Analysis: Finding an appropriate portfolio for Lieberman is no simple matter

Can the Israel Beiteinu chair translate his electoral power into an important ministry for himself?

Lieberman calm down 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Lieberman calm down 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israel Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman is the coalition kingmaker, but can he translate this electoral power into an important ministry for himself? Lieberman's decision on whom to recommend to President Shimon Peres to form a coalition: Binyamin Netanyahu or Tzipi Livni, will decide who becomes prime minister, as they both need his party's 15 mandates to boost their chances of swaying Peres, so his asking price is very high. Netanyahu won't admit he was beaten and neither will Livni, and neither of them have very good options. Neither currently has the necessary 61 MKs recommending them to form a government. Neither has called the other on the phone since the election - to congratulate on the victory or to console in defeat. Both Bibi and Livni are instead busy trying to entice Lieberman into their camps with promises of ministries and the freedom to vote on pertinent issues, such as conversions and civil unions. Both Bibi and Livni have promised to topple Hamas once they're in power - as Lieberman wants to do. Lieberman would prefer a Likud-led government, but he has problems with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which will fight him on state-religion issues and changing the electoral system. Shas's spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef has also called Lieberman "the devil." Lieberman didn't like that at all. The Likud is trying to square that circle now: how to give Lieberman what he wants on civil-religious issues while not radically changing the nature of the country's religious establishment; and how to get the Moldavian-born "devil" to sit with the Iraqi-born Talmudic genius. Everyone in the big parties wants a Likud-Kadima-Israel Beitenu coalition government of 70 MKs. The fight now is over who heads that government, Bibi or Livni. Even after the elections, it's still Bibi or Livni. Bibi is trying to drive a wedge between Livni and her MKs by offering Kadima a huge deal, a deal they can't refuse: anything up to 10 ministries, including the most important ones, several other deputy ministries and the chairmanship of some serious committees. On the other hand, it is leaving the option of giving big ministries to Lieberman open. Besides his religion and state issues, Lieberman also wants ministries, asking for, in this order, Defense, Foreign or Finance. But what can Bibi or Livni realistically promise him? The problem is that Lieberman is under investigation for serious suspicions of fraud, breach of trust and money laundering. He has been questioned under caution on suspicion of fraudulently receiving funds from businessmen through bogus bank accounts while he was infrastructures minister in Ariel Sharon's government in 2001, and through the consultancy firm that employed his daughter Michal. Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz has already ruled that Lieberman can't be internal security minister, because that minister is in charge of the police, and a minister under investigation by the police cannot be in charge of the police. He cannot be justice minister either, because eventually the police will hand over their investigation material to the prosecution, and the justice minister is in charge of that department. Lieberman has already said he wants Justice Minister Daniel Friedman to stay on in his post. This is significant because Friedman is in the midst of a campaign to strip the High Court and the legal establishment of much of its power. Lieberman seemingly can't be finance minister because finance ministers need to give police approval to go into bank accounts and investigate Knesset members, so who will the police turn to when they want to access Lieberman's accounts? Certainly it can't be Lieberman himself. There are reports that Lieberman is quietly floating the idea of moving the Tax Authority out of the Finance Ministry to some other ministry [or the Prime Minister's Office] so that he can be finance minister. If he does seriously attempt this, it may not pass legal scrutiny. Bibi or Livni will find it hard to make Lieberman foreign minister, as most of the world, especially the Europeans and Arabs, outwardly consider him to be an ultra-Nationalist extremist whose positions regarding Israeli Arabs are anathema. While these countries would likely say politely that they would work with any Israeli government, it is clear that his stated positions won't win him, or Israel - if he becomes the country's official face abroad - armies of supporters. For Egypt, whose president he told "to go to hell," Lieberman is a red flag to their raging bull. Relations with Cairo are already on thin ice, and you can forget about visits to Ankara anytime soon. In this eventuality, look for President Shimon Peres to play a greater role in foreign affairs, if not actually in molding policy, then at least in representing Israel overseas, and in welcoming visitors here. However, the reaction in Europe's foreign ministries would probably be mixed between the cautious and more explicit. European diplomats told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that Brussels would wait to see what kind of statements Lieberman makes once he is in government [election rhetoric aside]. European countries will have to accept Lieberman as foreign minister, what other choice would they have? Any hardline stance on Israel, like boycotting or ostracizing the Israeli foreign minister, would require a decision within the EU decision-making apparatus, and that is unlikely to be unanimous unless Lieberman says or does something really stupid. Lieberman will be closely observed to see if he is as radical as he seems, and the ambassadors in Tel Aviv would get a first crack at feeling him out over an informal cup of coffee before he gets any official invitations to European capitals. There will not be any negative public statements unless Lieberman makes them first. A European diplomatic source said that it was under Ariel Sharon's short tenure as foreign minister [1998-1999] that Israeli diplomats woke up to the importance of European diplomacy. Before Sharon, the Israeli Foreign Ministry largely ignored the EU, the source said. As Hilary Krieger reported in Sunday's Post: "One Jewish organizational leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, made the case that Lieberman was actually less 'radioactive' than Ariel Sharon, who was held responsible for 1982's Sabra and Shatila massacre, once was in international circles, yet the latter successfully rehabilitated his image." For an America under an Obama administration looking for movement toward a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue, dealing with a hawkish foreign minister who lives in a West Bank settlement will not be an easy pill to swallow. Serious defense experts don't want to see Lieberman as defense minister, largely because he's considered a bit of a loose cannon, inexperienced, and wants to bomb Iran and the Aswan Dam. For defense experts, installing another inexperienced defense minister is a recipe for disaster. Not that an Israeli defense minister needs to be a former general, but he does need serious experience and a deep understanding of Israel's strategic environment. Nobody really knows what Lieberman did as minister of strategic affairs, but the consensus among experts is that the ministry was a redundant political invention with no practical purpose and didn't contribute much to stopping Iran's centrifuges from spinning. Did Lieberman get the education he needs in that ministry? Hard to tell because of the hush-hush nature of that office, but the fact that the ministry was dismantled soon after Lieberman bolted the previous government in January 2008 attests to its importance and contribution. Those are the big, important portfolios. So what's left? Interior Ministry: It's possible but unlikely, as Shas and UTJ will never join a government where Israel Beitenu has the Interior Ministry, and uses it to relax conversion laws, approve civil unions and generally chip away at the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on matters of religion and state. So Bibi would have to sacrifice Shas to give Israel Beitenu the Interior Ministry, which he doesn't want to do. Livni won't have much compunction about hurting Shas, which blocked her from forming a government last year when Olmert resigned. Education Ministry: Lieberman will have a battle with the education system, which would find it hard to accept a possible changing of the school textbooks on civics issues to include an oath of loyalty to the state. Arab schools certainly won't start the morning with an oath of loyalty to the Zionist state. What will Education Minister Avigdor Lieberman do then? Cut off their funding? That only leaves the relatively "minor" ministries of Social Affairs, Tourism, Infrastructures, Trade, Communications, Health, and Agriculture - which are all beneath his stature right now and won't add much fame or glory, so he won't take them. They also won't help him make the jump to serious contender for the prime ministerial job, which is what he's aiming for. For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog
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