avigdor lieberman 2.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The ministerial legislative affairs committee's 5 to 4 vote on Sunday in favor of Avigdor Lieberman's bill to change the electoral system is less than a mere formality.
Israel is no closer 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.
Lieberman and the powers of the PM
If it ever emerges from committee, it will occur in 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 Ya'acov Ben-Yizri of the Gil 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 the flavor of the month ever since talk began last week of a coalition deal between Kadima and Israel Beiteinu, 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 support for 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 Likud was decimated in the last elections, and received only a small number of votes more than Israel Beiteinu, he thought the first stage had been achieved.
Now it seems there might be a reversal of Netanyahu's fortunes and Lieberman's move to join the coalition. Ostensibly shifting the government rightward, he aims to position himself as the Right's senior politician and marginalize his rival.
Even if 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 skeptical 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, and from showing too much independence as defense minister. Above all, Olmert aims to force Peretz to keep his rebellious MKs in line, in preparation for the
battle over the 2007 state budget.
But it's not just about putting the heat on Peretz, he would sincerely like to have Lieberman in his government. Israel Beiteinu might be smaller than Labor, but at least its members are disciplined. Lieberman, unlike Peretz, can deliver the goods.