Analysis: Lieberman's moment of truth

Tartman's past - or lack of one - is threatening Israel Beiteinu's credibility.

mk tartman 298.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mk tartman 298.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman is a cunning and calculating political operator, but he never imagined in his worst nightmares that his well-laid plans to transform his political creation, Israel Beiteinu, into a legitimate candidate to be the party of power might hinge on the fantasies of one of his MKs. Instead of concentrating on delicate issues of strategy during his working visit to Moscow, he has to come up with a way out of Estherina Tartman. He has no time to lose. Every hour that passes with revelations coming out on Tartman's past - or her lack of one - causes deep damage to his party's image and to his own credibility, as the leader who handpicked Tartman for the Knesset and the Tourism Ministry. There is no way he can disown her. She was one of the founding members of his party. He placed her in the fifth spot on his Knesset list, called her "a soul friend" on election night, and pushed through her candidacy for tourism minister, saying that her background and experience made her "the most suitable" for the position. He has only two options. He can stick by Tartman and whatever excuse she manages to cobble together in the hope that no new fibs come to light, claiming she is the victim of a vicious media smear campaign and is being singled out for her outspoken political views. But that would make him the laughing stock of the Knesset, and there's nothing Lieberman hates more than not being taken seriously. If it was simply a matter of Tartman exaggerating a claim for disability benefits or buffing up her CV a bit, the storm could be weathered. But with all that's come out over the last few days, it's going to be very hard to prove that Tartman isn't a serial liar, and a bad one at that. Playing the underdog card and accusing the press of a witch-hunt will convince few, and it will set back Lieberman's efforts to appeal to the mainstream. He also risks alienating his core constituency, the "Russian" vote. These people value academic achievement and will take a very dim view of Tartman's invented degrees. The alternative, announcing a change in plans and naming another MK for the ministry, is also not very appealing. If he is incapable of acknowledging it out loud, it would be an admission by Lieberman of a serious error of judgment on his part. Not the kind of thing that should happen to a strategic affairs minister, a man who believes he can outfox Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even if he banishes Tartman to the ignominy of the backbenches, Lieberman's troubles won't be over. The press will be all over his next candidate for the job, searching for holes in the new guy's credentials. It will also become much more difficult to push through the other senior appointment awarded to the party and have MK Stas Meseznikov, another political nonentity, approved as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee. Tartman could still make trouble for Lieberman in the future. As a spurned and rejected MK, there would be little to stop her throwing in with the right-wing opposition; they share the same ideology, anyway. Until now, Israel Beiteinu has been the most disciplined party in the Knesset, but Tartman could well turn into its first rebel, reducing Lieberman's bargaining power and political credentials. Only last week, the party seemed on its way. It had been awarded a second ministry and the Knesset's most powerful committee. Now Lieberman is facing the ruination of his master plan, all because of Tartman's fantasy world.