Likud is seeking a subtle way to warn rightist voters against voting for Yisrael Beiteinu, for fear that if Avigdor Lieberman's party keeps stealing seats from it, Kadima could wind up forming the next government.
The party with the most seats is usually given first chance to form a government, and so far polls show Likud in this slot. But Kadima is close enough behind that even a few seats moving from Likud to Yisrael Beiteinu could put Kadima in first.
While some Likud members say the party should start attacking Lieberman openly, party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu is reluctant to do so, lest it hurt him among groups like Russian immigrants, where Lieberman is popular. Nevertheless, party officials are seeking a way to send wavering voters a clear message: "If you vote for Lieberman, you are liable to get Tzipi Livni as prime minister."
Likud officials said that if the Kadima chairwoman is asked to form a government, it is quite likely that Lieberman would join it, for two reasons. First, two of Lieberman's flagship issues are changing the system of government and instituting civil marriage, and Livni would happily cooperate on both. But Netanyahu is committed to Shas, which opposes both these proposals.
Second, Lieberman has already expressed a willingness for far-reaching compromises with the Palestinians, including the transfer of Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to a Palestinian state. Hence he and Livni could find common ground on diplomatic issues as well.
"Lieberman is a rightist only in his statements against Israeli Arabs," one Likud official said. "But on diplomatic issues, he could find himself in Livni's camp, under certain circumstances. Therefore, if there are rightist voters who think that by voting for Lieberman they would strengthen him within a Netanyahu government, they may be in for a surprise after the elections," the official said.
"Our polls show that 75 percent of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu voters want to see Bibi [Netanyahu] as prime minister and Lieberman as a senior minister in his government. But many of them don't understand that there is also another possibility. It is no accident that Lieberman to this day has yet to announce who he will recommend as prime minister," the official continued.
The president asks all the parties whom they would prefer as prime minister before deciding whom to tap to form a government.
"And you shouldn't forget that he has already sat for more than a year in [Ehud] Olmert's government. If people understand that Lieberman is not an automatic partner of Likud, maybe they would think twice and return to us."
Likud is also beginning a billboard campaign today that sends the same message in a subtler way. "A big Likud means a stable government," the signs will read, in the hopes of persuading people to vote Likud rather than other rightist parties.
Internal Likud polls show Yisrael Beiteinu up to 18 seats, and Likud officials believe the party could go as high as 20. At the same time, Kadima has not been dropping the way Likud had hoped it would. As a result, the gap between Likud and Kadima has been steadily narrowing.
Some Likud officials are afraid that Livni and Lieberman have already formed an alliance. But even if they have not, Yisrael Beiteinu's rising power is a threat.
"How did we let him get so big?" one Likud official asked. "Two months ago, there was a significant gap between Likud and Lieberman, and now Lieberman will soon be in second place. This changes the whole coalition picture. He could join Livni. He doesn't work for Bibi."
Lieberman, for his part, has no intention of announcing whom he will recommend as prime minister before the elections. However, his associates say he will not join any government without being allowed to vote his conscience on issues of religion and state - a condition Shas is likely to have trouble accepting.
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