The recent speech at the United Nations by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was the opening salvo in the election campaign for the 19th Knesset. Lieberman, who is chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, embarked on a bid for the leadership of the political right wing and positioned himself as the guardian of those "speaking the truth," who will not be pressured and will not capitulate like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The rivalry between Lieberman and Netanyahu is not new, but until last week, the two refrained from open war. Lieberman chose the "crisis" over the settlement construction freeze to push the prime minister against a wall, to raise doubts about his reliability, and to show right-wing voters who's strong enough to stand up to American pressure.
The American demand for a settlement construction freeze was designed from the start to threaten the unity of Israel's governing coalition and the stability of Netanyahu's hold on the prime minister post. It was also designed to engender constant tension between Netanyahu and the right flank of his Likud party, as well as his "natural partners" from other parties on the right.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas disclosed this strategy in an interview with the Washington Post last spring, making clear that he intended to sit on the sidelines and not budge until U.S. President Barack Obama brought about Netanyahu's fall from power.
He threatened and he followed through on his threat. He returned to direct talks with Israel just before the expiration of the construction freeze, and immediately disrupted them with the demand that settlement construction not be renewed.
Netanyahu was faced with problems on both the domestic and international fronts. His speeches about peace don't convince anyone in the international community; his assurances about achieving a historic peace agreement within a year are greeted with skepticism and his protestations of being treated unfairly are ignored.
"The world," including Obama, hates the settlements and wants the construction freeze. Unlike the freeze that ended on September 26, however, which did not rock the coalition boat, this time Netanyahu has encountered opposition. Lieberman is warning against an American plot to impose a peace agreement and says he will remain in the government and fight to foil it.
The response to Lieberman's insurrection should have been to remove him from the Foreign Ministry and replace him with Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni. Without a doubt, bringing Kadima into the government instead of Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and Habayit Hayehudi would send a message to the world that Netanyahu was serious and intended to reach a compromise with the Palestinians.
Such a step, however, is fraught with major risks. Livni could join forces with adversaries of Netanyahu and bring him down rather than saving him. That's what the leader of the Labor Party, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, did to Netanyahu during his prior term as prime minister.
And if Kadima joins the government and the peace process moves forward, that will relieve the pressure from abroad, but it will lead Likud to the brink of a split for a second time in five years. Lieberman will be ready to pick up the pieces, and the voters.
That's why Netanyahu has refrained from dismissing Lieberman following the U.N. speech. He preferred to wipe the spit off his face and sustain the media's criticism rather than engaging in a duel at a time and place of Lieberman's choosing. The foreign minister is considered a calculating politician who keeps his cards close to his chest and aces up his sleeve, but he also has his weaknesses. He is impatient and sensitive to what is written about him, and surrounds himself with yes-men. These are clear signs of insecurity. Sooner or later, he could stumble, or be put on trial, and his race for leader of the right wing and the country will come to a halt.
But it could come too late for Netanyahu, who has been left looking like a weak leader following the settlement freeze row. He is seen as indecisive, scurrying between right and left, between Lieberman and Obama, in an effort to avoid making a decision. The public is having trouble parsing his actions. Does he intend to withdraw from the West Bank or just trade barbs with Abbas?
The mystery will not be solved even if Netanyahu responds positively to Obama and extends the construction freeze for another two months in exchange for a gift basket of American assurances. He will only be buying more time during which he can sit on the fence.
He should come to Wednesday's inner cabinet meeting with a clear understanding of what he is presenting and what he intends to fight for. He should take a good look at his election campaign slogan, at his message to the public.
Is he a man of peace or a political trickster, someone holing himself up against the world or a groundbreaking statesman? His decisions as to what to do should flow from the more basic decision as to who and what he is. His continued waffling will only serve Lieberman, who is waiting for the right moment to make his move.
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