The signs of a crisis in the relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are multiplying. Tensions peaked when ministers from Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party voted against the state budget after the all-night cabinet meeting Thursday and Friday, which Lieberman did not attend. Yisrael Beiteinu claims Netanyahu has given it the short end of the stick compared to other coalition partners, Labor and Shas, which received hefty budgetary allocations in spheres particularly dear to them.
This cabinet meeting vote was preceded by several contrarian steps by the foreign minister, who was insulted when Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer met with Turkey's foreign minister without his knowledge. Lieberman retaliated by appointing a diplomat of middling status as Israel's acting ambassador to the United Nations, and by disclosing the "political plan for separation from the Gaza Strip" on the eve of Netanyahu's departure for Cairo, knowing that this would antagonize the Egyptians. At yesterday's cabinet meeting, Netanyahu added another pinch to the brew of Lieberman insults when he opposed Yisrael Beiteinu's conversion law.
Aggravating tensions between the Jewish majority and Arab minority, Lieberman and his party brought serious damage to the state by waging a racist campaign during the last national election, and by promoting "loyalty laws." As foreign minister, Lieberman has emerged as a failure, conspicuous primarily for the rebukes and censures he has been dealt by foreign states and leaders. Many statesmen boycott him or meet with him only so the encounter appears on the record. His input regarding key political and security policies and matters, such as relations with the United States, the peace process and the flotilla affair, has been either negligible or negative. His conversion law proposal threatens to undermine Israel's crucial relationship with Jewish communities in the United States.
The crisis between Netanyahu and Lieberman gives the prime minister an opportunity to toss Yisrael Beiteinu out of the coalition, and to replace it with Kadima. Hardly a wonder party, Kadima merits criticism for its support of anti-democratic laws, measures silently condoned by party head Tzipi Livni.
But Livni deserves credit for her resolute support for the two-state solution. More than any other step the prime minister might take, including her party in the government would signal to the international community that Netanyahu means business with his policy overtures.
Netanyahu insists that he, not Lieberman, crafts the government's policy. He should now put his money where his mouth is, and use his meeting with the foreign minister today as a lever to change the coalition.
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