It was a busy day in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, with John Kerry shuttling between Jerusalem and the West Bank to avert a full-blown crisis in the negotiations. But in Israel, all eyes this morning were on a Jerusalem courtroom, where Avigdor Lieberman—Israel’s deposed foreign minister—was unanimously acquitted of the fraud and graft charges that forced him to resign in December (a verdict that ends a 17-year saga of investigations). The most immediate consequence of the news is clear: Lieberman will return to the foreign ministry within days. But the political and foreign-policy implications of his comeback are a little harder to read and will take weeks to sort out.
Practically speaking, things may not change as much one might think. Lieberman, whose history of brash and at times overtly anti-Arab rhetoric made him persona non grata in most Western capitals, always had less power than met the eye. When he was foreign minister from 2009 to 2012, the most sensitive day-to-day aspects of his job—particularly the relationship with the U.S.—were handled by then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, then-deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, and Netanyahu himself. In Lieberman’s absence, Netanyahu had split diplomatic responsibilities between himself, his justice minister and chief negotiator Tzipi Livni (who ran the Palestinian file), and his strategic-affairs minister Yuval Steinitz (who has increasingly become the point man on Iran). That division of labor is unlikely to change much. Lieberman will spend his time on more marginal matters, such as upgrading Israel’s ties to Africa and the former Soviet republics (Lieberman is an immigrant from Moldova and enjoys good relations with the Russian government, which he congratulated last year for its “free, fair, and democratic” parliamentary elections).
Lieberman’s power as foreign minister always lay in his ability to play party-pooper. He singlehandedly prevented Israeli-Turkish rapprochement by demanding that Netanyahu not apologize for Israel’s bloody 2010 raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish ship—Netanyahu quietly did so this summer—and could yet damage the stalled reconciliation process. And with negotiations proceeding on the Israeli-Palestinian and Iranian nuclear fronts, Lieberman can poison both wells if he chooses.
When it comes to Palestinians, Lieberman is a strange bird. On one hand, he has been a leading critic of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, actually writing a letter to word leaders last year calling for his ouster. On the other hand, he has shown flexibility on the question of territorial concessions, coming out for a Palestinian state before Netanyahu did and even entertaining a division of Jerusalem along ethnic lines (though his demand for a Palestinian state to absorb Israeli territory containing a good chunk of its Arab citizens is considered a non-starter).
Lieberman’s actions will surely be dictated by his political interests, but if his past actions are any indication, he will try to play spoiler again. He can undermine the process by leaking details of the negotiations, which he will again be privy to as foreign minister, and by continuing to make comments that make it even more politically difficult for Abbas to stay in the talks. But paradoxically, Lieberman—by increasing Israel’s international isolation, particularly in Europe—could make a deal more likely. One of the leading factors in Netanyahu’s flexibility before the talks, after all, was the European Union’s decision to restrict funding to Israeli scientific institutions operating beyond the Green Line—seen as a harbinger of potentially more severe sanctions. If talks fail, Lieberman, who has long advocated an interim arrangement in which Israel would withdraw from a majority of the West Bank, might get behind some sort of limited pullout from the West Bank if Netanyahu chooses that course.
On the Iranian front, Lieberman can again spoil the party with his words, providing yet another bogeyman for Iranian hardliners. But his practical power may lie less in his post as foreign minister than in his presence in Israel’s security cabinet (the forum of seven, now eight, ministers charged with debating Israel’s most sensitive security policies, including potential military action against the Iranian nuclear program). An Israeli military attack is off the table as long as there is seen to be a plausible chance for a deal, but should the talks fail, the presence in the security cabinet of Lieberman—who reluctantly backed a strike during previous debates—might shift the balance of power in the forum, which is currently split between more cautious figures like Livni and finance minister Yair Lapid and more aggressive ones such as Netanyahu, hard-right economy minister Naftali Bennett, and home-front defense minister Gilad Erdan.
Politically, the implications of Lieberman’s return are a little harder to read, at least until new polls digest the new situation. Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party has been in a tense partnership with Netanyahu’s Likud since the duo’s decision last October to run on a joint list in the January elections. Though the “Likud Beiteinu” merger guaranteed Netanyahu’s place as leader of the largest bloc, the combined strength of the parties shrunk from 42 seats to 31 (a blow absorbed primarily by Likud, which lost seven of the eleven seats). In the coming weeks, Lieberman is expected to decide whether to continue his alliance with Likud, opt for a full-blown merger, or strike out on his own again. His choice will no doubt be influenced by the polling picture that emerges in the coming days (before the verdict, a poll testing the strength of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu as separate entities showed the former winning a weak-but-still-dominant 24 seats and the latter dropping to seven—less than half its take in the 2009 elections that first catapulted Lieberman to the foreign ministry).
In the wake of his comeback , some will try to portray Lieberman—who has made no secret of his prime ministerial ambitions—as a potential heir to Netanyahu. Don’t fall for it. Lieberman remains a deeply polarizing figure within Israel, extremely popular among his Russian base and a certain segment of ultra-nationalist Israelis, but disliked—even loathed—by a majority of Israelis. He is widely seen as corrupt, his twenty-something daughter having accrued millions in shady business dealings, and his acquittal will do little to change that. Make no mistake: The Lieberman of 2013 is a diminished political figure whose power currently derives more from his alliance with the prime minister than from the strength of his own personal brand. The diminution of Lieberman’s political clout was on display a couple weeks ago in the Jerusalem mayor’s race. Lieberman had encouraged protégé Moshe Leon to run and had invested enormous political capital in the race, yet despite the full-blown support of the ultra-Orthodox, Leon lost.
When the Lieberman biography is written, we will probably come to see the period after the 2009 elections as Lieberman’s missed moment of opportunity. He had emerged as the big surprise of that campaign, forcing Netanyahu to appoint him foreign minister. The post was his chance to prove that he could be a statesman. But he failed miserably, frequently embarrassing the Israeli government with his shoot-from-the-hip outbursts, whether his suggestion to bomb Egypt’s Aswan Dam or his call last week for South African Jews to leave the country “before there’s a pogrom.”
During the last government, he gained political strength by outflanking Netanyahu on the right, gaining the support of those who thought Netanyahu was too moderate. But with Bennett in the government, he is no longer the only game in town. Bennett, whose party platform is in most respects more extreme than Yisrael Beiteinu’s, is seen as more polished and more likable. If the Likud somehow implodes in the face of a Netanyahu break for peace, Bennett, whose party is already flirting with second place, is far more likely than Lieberman to pick up the slack.
Left-wing figures were apoplectic about the verdict, with Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich calling for an appeal. But the verdict could very well prove a blessing in disguise. Better that Lieberman—and what he stands for—be defeated at the ballot box than in the legal system.
Ben Birnbaum is a writer living in Israel. Follow him @Ben_Birnbaum.