As President Shimon Peres prepares to begin the process of choosing Israel’s potential Prime Minister, front-runner Binyamin Netanyahu is asked to get tough with Avigdor Lieberman, who is playing the “spoiler” role.
The arithmetic of the coalition talks is as follows: Kadima is the largest party with 28 Knesset seats, but the bloc that it heads – the non-Arab center-left – numbers only 44. On the other hand, the Likud has only 27 seats, but its natural allies in the national camp give it 65 seats, a majority of the 120-member Knesset.
Kadima’s only hope of forming a coalition is to entice Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party (15 seats) into a national unity government with the Likud. Kadima leader Tzipi Livni has, in fact, reached a partial understanding with Lieberman – but this still does not address the fact that the Likud refuses to join a Kadima-led government under any circumstances.
Likud leader Netanyahu is thus the natural choice for Peres to choose to put together a government, most pundits and political sources feel. Even leading Kadima figures have been saying, off the record, that Livni has no chance of putting together a governing coalition. At most, some of them – such as Ministers Chaim Ramon and Tzachi HaNegbi - are hoping for a rotation government, which the Likud has turned down.
This then leaves the question of Avigdor Lieberman and what he hopes to gain from his contacts with Kadima. Unnamed top Likud sources say that if Lieberman is trying to raise his price for his entry into a Likud government, it may backfire on him. “If he doesn't recommend Netanyahu to Peres, he may find himself out of our government altogether,” they say. This, because Netanyahu could potentially form a unity government of up to 78 seats with Kadima and the religious and nationalist parties.
In addition, as has been widely noted, the 12.5% of the populace who voted for Lieberman’s Israel Our Home, making it the country’s 3rd-largest party, are overwhelmingly right-wing. It is unlikely that they would forgive him were he to choose Livni over Netanyahu.
Netanyahu himself is trying to reach Lieberman via the latter’s voters. In an interview with the Russian-language Channel 9 TV station, Netanyahu said, “I am the only MK who can form a government.”
However, this is not enough for many in the nationalist camp. Given the likelihood that Peres will choose Netanyahu to form Israel’s next government, many of them are looking to Netanyahu to show more strength vis-à-vis Lieberman. Golan Heights spokesman Uri Heitner, for instance, headlined the Wednesday edition of his widely-read blog, “Netanyahu’s Test of Leadership.”
Heitner wrote, “The brilliant trick by Lieberman [in reaching understandings with Livni] places a challenge of leadership before Netanyahu. Will he blink first, give in and show weakness towards Lieberman, or will he act like a true leader and conduct tough negotiations with him?”
“Lieberman is playing with cards that he does not have. He knows that Livni can’t form a government, and that’s why he’s raising his price with her. He also knows that even with his authoritative leadership, he cannot ignore his own voters’ desires so bald-facedly. He has no choice but to join a Netanyahu government…
"True, his talks with Livni gain him legitimacy, render him a type of kingmaker, and allow him to raise his price with the Likud. He is relying on the weakness Netanyahu has shown in the past under pressure, and hopes that in his fervor to become Prime Minister, he will pay a high price [to Lieberman].
"Netanyahu knows that only he can form a government, even if Livni receives the first chance to do so. He knows that Lieberman knows this, and he knows that Lieberman desires ardently to join the government and does not want to find himself in the opposition to a Netanyahu-Kadima unity government. Netanyahu knows that all the cards are actually in his hands, and that he has no reason to give in. The question is, Will he display strong leadership and conduct tough negotiations with Leiberman, or will he allow himself to be pressured and squeezed? This is his test of leadership.
"The way in which Netanyahu leads the process of forming the government will determine his leadership and image, in Israel and around the world, as he begins his second term as Israel’s Prime Minister.”