Analysis: Hearing Lieberman’s footsteps

The foreign minister, in Netanyahu’s political calculations, could cause more damage outside the coalition’s grand tent than inside.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman 311 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Flash 90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman 311 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Flash 90)
In the past, when Avigdor Lieberman dissed Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister – looking at the bigger coalition picture – would wipe the foreign minister’s spittle from his face and say it was raining.
This was Netanyahu’s modus operandi in September at the United Nations, where Lieberman – on the world’s largest stage – essentially said he disagreed with Netanyahu’s foreign policy. It was also the prime minister’s reaction three weeks ago, when Lieberman spoke to the country’s ambassadors and called the Palestinian Authority illegitimate and said it was unrealistic to think a final-peace agreement could be reached at this time.
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In both instances, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement saying everyone understood that in a parliamentary system of government like Israel’s, the various ministers have widely differing opinions.
Lieberman, Netanyahu said in those instances, was speaking his own mind, but the person who ultimately sets policy is the prime minister.
Following Lieberman’s tirade Monday against the NGOs receiving funding from foreign sources, and against Likud MKs Reuven Rivlin, Bennie Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, who did not vote for a parliamentary committee to investigate the NGOs, Netanyahu changed his method.
On Tuesday, rather than issuing a bland statement saying Lieberman’s comments were a lot of noise signifying nothing, the Prime Minister’s Office went on the attack, issuing a statement saying Netanyahu had spoken with Lieberman the night before and “completely rejected” his comments regarding the Likudniks.
“The Likud is united in the need to take action against organizations working illegally against the IDF and Israel. But with that, there is a wide range of opinion about the right way to implement that policy,” the statement quoted Netanyahu as telling Lieberman.
“The Likud,” the prime minister said in a barely veiled jab at Lieberman and his Israel Beiteinu party, “is a democratic and pluralistic party, and not the dictatorship of one opinion.”
Granted, this wasn’t exactly Franklin Roosevelt declaring war on Japan after Pearl Harbor, but it was still the harshest language Netanyahu had used against Lieberman since... well, ever (or at least since the formation of the government in April 2009).
Why? What changed? Before answering these questions, it is important to understand why Netanyahu suffered Lieberman’s slings and arrows beforehand without taking more decisive action. And the reason is simple: Lieberman, in Netanyahu’s political calculations, could cause more damage outside the coalition’s grand tent than inside.
For months, perhaps since the formation of the government, Netanyahu has seen Lieberman – not Kadima head Tzipi Livni – as his main political threat. Having catapulted from four Knesset seats in 1999 to 15 in 2009, Lieberman posed a threat to Netanyahu from his right from the very outset. And for that reason, Netanyahu bent over backwards to keep him happy.
Netanyahu gave Lieberman the foreign affairs portfolio, knowing full well that many countries in the world would not deal with him. He gave Lieberman’s party the Public Security Ministry even though Lieberman was the focus of endless police investigations. And Netanyahu kept him on as foreign minister even though he continuously opposed Netanyahu’s own diplomatic polices – because Netanyahu viewed Lieberman as his main political menace.
Livni and Kadima might win the most seats in the next election, just as they did in 2009.
But even if that’s the case, it’s unlikely that they’ll have any more luck cobbling together a collation than they did the last time around. The math of the Left-Right blocks in this country does not tilt in Livni’s favor and is unlikely to dramatically change in the near future.
Keep Lieberman happy, Netanyahu figured, and there’d be industrial peace.
That was the policy up until now. But with Lieberman sensing that Israel is entering its “third-year itch” – that bewitching time in the life of most governments here, when folks get antsy for new elections – he is upping the ante and getting more audacious.
And he has a plan. Whoever thinks Lieberman is content with the Foreign Ministry, with his 15 seats in Knesset and with the distinction of being the country’s third largest party, is mistaken.
He has his eyes on the premiership, and seems to sense it is within his grasp.
If Lieberman can outflank Netanyahu on the right and cherry-pick by the bushel voters on the right wing of the Likud who think Netanyahu is going soft, he could conceivably be the largest party on the Right after the next elections.
In 2009, the Likud won 27 seats, Israel Beiteinu 15 and Kadima 28. If Lieberman had taken seven seats from the Likud, he would have overtaken it and been the biggest party on the Right – the party the president would have asked to form a coalition after Kadima failed to do so. And that is the scenario Lieberman has in mind for the next round.
Sounds like a stretch? Maybe. Sounds improbable? Perhaps. But this is what Lieberman is after, and the issues he is jumping on – standing strong against Turkey, investigating left-wing NGOs, saying a long-term peace agreement with the Palestinians is not possible – seem to indicate a bid for the Likud voters (and others) who deem Netanyahu too lily-livered when it comes to these issues and more.
All this explains Netanyahu’s uncharacteristic statement on Tuesday – the prime minister is starting to hear Lieberman’s footsteps.