes during the second and third reading in its original form, same as it did with the first, we are done. I think this is the difference between forming a government and going to an early election.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: It is just unbelievable. Just unbelievable. Avigdor Lieberman is now part of the left. He is from the left’s bloc. You give him votes for the right, and he doesn’t give his vote to the right-wing government. This is what we see.

MARC STEINER: So Avigdor Lieberman is now on the left. This is the man who didn’t think that Netanyahu was extreme enough in Gaza. So what’s really going on here? What’s this battle between these two right-wing fundamentalists? Political fundamentalists, I should say.

LIA TARACHANSKY: The real battle is now between Avigdor Lieberman and Netanyahu. I just wanted to add a little caveat that I think that there is something incredibly telling about the situation in Israel today, that in order to disqualify somebody as a politician, a human being, or a legitimate member of the public, you call them a leftist.

MARC STEINER: Right. It’s almost–it’s a slur word.

LIA TARACHANSKY: It’s a word that essentially means someone who is trying to put a wrench in the machine of what needs to happen for the world to function. Someone who is an ideologue without any political or real world experience, and no real intentions of any kind. That’s roughly what the left means in the best case scenario in the Israeli discourse, and in the worst case scenario it means a traitor. So you often hear people who are pro-peace called leftists and traitors interchangeably; leftist or Arab lovers interchangeably. And it’s assumed that all the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Palestinian parties are also left, according to that discourse, which is ironic, because there’s, as [inaudible] a political spectrum on the Palestinian street as there is on the Israeli street.

But in general, being leftist means that you are with the enemy. That’s the kind of language that has now become commonplace in Israel. So I wanted to make note of that. I also wanted to make note of the way that this whole 24 hours has played out. If you watch the last hours in the Israeli press, it was kind of like down to the minute is he, isn’t he? Are we going to have a coalition? Is he going to turn the, you know, kick the ball back to the president, Reuven Rivlin, and then give the next guy a chance, right? Because in the election in April, both the so-called lefty party under General Gantz and Netanyahu’s party got the same votes. It was the president who decided to let Netanyahu form a coalition, even though, again, they formed the same votes. They got the same votes. And the reason the president took that decision was because it was assumed that Netanyahu would have a better chance of making a coalition because so much of the Israeli parliament is right wing; is ideologically–whether religiously or secularly–right wing.

And now that we’ve seen Netanyahu is drawing that down to the last minute, having already arrogantly assumed that he’s going to succeed to form a coalition, and having assumed that that coalition is going to stand behind him against the charges that he is facing. So these assumptions have kicked back forming a coalition to the last minute. And the Israeli press have been covering this struggle to form a coalition, and what is he giving to this party, and what is he giving to that party, until the last minute, where instead of kicking the ball back to the president and letting Gantz try and form a coalition and lead the country, Netanyahu called for an emergency vote to dismantle the Knesset altogether, and have new elections in September, which also has a couple of other implications, as well.

MARC STEINER: So let me–I want you to describe what those implications. I mean, I want to explore for a moment what do you think it means, the split means, between Lieberman’s group and the Orthodox groups, the fundamentalist parties in Israel? There’s always been this battle in Israel between the secularists and people who are religious. Has always been this divide. Especially around not serving in the armed forces, which the religious Jews don’t have to do. And so the Supreme Court came to a decision that was supposed to change that, on some level. So what’s behind this split? What’s the reality of it, and what do you think it means for the long term, for the right-wing coalitions in Israel?

LIA TARACHANSKY: Again, I think that the whole debate between secular and religious is a distraction. I think that the fight between Lieberman and the United Torah parties is a distraction from the main point. They’re trying to make this seem as though this is a principled fight over the principle of having all Orthodox or religious men serve in the Israeli army, which is an exception that has been in place since the state’s creation. Orthodox Jewish men are the only Jewish men who don’t have to serve in the Israeli army. The law as it was on the table at this point was so watered down that were Orthodox–were it to pass, we’re talking about a few hundred Orthodox boys having to serve in the army. It was not about the principle of the thing. It was a distraction. And the real fight here has been about the fact that in recent weeks we have seen a growing opposition to Netanyahu, with thousands and tens of thousands of people on the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities. We’ve seen the fight, the political fight, between Lieberman and Netanyahu weaken Lieberman significantly, and Lieberman once again becoming the kingmaker, while having been elected with a handful of votes in a party that in the grand scheme of things would have been unimportant in the political struggle.

MARC STEINER: It’s only 5 seats in the Knesset.

LIA TARACHANSKY: That’s right, making itself the kingmaker and toppling Netanyahu’s attempt to form a coalition. What this is is Avigdor Lieberman seeing an opportunity, a political opportunity, and jumping on it. You also have to remember that the same day that the attempt to form a coalition collapsed in Israel, yesterday, Kushner landed in Tel Aviv on his attempt to now bring the Trump administration’s so-called peace plan into the Middle East in talks that are set to take place in Bahrain very soon.

So all of this has implications for Avigdor Lieberman, because he is fundamentally opposed to any peace agreement that compromises land in exchange for peace.

MARC STEINER: So there are a few things you raised here, and I kind of want to explore them. One has to do with this peace deal that they have, which to me is not much of a peace deal. It really has sort of more to do with Palestinian capitulation, and throwing out dribs and drabs of we’ll give you some economic aid and help you build an economy.

LIA TARACHANSKY: But that has been the–that has been the practice, the reality on the ground, since the Oslo Accords. The Trump administration is just making it official. For the first time, they’re actually putting the words next to the actions the Americans and Israelis have been taking. So there’s nothing new about this deal. This is what the Israelis have been doing all along.

MARC STEINER: So when the American press makes a huge deal that is–that the Kushner plan could be killed or dead on arrival because of these–because of what’s happening, and the government having to have a new election and falling apart, you don’t put much credence to that. You think this is just smoke and mirrors.

LIA TARACHANSKY: I don’t think the Kushner plan makes much difference to what happens on the ground. If you look at what has been happening the concrete things that have been happening over the last 25 years, what you will see is what we are now talking about, what Netanyahu claims will be his new political move under the Trump agreement, which is annexation of Area C and B, and pushing the Palestinian population into Area A, total Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and the so-called end of the temporary permanent occupation. That is what has been happening on the ground. Netanyahu is just putting a name to it, and Trump is jumping on board, because if Israel actually applies sovereignty over the West Bank and hands off the Gaza Strip to the Egyptians, then the conflict as we know it will end. It will now become a completely different conflict. And the Israelis and the Americans will claim that they actually have ended the conflict.

So seeing here is Avigdor Lieberman seeing an opportunity and jumping on it, and unfortunately very, very successfully. The other side of that card, of course, is that Gantz, the person who was supposed to have been given the chance to now form a coalition by the president, the person who won the same number of votes as Netanyahu, is not jumping on this opportunity; basically not doing anything. Calling for a big protest in Tel Aviv, which was, you know, a bunch of people who agree with each other, reading [inaudible] to each other. They already know how they’re going to end. But before [inaudible] that’s the only thing he’s done. So what he has demonstrated is that if he was given the opportunity to run the country, he would have been a vanilla, non-existent leader, which is what we’ve seen in this entire crisis.

MARC STEINER: So with Netanyahu’s wife, for some reason I’m blanking on her first name at the moment.


MARC STEINER: Sara. Thank you. I should remember that, it’s in my family all over the place. When she pled guilty, in a sense, today, and as a result of all of this, I mean, does that say that the Netanyahus are really worried about what could happen in terms of the indictment, what could happen in terms of his leadership the coalition, that this was a way for her to kind of make sure that if anything does happen, she doesn’t go to jail? I mean, or however that will run out? I mean, what do you think that means?

LIA TARACHANSKY: I think that the Netanyahu family, both Netanyahu the senior Netanyahu, Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yonatan, who died in the Operation Entebbe, Bibi Netanyahu and his sons see themselves as a kind of dynasty in Israeli politics. The Prime Minister’s father was instrumental in the foundation of the state of Israel, and was one of its most consistent ideologues, arguing for the ethnic cleansing of all non-Jews from Israel. His son was killed in an operation in Africa trying to save kidnapped Israelis, and his other son has been prime minister in Israel for 10 years, having been, you know, now in the middle of all of these both political and criminal crises.

So what Netanyahu has been doing, first of all, is making sure that as soon as the election in April had taken place he would have all of the steps that he needs ready to push what was supposed to be his first hearing in June to as far back as possible. And he succeeded to move it to early October. So that was his first move. And that’s what he’s been throwing all of his energy at, has been basically interrogating his own party to make sure that all of his own party will support this clear abortion of justice. And he succeeded. He managed to push his appearance to court to October, which is why the elections are, these new elections, are called for September. And of course if he wins again, he will then push that back and back and back and back.

The other thing he’s been doing is priming his son for politics. Both his sons are kind of notorious in the Israeli press for being–I don’t know how you say it in English. Men who have no accomplishments. And he has been-

MARC STEINER: Ne’er-do-wells.

LIA TARACHANSKY: Thank you very much. Netanyahu, Bibi Netanyahu, has been essentially cleaning up their reputations and prepping them as much as he can for politics, trying to shove his son the way Trump has been shoving Kushner into the camera, into the public sphere, and trying to make a case for this person becoming the next natural leader. So we have seen that even Netanyahu’s–even if Netanyahu will one day now be prime minister, he is trying to continue the Netanyahu dynasty. So Sara Netanyahu pleading as she did today is just one of those long–you can call them long-term game moves.

MARC STEINER: So in the brief time we have left here, Lia, so what do you think this will mean? I mean, in terms of Israeli politics, which has shifted further and further right over the decades? I mean, what will this actually mean between now and September, and in the future? Will it change anything? Does this really mean anything fundamental besides the fact historically it’s the first time that a prime minister has not been able to form a government in Israel after an election? What does it really mean?

LIA TARACHANSKY: What it really means I can’t tell you, because I can’t read the future, and we’ve seen in the Israeli politics scheme that whenever someone says things are going like this right now, and it’s likely that therefore they will go like that, they have been proven wrong.

But I will say again I’m paying attention to the way that this whole thing played out. Right? So the Israeli press, whether truthfully or misleadingly, have been playing this scenario where they seem to have bought into the idea that until the very last minute, Netanyahu was genuinely trying to form a coalition. So that’s one thing I’m paying attention to, because if they have been pushing it, they’ve been pushing it very convincingly, which means that either it is true or they have bought into the idea that it is true. So that’s one thing I’m paying attention to.

I’m not entirely convinced that Netanyahu was intending on building a coalition, even though he was furious, quote-unquote, when he failed. Netanyahu is a remarkable actor. And you can see that in a documentary that recently came out called King Bibi. He is incredibly good at putting on a show. When the the Knesset came out of the vote to dismantle itself and call for elections, there were a number of politicians that were being interviewed in the Israeli press. But you have to remember that at that point it’s 12:30 at night. So if people are watching, these are the kinds of people who really care about the Israeli political landscape. They’re not your average citizen. To those people, the politicians are playing a particular role. Gantz, again, you can write him off. I mean, he was as vanilla and non-concrete as Gantz gets. Netanyahu has spent his little time in the limelight personally attacking Lieberman. And if you look at the Netanyahu-Lieberman relationship, they have been in government together, in the cabinet together for many years. Lieberman has had ministerial roles from national infrastructure to defense. And they have been on an up and down kind of relationship; mostly down, with mostly Netanyahu attacking Lieberman.

The height of that was last night when he came out of that vote, and basically personally attacked Lieberman, calling him, again, the worst word you can call someone in the Israeli political landscape today, a leftist. Which of course Lieberman is anything but a–Lieberman is the original political troll. Lieberman would jump on any opportunity possible to say the most ridiculous, racist, misogynist things possible to get media press. That’s who Lieberman is. And underneath that he has consistently held alt-right positions. So calling him a leftist is just a personal attack.

Then Lieberman comes out of that same vote. And what does he do? He doesn’t attack Netanyahu personally. Lieberman takes his time in the limelight to talk about the Likud Party, and how unfortunate it is that after so many attempts the Likud Party was not able to form a coalition. So he meticulously watches his words, which is not what Lieberman is known for doing, and does not attack Netanyahu personally. Which tells me that Lieberman again here is playing the long game. He knows that the election’s coming. He knows that he needs to now seem as the reasonable middle between the so-called Gantz followers who have no real political unity, no real position, and no platform, and the hard right that supports Netanyahu.

So already, 10 minutes after the vote takes place, Lieberman is positioning himself for the next election and trying to position himself as the reasonable moderate right, prompting the renowned Israeli journalist Gideon Levy to write an op ed in Haaretz today saying before you go voting for Lieberman, please try to remember who he is. The fact that Gideon Levy has to even say that says mountains about the way that the media has played this and the way that the politicians have been playing the media in this entire so-called crisis.

MARC STEINER: Well, Lia Tarachansky, I really appreciate you parsing reality here for us. It’s really interesting. I think we learned a lot. I appreciate your work, and appreciate you taking the time today. Thank you so much.

LIA TARACHANSKY: Thanks for having me, Marc.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.

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Lia Tarachansky is a journalist and filmmaker at Naretiv Productions. She is a former Israel/Palestine correspondent for The Real News Network, where she produced short, documentary-style reports exploring the context behind the news. She has directed several documentaries that tackle different aspects of social justice struggles in Israel/Palestine.