A week from last night, at 10:01 P.M., the polls will have closed, the television exit polls will have opened, and the estimated results will have been digested. That is the moment for the phone call. If Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni is quick to phone Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman and obtain from him a recommendation to President Shimon Peres to form a government, the call could have a decisive impact on the next government's makeup. For Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, this is the most threatening scenarios: Livni, Lieberman and Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak are in, and he is out, perhaps never to return.
A victory over Netanyahu in the recommendation race - and it is the recommendation that counts, not which Knesset faction is bigger - will not necessarily ensure that Livni will be able to form a coalition without Lieberman. Lieberman's bargaining power has grown following the statement by the Arab factions that they will get back at Livni for her part in bombing Gaza.
Yisrael Beiteinu is not a center party, it is the center party. Shas lost the status of fulcrum and kingmaker when its chairman, Eli Yishai, pledged to support Netanyahu. Lieberman is not the "rightist bloc." He is the right of the right, not part of a bloc under someone else's leadership. Netanyahu as his number-two - that is something that can be discussed.
Lieberman, who was director general of the Prime Minister's Office under Netanyahu, was not impressed with Netanyahu's ability to lead the country. Lieberman seems to have seen Netanyahu as his own creation, official hierarchy notwithstanding - like the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Dimitry Medvedev. Lieberman would prefer that Netanyahu dried out in the desert, leaving Lieberman to lead the right from a starting point within reach of the highest office the next time around.
Livni, who headed the Government Companies Authority alongside Lieberman, has a close connection to Lieberman and agrees with him on the issue of changing the system of government. If he insists on including in the government's platform an iota of his belligerent, deplorable views on Israeli-Arab relations, within and beyond Israel, there will be no deal. But even Lieberman understands that the most important partner at cabinet meetings, all-seeing but unseen, is President Barack Obama (who never held a gun).
The Labor Party can be trusted that, considering the alternative, it will, as in the past, come to terms with Lieberman's presence. This is so it will not be exiled to the opposition in a Netanyahu-Lieberman government and remove party chairman Ehud Barak. If a persuasive reason is needed, the Iranian threat will supply it.
Time is of the essence because the formation of a government and a decision on an indictment against Lieberman, pending a hearing, might be very close. Thus far, decisions have been made in a professional manner in the Lieberman case by police Maj. Gen. Yoav Segalovitch, the head of investigations and intelligence, along with the head of the economic department in the State Prosecutor's office, Avia Alef. Just by coincidence, Lieberman's number-two on the Yisrael Beiteinu list, and his candidate for public security minister if Lieberman is disqualified by the attorney general, is Uzi Landau, who in his previous stint as public security minister worked against investigators.
The Hebrew letter lamed on the Yisrael Beiteinu ballot is a holdover from the days of the Liberal Party, which disappeared into Likud, but the similarity between Lieberman and liberal is only in the alliteration. The difference between Lieberman and Netanyahu on law and order, in terms of their own conduct, not that of others, remains to be seen. Over the past decade the State Prosecutor's office gave in, forgivingly, despite ostensible proof in an indictment against Lieberman following a probe of his possible misuse of funds of the Sha'ar Ba'aliyah association.
When it came to the Netanyahu family and the affair of their mover, Avner Amedi, the State Prosecutor's Office said two years ago that Netanyahu had broken the law, was negligent toward the state, created a misleading impression and tried to charge the public purse for private expenses amounting to hundreds of thousands of shekels. Netanyahu's loyalty to the champions of justice on his list, Gideon Sa'ar (a former aide to state prosecutor Edna Arbel) and Dan Meridor, might be abrogated in order to side with Lieberman if Netanyahu comes to the brink of losing power.
Netanyahu, who forgot he had intended to use former police commissioner Assaf Hefetz as a candidate who would rehabilitate the police, might buy Lieberman's support at the cost of the justice or public security ministry, representation on the Judicial Appointments Committee and influence over important appointments such as attorney general or police commissioner. That is a price Livni must not pay. But Lieberman must also not be left to Netanyahu's embrace without a fight. The first phone call, a week from last night, like the phone call of the heads of the National Religious Party who promised victory to Menachem Begin on election night in 1977, can deny Netanyahu the premiership.
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