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Avigdor Lieberman's former opposition colleagues in the Likud and the National Union-National Religious Party are already blaming him for betraying his voters by joining Ehud Olmert's center-left coalition. That's only to be expected, but it's far from being true.
While following the remarkably quick negotiations between Olmert and Lieberman, I took some time to reread notes from the not-so-long-ago election season.
Olmert, Lieberman sign coalition deal
In public appearances, interviews and official party propaganda, he was quite clear; he promised his voters to serve them as part of the government.
When Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu demanded that Lieberman promise not to join a Kadima-led coalition and recommend him as prime minister, and not Olmert, to the president, Lieberman graciously declined.
In an interview a month before the elections, when it was already certain that Kadima would form the new coalition, he made no attempt to hide his intentions.
"I've already sat in the cabinet with Olmert and Peres in the past," he reminded me. And he would have no problem doing that again in the near future. On the contrary, sitting in opposition is anathema to Lieberman, running against his fundamental reason for being in politics - power.
"The role of a political party is to be in power," he explained, "not to be just another protest movement."
After then-prime minister Ariel Sharon fired him from the government in 2004 when he insisted on voting against the disengagement plan, Lieberman took a temporary leave from politics, making lucrative business deals in the former Soviet republics. Backbench bickering is just not his thing.
In his latest election campaign, the promise to be part of the coalition was a main plank in his platform. The majority of Lieberman's voters are Russian and other immigrants, and had he been in the opposition, he could not have committed himself to taking care of their concerns.
Kadima strategists - realizing he was enticing away voters who had originally anticipated voting for Sharon's party - tried to counter the threat by spreading the spin that "Lieberman will never be part of our coalition," but it left many voters unconvinced.
None of them can now claim they are being cheated by Lieberman. He is merely doing what he expressly set out to do.
But election promises aside, isn't Lieberman still making an ideological U-turn into a coalition that is still committed to reaching a territorial settlement with the Palestinians?
At least in the public view, Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu was regarded to the right of Likud on the political spectrum, running in the 2003 elections as a joint list with the National Union. Now he's leapfrogging over Netanyahu to land next to Olmert and Amir Peretz. How does that work out?
Once again, you only have to look at his overarching message in this year's election to spot the clear indications of Lieberman cleaving towards the center ground. Time and again, he termed his party the "pragmatic and responsible Right," and while he blamed the left wing for "offering solutions to a problem they never understood," he was scornful also of the right wing for "understanding the problem but never offering solutions."
He was already positioning himself to be the counterbalance to Peretz's Labor in the Olmert administration. And that was what he said before the war, when disengagement was a recent memory and Olmert's realignment plan seemed for a brief moment possible. Now that unilateral withdrawal has been officially discredited, Lieberman can assure the more steadfast right-wingers among his supporters that there is no chance of an agreement with the Palestinians or any other Arab nation in the near future. Therefore, there's no ideological objection to Israel Beiteinu joining the coalition.
But there is still one baffling question. Why is a party with 11 MKs making do with only one seat at the cabinet table? How come Lieberman is prepared to give Olmert's coalition a new lease on life, unthinkable only two months ago, for so little in return? And no one has any realistic expectations of Lieberman's two legislative pet projects, presidential government and civil unions, passing in the Knesset any time soon.
And what does his new title "minister for strategic affairs" mean anyway? What kind of responsibilities will he have? The possessive defense and foreign affairs ministers aren't going to give him an inch of their fiefdoms and nuclear policy is the exclusive realm of the prime minister; how can Lieberman hope to carve a niche for himself between them?
You can choose to believe Lieberman when he says that all he cares about is saving Israel from the impeding Iranian disaster and that's why he has to be at the country's nerve center, or accept his critics who insist that he's only interested in stealing one over Netanyahu. They claim he is building his stature as the new leader of the right wing and a potential future prime minister, and thus marginalizing the Likud's leader in the wilderness of opposition.
The arguments aren't mutually exclusive. It's just as much about Lieberman's personality, his experience and the original way he perceives political power as anything else. He's seen the limitations of short-term political office. As former minister of national infrastructures, he experienced the frustrations of a politician trying to influence huge organizations and long-established practices. As director general of the Prime Minister's Office, he saw how ministers are held hostage by their civil servants and special interests groups. Now he's after real power, which he sees as being as close as possible to the driver's seat at the moment of truth.
Lieberman doesn't care about nominally controlling a ministry, and he certainly has no interest in any other member of Israel Beiteinu doing that. What he's after is one of the seats surrounding the throne. Right now that might seem like a low price for Olmert to pay for such a significant boost to his government's longevity, but he'll be looking out.
There can only be one Caesar, and Lieberman, who is now helping Olmert stand tall, is also positioned for his Brutus moment.
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