JERUSALEM, Israel — “Only in Israel can you win an election and lose it the next day,” intoned the announced on Israel’s Army Radio on Tuesday morning, over audio of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory speech from the elections in March. On Monday, Netanyahu’s fragile coalition-building effort suffered a dangerous setback with the sudden departure of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, which leaves Netanyahu with a slim and unstable 61-59 majority in the Knesset.
Liberman is known in the West as a controversial figure who has suggested that some Arab communities in Israel should be traded to a Palestinian state, in the event one is created. In March, Liberman provoked global outrage by suggesting that Israeli Arabs who are disloyal to the state should be beheaded. On the surface, Liberman’s sudden exit would seem to benefit Netanyahu’s relationship with foreign governments, as well as Israel’s broader image in the international media.
However, the effect of Liberman’s departure is to weaken Netanyahu’s emerging coalition–perhaps fatally.
Already, the negotiations have crashed through the original deadline, and a two-week extension expires on Wednesday. Those parties that have signed on to the coalition are now nervous about staying in it. Moshe Kahlon, the centrist candidate and prospective minister of finance, is openly encouraging Netanyahu to reach out to Netanyahu–or to left-wing parties.
There is no clear reason for Liberman’s departure, other than a practiced flair for dramatic political gestures that boost his political profile. According to the Times of Israel, Netanyahu’s Likud party accused Liberman of political opportunism and of working for foreign interests–i.e. for the Obama administration, which would like to see Netanyahu fail. Other party leaders are already jockeying for the coveted foreign ministry post. But in 24 hours, it may no longer be Bibi’s to offer.