Politics: Parting is such sweet sorrow

Lieberman and Olmert's divorce couldn't have been more amicable - unless Annapolis hadn't come between them, and Winograd weren't waiting in the wings.

Lieberman 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Lieberman 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The divorce of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman Wednesday was almost as puzzling as their marriage 15 months earlier. Lieberman joined an Olmert government reeling from the Second Lebanon War and helped him recover politically, despite their diametrically opposed views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now Lieberman has broken their bond of political wedlock at a time when his relationship with the prime minister could not be tighter. Instead of the usual mutual recriminations involved in a political breakup, Lieberman and Olmert all but blew kisses to each other on their way out of the divorce proceedings. Lieberman began his Knesset press conference by thanking Olmert for treating him fairly and always being open with him - and by stressing that he had nothing personal against the prime minister. Olmert responded by issuing an official statement thanking Lieberman for his service in the government and for "his considerable contributions to a series of measures taken by the government on security and socioeconomic issues." Sources close to both men said they genuinely parted as friends, each understanding the need for the other to move in a different direction for political reasons, and that both sides knew their separation was inevitable. But neither side was satisfied with the other's reasoning behind the premature timing of the split, which both would have preferred to see happen at least several months later. Had they not felt the obligation to end their union amicably, both would have said things that sounded much less cordial. "There was no real reason for you to leave now," Olmert would have said. "You complain about the start of negotiations on the core issues of the conflict, but you know that Abu Mazen and I haven't been discussing soccer in our biweekly meetings. I would try to stop you from going, but since you're leaving for your own political needs and not because of anything I did, there is nothing I can say that could change your mind." Olmert would have accused Lieberman of hurrying his departure from the government because he wanted credit from the Right for being the first domino to start Olmert's downfall, and because he was worried that Labor chairman Ehud Barak would deliver Olmert the first blow after the Winograd report on the Second Lebanon War came out January 30. "Why did you push me out?" Lieberman would have said in return. "You knew that my red line was negotiations on the core issues of the conflict. Why did you keep on saying the words 'core issues' all week if not to shove me out the door? You knew that I would have been your most loyal coalition partner until you were on the brink of signing a deal with Abu Mazen, but you obviously decided that you would rather keep Barak." Lieberman would have accused Olmert of sacrificing him and shifting his government leftward, in hopes of pressuring Barak to break his promise to remove Labor from the government upon Winograd's release. AND BOTH would have been right. Had they not both been digging trenches ahead of Winograd's release, their relationship would not have been so muddied, and they would have been able to continue walking hand in hand. Now, instead, Lieberman has begun the process of regaining his credentials as a hawk in the opposition. Calling Arab MKs "more dangerous than Nasrallah" is a good start. He will also have to prove himself to Russian immigrant voters who are angry with him for not seeking socioeconomic portfolios and for not taking a stand in a parliamentary debate on putting the Russian-language Channel Nine on free TV. Olmert has already moved on to bigger problems. He will meet early next week with Shas chairman Eli Yishai and reassure him that Jerusalem's fate will only be discussed at the end of the Annapolis process, or at least after the end of the Knesset's winter session. Then he will devote his full attention to surviving Winograd. That means enduring whatever show Barak will put on in an effort to keep his promise, his credibility and his cabinet seat all at the same time. Barak hurt his chances this week by leaking that he could call for Olmert to resign and give Kadima six weeks to make it happen, or he would force an election. The reports convinced Kadima MKs that Barak's real goal was to split Kadima and win its voters. Olmert's associates said they were not overly concerned about Barak's potential for political posturing, because Barak was even less interested in an election than Kadima. They expressed confidence that the combination of the peace process, Barak's polls and Labor's debts would be enough to keep the defense minister from firing anything but blanks. The other test will occur in Kadima, where former coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki is ready for one last shot at bringing down Olmert before he quits politics, but he still lacks a replacement for Olmert with the guts to lead a rebellion. Unlike Lieberman, who wanted to leave the government with grace, Olmert is unwilling to go down easily. If he is forced out, Olmert will be anything but cordial.