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Netanyahu, Minister Vie For Soul Of Israeli Right

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) listens to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in the Knesset last April.
Bernat Armangue
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) listens to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in the Knesset last April.

Tensions are rising in Israel between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

In a television interview last month, Netanyahu was asked how he could allow Lieberman to repeatedly humiliate him in public. The journalist was referring to a speech Lieberman gave to foreign ambassadors the night before in which he directly contradicted government policy.

In one of the many controversial statements, Lieberman said, regarding peace with the Palestinians: "It is forbidden for us to reach a comprehensive deal today with the Palestinians. To put it clearly, you have to understand that their government is not legitimate."

Other statements in his speech rained invective on Israel's erstwhile ally Turkey.

This wasn't the first time Leiberman, who as foreign minister is supposed to represent Israeli government policy, has openly opposed it.

"What you have here are a pair of ambitious politicians, one of whom is the prime minister [and] the other of whom, in my opinion, certainly would like to be and thinks that he may be in time," says David Horowitz, editor of The Jerusalem Post.

Different Backgrounds, Styles

The battle between the two men is for the soul of the resurgent right wing in Israel.

Lieberman was born in the former Soviet Union and heads the new growing nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu, which finds its base of support in the large Russian immigrant community. He lives in a settlement in the occupied West Bank, and his party takes a hard line on peace talks with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu was born in Israel and has a history of political service. His party Likud has long been part of the political establishment and takes a more nuanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, endorsing peace talks.

And, Horowitz says, the two men have very different ways of getting their message across.

"Netanyahu is now in the second term as prime minister. He's very capable of sensitive rhetoric and crafting sophisticated messages. He's very good in public," Horowitz says. "Lieberman is much blunter and delights in that. He wants his audience to understand that he's very pessimistic about this or he's very certain about that, so the rhetorical styles are very, very different."

Itzhak Galnoor, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, says Lieberman uses the Foreign Ministry to push forward his party's agenda and that often puts him in conflict with the prime minister.

"We have a minister of foreign affairs that doesn't distinguish between his state responsibilities and his party goals," Galnoor says. "He behaves like a party leader and uses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to advocate the partisan view. So in this sense, he doesn't only not represent the government -- he doesn't even represent the state of Israel or even the coalition."

Room For Many Views

Dore Gold, the head of a think tank with close ties to the government, says the concerns over tension between the two men are overblown.

He notes that members of the prime minister's Cabinet come from different parties, including left-leaning Labor.

"It's true there's been a lot of focus on the relations between Lieberman and Netanyahu, but look at the case of Defense Minister Ehud Barak: He has given public addresses about dividing Jerusalem, which is completely against the policies of the Likud Party, certainly against Mr. Lieberman's party," Gold says. "Is that a problem? It's a parliamentary democracy; there are different views."

Gold acknowledges that reality often makes it hard to distinguish what the real policies of the Israeli government are.

In the interview last month, Netanyahu was forced to reiterate to the Israeli public that he was in charge.

"The binding opinion is that which is decided upon by the whole government or that is expressed by the prime minister," he said.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.