The ministerial legislative affairs committee's 5-4 vote yesterday (Sunday) in favor of Avigdor Lieberman's bill to change the electoral system is less than a mere formality.
Israel is no close today to a presidential system of government than it was before the vote. There is scant support in the Knesset for Lieberman's proposal, and even if it passes the preliminary reading this week, which is highly doubtful, it will become mired in long months, probably years of committee debates. If it ever emerges from committee, it will be into a different political climate, and there is no telling what alignments will exist then. Or where Lieberman's interests will lay by then.
This is all very clear to the five Kadima ministers who voted in favor of the bill, as it was to Health Minister Yaakov Ben Yizri of the Pensioners Party whose absence, despite in principle opposing the bill, allowed the vote to pass. So why was so much fuss made of it? Why is Lieberman so eager for official government endorsement for his bill and why was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert so willing to indulge him, when he himself said recently that he wasn't madly in favor of presidential government?
Both politicians are playing an elaborate charade with both short and long-term objectives in their sights. Reforming the electoral system might have become flavor of the month ever since talk began last week of a coalition deal between Kadima and Israel Beitenu but Lieberman has more immediate interests in mind. In the opinion poll sweepstakes published over the last two months following the Lebanon War, Lieberman has seen a surge in his personal popularity and the support of his party but Likud Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu's results have exceeded his. Lieberman's grand strategy is to replace the Likud and Netanyahu as leader of the center-right.
When the party was decimated in the last elections, and received only a small number of votes more than Israel Beitenu, he thought the first stage had been achieved. Now it seems that there might be a reversal of Netanyahu's fortunes and Lieberman's move to join the coalition, ostensibly shifting the government rightward is calculated to position himself as the Right's senior politician and marginalize his rival. Even if the negotiations with Kadima fail and Lieberman remains in opposition, he will have enhanced his stature. If he eventually does enter the government in a senior cabinet position, perhaps as minister in charge of strategic affairs, he will have the chance to prove to a skeptic public that he is a potential prime minister.
Olmert's objective in the short term is to keep his other coalition partner, Labor leader Amir Peretz off balance and deter him from embarking on a new "social" initiative, from showing too much independence as Defense Minister and above all, force him to get his rebellious MKs in line in preparation for the battle over the 2007 State Budget. But it's not just putting the heat on Peretz, he would sincerely like to have Lieberman in his government. Israel Beitenu might be smaller than Labor but at least its members are disciplined. Lieberman, unlike Peretz, can deliver the goods.