Analysis: Lieberman's empty pistol

Lieberman's exodus would give Barak the excuse he needs, and seemingly wants, to stay in government.

Lieberman har homa 224.8 (photo credit: AP [file])
Lieberman har homa 224.8
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel Beiteinu's strategic affairs minister, Avigdor Lieberman, took to the airwaves Sunday and dramatically warned that if Israel started negotiating on the "core issues" with the Palestinians - widely believed to be refugees, Jerusalem, settlements and borders - he would take his 11-seat party out of the coalition and go home. One would think this type of comment would rile up the Prime Minister's Office, and that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would make clarifications and urge Lieberman to think again. But none of that happened. The explanation is simple: Losing Lieberman and Israel Beiteinu at this stage might not be bad for Olmert, and could actually be the glue that cements Labor head Ehud Barak into the coalition. If Israel Beiteinu bolts, the coalition drops from 78 to 67 seats, still more than enough to govern. However, if Barak, wrestling with the question of whether to fulfill his pledge from a few months ago to leave the coalition after the release of the Winograd Report on the Second Lebanon War, decides to bolt, it would bring the government down. The Winograd Committee announced on Sunday it would release its long-awaited report on January 30. Which is why a Lieberman exodus now could be good for Olmert: It would give Barak the excuse he needs - and seemingly wants - to stay in the government. Barak could then ask his supporters how he of all people, as head of the Labor Party, could be the one to finish Lieberman's work and bring down a government that has embarked on a diplomatic process with the Palestinians. Better, he could argue, to stay inside the government despite his pledge and see the diplomatic process through. All of this, of course, is also very clear to Lieberman. Yet on Sunday, he still made his threats. Why? Because Lieberman, with an eye on the next election, will at some point have to prove his right-wing credentials by pulling out of the government over an issue of "principle." The start of the negotiations on core issues provides a perfect excuse. Furthermore, he can't wait forever, because creeping up in his rearview mirror is billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak. If Lieberman bolts now, he may be able to keep Gaydamak and his nascent Social Justice Party from taking too big a bite out of his constituency. But if he waits and continues to prop up Olmert's government, his Russian-speaking constituency may very well look at Gaydamak to provide them with another political tent. Shas, of course, is the wild card in all this. If Shas and its 12 seats were to join Lieberman and leave the government, then even if Labor remained in the coalition - and Olmert were able to count on Meretz's support from outside - his government would be a shaky 60 seats, dependent on the full allegiance of all his Kadima members and the renegades within the Gil Pensioners Party. This, Olmert knows well, is not a government he could count on. It certainly isn't a government that could make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. Yet it is telling that Shas head Eli Yishai did not echo Lieberman's threats on Sunday. Instead, while Lieberman was waving one foot out of the government, Olmert seemed to be pulling Shas in tighter by establishing a new Religious Services Ministry to be headed by Shas's Yitzhak Cohen. Granted, the new ministry will be but a shadow of the former Religious Affairs Ministry, without most of its responsibilities and budget. But still, it's a start. And despite protestations to the contrary from the Prime Minister's Office, the timing of this move seems too good politically to be chalked up mere coincidence.•