Ending nine days of guessing around the country, Avigdor Lieberman, enjoying the kingmaker role as head of Israel’s third-largest party, recommends that Binyamin Netanyahu form the country’s next government.
In his meeting with President Shimon Peres Thursday morning , the head of Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) added that this recommendation applies only if Netanyahu tries to form a national unity government with Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu. This part of his recommendation, however, carries no official weight.
Israel President Shimon Peres (left) meets with Yisrael Beiteinu party leaders Thursday morning
Israel news photo: Mark Neiman/GPO
"Netanyahu and Livni must sit together in the government, without rotation," Lieberman told Peres. "A government of 65 MKs [with only the nationalist and religious parties, as well as Yisrael Beiteinu] will be nothing more than a 'survival' government. The three large parties must first form a government, and then the other parties will be invited to join."
Peres is in the midst of a round of meetings with leaders and representatives of all of the Knesset parties, hearing their recommendations on who should form Israel’s next government. Lieberman’s recommendation gives Netanyahu an outright majority of the incoming Knesset, simplifying Peres’s job.
The guessing game is not over, however. Will Netanyahu try to form a unity government with Kadima, as he has said he would do, or will he settle for a nationalist government of 65 MKs with Lieberman and the religious and nationalist parties?
More questions: If Netanyahu chooses a unity government, will he begin the negotiations with Kadima - or will he give his natural partners “first dibs”? And what about Kadima itself – is it interested in joining a Netanyahu-led government, or will it remain in the Opposition, as leader Tzipi Livni has said? Livni has said that she will agree only to a unity government that includes a rotation agreement between her and Netanyahu as Prime Minister - a scenario the Likud has ruled out. And will Kadima split up, with some MKs joining Netanyahu and others remaining in the Opposition?
The Lieberman Enigma
Lieberman served as a top aide to Netanyahu in the past, continues to talk with him frequently, and his voters are strongly right-wing and nationalist. Despite these niceties, he did not makes things easy for the nationalist camp, and did not state aloud that he would recommend Netanyahu until nearly the last minute.
It is not clear exactly what Lieberman’s considerations are. Some have said that his fence-sitting was related to the 8-year-old police investigation against him, which has recently gained steam once again. Just yesterday, police sources met with Attorney General Menachem Mazuz and told him that the accusations against Lieberman “are becoming more weighty.” Lieberman may or may not have been weighing which government – either left-center, or nationalist – might mean better chances for the closing of the case. He was also likely considering which ministerial portfolios the investigation prevents him from receiving. After the previous elections, in 1996, Mazuz announced that because of the investigation against Lieberman, he was not eligible to serve as Public Security Minister.
Adding to the mystery were some of Lieberman’s political moves in the past. After being left out of Olmert’s government in early 2006, he joined the government several months later, and then abruptly left just over a year later.
Despite Lieberman’s strongly hawkish reputation, his stance against further withdrawals is far from absolute. After the 2006 elections, he outlined on Channel Two Television the circumstances under which his party would oppose another unilateral withdrawal. “If it will be a withdrawal with no benefit, no compensation and no improvement in the security situation, then we will not be partners," he said.