Politics: Stuck with each other

How bad are Netanyahu-Lieberman relations, how did Arad’s UK appointment get nixed, could it result in Israel having absentee ballots?

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
February 18, 2011 16:32
Avigdor Liberman and Binyamin Netanyahu

lieberman netanyahu duo 298. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Jerozolimski [file[)

 
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The political cartoon in Wednesday’s Yediot Aharonot said it all.

It portrayed a sweating Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu looking into Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein’s office and desperately asking Weinstein, who was poring over Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s massive legal files, whether he was making any progress.

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The cartoon was published two days after Lieberman humiliated Netanyahu by calling a press conference to announce that he had canceled Netanyahu’s decision to appoint national security adviser Uzi Arad as ambassador to London.

Netanyahu surprised many by not responding to Lieberman’s provocation and instructing his associates to keep mum as well. Sources close to him said he had kept silent because he did not want to exacerbate his problems with Lieberman at a time when the Israel Beiteinu leader could decide on a whim to bring down Netanyahu’s government and force an early election.

“You never regret what you don’t say,” a key Netanyahu adviser said Monday night.

But another Netanyahu associate said the real reason for his uncharacteristic silence was that Weinstein is expected to announce by the end of the month that he recommends indicting Lieberman on corruption charges, and if that happens, the dynamic between them could change dramatically.

“Bibi is waiting for Weinstein,” the source said. “It just doesn’t make sense to fight him yet.”



An indictment is still far from a conviction. Lieberman would not be compelled to resign, and he reiterated at his press conference that he would not quit his post until after a hearing in which he is given an opportunity to respond to the charges against him.

But there is no doubt that an indicted Lieberman with clipped wings would be easier to deal with than the current version of the foreign minister with a chip on his shoulder and a party rising in the polls at the Likud’s expense.

One report even suggested that Weinstein could recommend that Lieberman refrain from appointing ambassadors until his case is decided.

THIS WEEK’S incident was just another chapter in a long story of poor relations that goes back to Netanyahu’s first term when Lieberman served as his director-general.

After Lieberman left the Prime Minister’s Office to form Israel Beiteinu, he and Netanyahu reportedly barely spoke for several years.

One politician who knows the two very well described them as acting like a divorced couple who are forced to communicate because they share children.

“They are clearly not friends,” he said. “They know too much about each other. They have their nostalgia and understandings, but also a strong mutual mistrust.”

Sources close to Lieberman said he doesn’t respect Netanyahu, he doesn’t trust his decision-making, he knows his weaknesses and he knows how to exploit them for maximum gain. They said that Lieberman has a well-thought- out strategy to replace Netanyahu as leader of the Right and become prime minister two elections from now despite legal hurdles ahead.

One source close to Netanyahu described him as scared by Lieberman’s growing support among the prime minister’s political base. He noted that a poll broadcast Tuesday night on Channel 1’s Politica found that if elections were held now, Israel Beiteinu would rise to 17 seats.

Another Netanyahu associate described the prime minister’s feelings about Lieberman from a psychological standpoint. He said that Netanyahu treats people who were his subordinates and superiors in completely different ways.

Netanyahu reveres Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was his commander in the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit. By contrast, he disrespects Lieberman and opposition leader Tzipi Livni, whom he appointed to head the Government Corporations Authority in his first term, and it irks him when they attempt to challenge his leadership.

Channel 10 caused consternation in the Prime Minister’s Office last Friday when it broadcast footage from a closed-door Israel Beiteinu strategy session at a Dead Sea hotel in which Lieberman was shown instructing his MKs and activists that certain bills were worth leaving the coalition over.

The report seemed to give credence to a theory advanced by political analysts Hanan Crystal and Sima Kadmon that Lieberman could decide to look for an excuse to leave the coalition between Weinstein’s decision and his legal hearing, because it would be the only way that he could ensure that he would be able to run at the helm of Israel Beiteinu in the next election.

According to the theory, Lieberman would then help Livni form a coalition and earn immunity from the left-wing legal establishment that would not want to see her government replaced by the Right.

Blame it on wishful thinking but many in the Knesset still think Lieberman will take that course of action despite his statement clearly ruling it out at Monday’s press conference.

“The decision of the state’s attorney will not impact whether Israel Beiteinu leaves the coalition or stays in the coalition,” he said. “We don’t want to mislead anyone or allow anyone to celebrate. I’ve said it dozens of times, but I’ll say it again. We have no intention of leaving.”

THAT STATEMENT was seen as a key warning to Netanyahu that Lieberman will continue to hold the balance of power over his government for the foreseeable future, so he cannot try to get away with antics like the ill-fated appointment of Arad.

What angered Lieberman was a report in Sunday’s Yisrael Hayom that Netanyahu had decided to appoint Ambassador to Britain Ron Prosor as the next UN ambassador and replace Prosor in London with Arad.

The report came directly to the newspaper’s editor Amos Regev from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Lieberman was steamed about Netanyahu trying to take credit for Prosor, who was actually his recommendation.

He was even more upset about the appointment of Arad being reported as a fait accompli when it was only one of multiple options that Netanyahu and Lieberman had discussed but not decided upon.

Fingers in the Prime Minister’s Office pointed at different sources for the leak, with the most likely culprit being Netanyahu’s chief of staff Natan Eshel, who is close to Regev. Netanyahu’s associates said that Arad and the prime minister were not aware of it.

Arad only learned about the report when he arrived back from a visit to Washington and heard on his voice mail both congratulatory messages from London and messages from his contacts in Washington asking why he kept such a secret from them.

Sources close to Arad were quoted Thursday accusing people in the Prime Minister’s Office of leading the report in order to scuttle it.

But other Netanyahu associates said the opposite was true: Arad’s colleagues in the Prime Minister’s Office don’t like him and desperately want him to go, so they leaked the story about the appointment to create facts on the ground.

A third theory presented by Netanyahu’s associates was that an aide leaked the story for the sake of leaking it, without thinking about whether it would help or harm Arad or the prime minister.

If Arad is incorrect and the leaker was not trying to harm him, whoever he is totally misjudged Lieberman. Time and time again, Lieberman has proven that he can accept frustration on the parliamentary level, as his party’s agenda in the Knesset fails to advance. But undermining Lieberman’s job as foreign minister makes him go through the roof.

The last time Lieberman was this upset was when Netanyahu failed to tell him that he had sent then-industry, trade, and labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to meet Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on June 30.

Israel Beiteinu officials said Lieberman had to call the press conference to correct the untrue reports. They said Arad was a victim in the episode, because under other circumstances, he might have gotten the job.

Different theories abounded about why Netanyahu and Arad were seeking to send Arad to London. One was that after more than two decades of friendship, Netanyahu and Arad no longer saw eye to eye, and the prime minister wanted to send him away in a dignified manner. Another was that Arad genuinely wanted the ambassadorship in Britain, because of its allure and intellectual challenge.

Sources close to Netanyahu said the truth was that Arad had lately been feeling that he did not have as much impact on Netanyahu as he used to, because of the dominating influence of Barak. Arad had already hinted that he was leaving soon, after holding the post longer than anyone had before.

Netanyahu’s associates were quoted Thursday as promising to find Arad another plum position fitting of his stature, but that might have to wait until Weinstein decides Lieberman’s fate.

APPEASING LIEBERMAN will be much harder for Netanyahu. Via shuttle diplomacy between Netanyahu’s and Lieberman’s offices in the Knesset, Eshel succeeded in getting Lieberman to at least temporarily back off on a controversial, NIS 1.5 billion Israel Beiteinu bill that would have canceled the value added tax on water.

The fact that Lieberman did not push for the bill proved his statement that he is not trying to bring the government down.

The easiest way for Netanyahu to keep Lieberman satisfied is to throw him a bone in the Knesset. Netanyahu disagrees with much of Lieberman’s parliamentary agenda. Barak opposes more of it.

The only issue that all three could support without causing a crisis with the haredi parties is enabling Israelis abroad to vote.

Representatives from the six factions in the coalition met on Monday to discuss the so-called Omri Casspi bill allowing absentee balloting, which is named after Sacramento Kings player who is the first Israeli in the NBA. A Jerusalem Post story about the bill was picked up by sports websites around the world.

Israel Beiteinu’s coalition agreement requires there to be a vote on enabling Israelis abroad to vote. The party hopes that thousands of Russian immigrants who returned to their motherland after unsuccessful aliya would vote en masse for Israel Beiteinu.

Labor opposed the bill but it is now in the opposition, and Barak’s Independence faction would be willing to back it if it were limited to Israelis abroad for less than two years. Shas earlier opposed giving the right to vote to Israelis abroad for more than two months, but a compromise is in the works.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a close Netanyahu confidant whom he appointed to head a coalition committee considering changes in the electoral system, asked relevant government ministries on Monday to supply numbers of eligible Israeli voters around the world. Netanyahu no doubt wants to know the number in Russia.

EVEN IF Netanyahu finds that Israel Beiteinu could gain a seat or two by passing the bill, he will likely cooperate with Lieberman and let him gain a parliamentary achievement to show his voters.

Netanyahu’s associates say he wants to get along with Lieberman and keep him as satisfied as possible, whether or not he ends up getting indicted. They said that chances are he will maintain his silence about Lieberman press conference, despite the humiliation he endured.

“The Christians say to turn the other cheek,” a Netanyahu associate said.

“Their numbers prove it’s not such a bad strategy. That’s why Bibi was smart that he didn’t fire back and go to war with Lieberman.”

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