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      Analysts: Countdown to New Elections Has Begun

      Avigdor Lieberman, a critical axis in Olmert's coalition, will meet with the PM on Tuesday -and is likely to announce his resignation on Wednesday.
      By Hillel Fendel
      First Publish: 1/14/2008, 7:01 PM

      Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party is a critical part of Olmert's coalition, will meet with the Prime Minister on Tuesday - and is likely to announce his party's departure from the government on Wednesday.

      Signs of Lieberman's discontent have been rife over the past two days.  They include, most notably, the beginning of PA-Israel final-status negotiations today (Monday), and Olmert's statement on Sunday that the continued existence of the unauthorized outposts in Judea and Samaria "is a disgrace." 

      78 - 23= 55, or Less Than Half
      Olmert's 78-member coalition is dependent on the continued presence of the 11 MKs of Lieberman's party, as well as the 12 Shas MKs.  Without them, the coalition numbers only 55 - less than half of the 120-member legislature. It is widely felt that once Lieberman leaves the government, Shas will not be far behind - leading to the toppling of the government and new elections.

      Some feel that Olmert actually wants Lieberman to quit - and that that is why he authorized Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to begin final-status negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.  Likud MK Silvan Shalom explained, "Olmert wants Lieberman to leave, in order to create an impression that there is a real peace process going on.  This, he hopes, will keep Labor in the coalition even after the Winograd Report is released [16 days from now]. Olmert will then receive the support of [left-wing] Meretz."

      This theory has been advanced by Haaretz political commentator Mazal Mualem as well - but her competitor from Channel Two, Amit Segal, disagrees. 

      Olmert to Go Out With a Spark
      "It is very unlikely that Olmert would want to create a left-wing government," Segal told Arutz-7's Hebrew newsmagazine today.  "The most likely scenario is that Lieberman will quit, followed by Shas - and then Olmert will call new elections, explaining that the peace process is at its height and that that is the main issue of the elections.  If he loses, as all polls strongly indicate, then he will have attained not being thrown out on corruption charges or the like, but rather on a matter of principle.  And if he wins, then he'll be even happier. Either way, though, the countdown has basically begun."

      Segal noted that Labor may be tempted to quit the coalition when the Winograd Report is issued, in light of the expected strong criticism it will contain of Olmert's handling of the Second Lebanon War - but that Lieberman is in a different situation.  "Lieberman can't use Winograd as an excuse to quit, " Segal said, "because he joined the government well after it was widely known how badly Olmert had botched the war."

      Knesset Bill
      MK Uri Ariel (National Union) plans to submit legislation this Wednesday calling for the dissolution of the Knesset and new elections.  "In light of the Olmert government's rush to freeze construction in Jerusalem and uproot Jewish settlement locations," Ariel said, "the time has come to have new elections and replace the government."

      Netanyahu
      Opposition Leader Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud Party and the current favorite to be Israel's next Prime Minister, repeated his call for Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas to quit the government.  Speaking at a Likud Knesset faction meeting on Monday, Netanyahu said, "The Olmert government is ready to give up Jerusalem and return to the 1967 borders.  These concessions are a danger to Israel's future and security. Our partners in the national camp have a great responsibility at this time to see the dangers and not lend a hand to them."

      Kadima Splintered?
      New elections are not likely to see Olmert's Kadima party running in its current format.  Kadima's Ze'ev Elkin, a right-wing leaning Knesset Member, says that he and others in the Kadima Knesset faction cannot accept the leftward tilt of Kadima.  "Kadima's platform is what counts," Elkin said, "and it reflects the positions of myself, MK Otniel Schneller [and others]... Whoever tries to take Kadima to the left will pay a heavy price, and so will the entire party."