Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in 2009. Photo by Archive / Tess Scheflan
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Appropriately arrogant, and brimming with self-confidence, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman invited the media on Monday to a caucus of Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset members. As if to twist the knife he had plunged into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the day before in his Foreign Ministry speech, Lieberman repeated its highlights: no to reconciliation with Turkey and to a peace agreement with the Palestinians. It should be noted that this time he toned down the rhetoric and reiterated that he recognizes the value of restraint.

That's Lieberman: Like a master chef he manipulates the height of the diplomatic and coalition flames. Two weeks ago turned up the heat, over the army conversion bill. A few days later he reduced the temperature as he and his ministers allowed Netanyahu to pass the yeshiva students bill in the cabinet. But on Sunday, at the convention of Israeli ambassadors, he stoked the fires once more with a pinpoint strike against the possibility of ending the crisis over the Gaza flotilla and restoring relations with Ankara.

Lieberman knows that on the eve of the budget vote no one would dare mess with him, even if he were to publicly accuse Netanyahu of stealing fish in an open-air market. He doesn't want to break up the government but he does want to prove to Netanyahu who's boss.

His methods vary; sometimes a carrot, other times a stick. Until a few weeks ago Lieberman was careful not to stretch the rope too far, out of fear that Netanyahu might throw out Yisrael Beiteinu in favor of Kadima. Today he knows for sure that this isn't an option. Kadima won't be a part of this government.

How did the prime minister react to the latest developments? Just one day after his foreign minister set a record for political tantrums, Netanyahu was a model of diplomacy: "It is best to speak to the heart of the matter and not to matters of a personal nature," he told Channel 10. "Everyone knows that the words that matter are those of the prime minister."

Really? Throughout the world, Netanyahu's weakness and the paralysis attacking him are attributed to his coalition's composition. They believe he wants to, but also that he can't, because of his partners and the danger of losing his government.

Netanyahu may sit in the Prime Minister's Office and travel around the country in a honking motorcade, but these days he is in effect the head of the Lieberman government. A week ago he was head of the Yishai government - Eli Yishai - when he was forced, with a loaded gun to his temple, to push through the yeshiva students bill.

Some might accuse him of being head of the Barak government, which does whatever it wants in the territories, preventing land from being rezoned for construction and thus de facto continuing the building freeze. Only last night Likud Central Committee members received a prerecorded voice mail from Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman begging them to pressure Netanyahu into transferring authority for West Bank construction permits from the defense minister to a ministerial committee.

Tomorrow night, after the inevitable crises, the Knesset will approve the 2010-11 state budget, ensuring two more years for Netanyahu's government. Ostensibly this will be decisive proof of Netanyahu's power. But in fact it's evidence of his weakness: The budget will pass not because Netanyahu imposed his will on his coalition partners but because they imposed their wills on him. He was constantly forced to maneuver among contradictory agendas, to the point where his own whereabouts were unknown.

Last night he cleared his calendar and called an urgent consultation over the future of the army conversion bill, under the shadow of his coalition partners' threat to vote against the budget. Even if this crisis is solved by tomorrow, new troubles are waiting to ambush him in 2011: with Labor, over the stasis in the peace process and with Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox on matters of religion and state. Yvet Lieberman's heaven is Bibi Netanyahu's hell.