Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met for two hours on Wednesday in the Prime Minister’s Office, celebrating the former (and future) foreign minister's acquittal from fraud charges on Wednesday.
- Court: Lieberman Not Fit for Gov't
- Lieberman Stirs Trouble - in S. Africa
- Lieberman's Back, Stronger Than Before
Lieberman will be sworn in again as foreign minister, possibly as early as next Monday.
Netanyahu was pleased. Not only will Lieberman’s return to the cabinet strengthen the prime minister's clout with his coalition partners: Netanyahu believes that the humiliating blow the prosecution suffered could discourage possible charges against himself in the so-called "Bibi Tours" case, relating to travel expenses.
The conversation was easy-flowing, warm and friendly. The two decided to leave any past personal tensions behind, and begin a new leaf.
Some loose ends remain, however.
Maneuvers as Lieberman returns to cabinet
Estimates are that the coalition partners will not object to expanding the cabinet by one member, although Finance Ministry Yair Lapid will try to extract two positions for his party in exchange for his support. Lapid's party Yesh Atid will demand that Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry, a former Shin Bet head, be included in the inner security cabinet when Lieberman is added to the cabinet; and that faction whip MK Ofer Shelah replace Lieberman as the head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense committee.
The job isn't a shoo-in for Shelah, though. Likud MKs Tzachi Hanegbi and Yariv Levin want it too. Netanyahu thinks highly of Hanegbi, who held the post in the past, and would like to see him get the job again; but coalition considerations may take priority. As for Levin, he has stated that he wants the job - several times this week - but Netanyahu has nobody to replace him in the thankless job of coalition whip anyway.
Lieberman is expected to become a key player in the coalition. His relationship with Netanyahu is indeed strengthening, but it is yet to be made clear if the alliance between his Yisrael Beiteinu party and the Likud will remain intact.
Netanyahu does want to maintain it, but opposition has been growing in both parties. The parties' central committees will convene later this month to discuss a possible breakup.
Dissing the kids
Meanwhile, the reunion of Netanyahu and Lieberman is expected to significantly weaken ministers Lapid and Naftali Bennett, who the Prime Minister’s Office has been known to dismissively refer to as "the children" due to their political inexperience.
The pact between Bennett and Lapid, which they forged in order to enhance their clout with Netanyahu, still exists.
Netanyahu, for his part, has come to detest Bennett and is concerned that Lapid aspires to displace him in the next elections.
“Every time Lapid slides in public opinion polls, Netanyahu permits himself to smack Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi,” a minister commented recently.
Even though its own leader may be at risk from the renewed collaboration between Netanyahu and Lieberman, Bennett's party Habayit Hayehudi thinks Lieberman’s return will strengthen the entire hawkish wing, constraining attempts by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Lapid to advance a final deal with the Palestinians, an interim agreement, or future gestures.
Bennett and Lieberman have started cooperating in recent weeks, and this axis is only expected to strengthen following Lieberman’s acquittal.
“Clearly Lieberman will be significant in potentially luring voters away from Habayit Hayehudi, but the elections are long off and we definitely intend to collaborate now in order to strengthen the right wing of the government,” said a source at Habayit Hayehudi. “Lieberman will augment the right, and that serves us all well. His return to the government is a significant obstacle to making concessions to the Palestinians.”
One thing is universally agreed in the political sphere: Lieberman and his party are in need of a comprehensive makeover. What began as a disputed linkage with the Likud and a significant slide in the number of seats in the current Knesset, and continued as Lieberman's failure to get Moshe Leon elected as Jerusalem’s mayor, could end as a humiliating debacle in the next general elections. Yisrael Beiteinu is no longer alone in holding up the banners which brought it success in the past - while Bennett succeeded in establishing a charismatic right-wing party on the ruins of the former National Religious and National Union, Lapid and Livni are luring Yisrael Beiteinu voters with their extensive legislation ventures in civil matters.
Those in Lieberman’s circles are convinced that his public image was badly hurt by his indictment and ouster from the cabinet. Now they anticipate a major rehabilitation campaign. Sources at Yisrael Beiteinu believe that, at least outwardly, Lieberman will bypass Netanyahu from the right, making hawkish statements and utilizing his position to make his opinions known around the world. At the same time, his party Yisrael Beiteinu will try to lead efforts to pass civil issues legislation, in which it mostly failed in the previous Knesset.
In any case, it is believed that Lieberman will act to stabilize the coalition and reduce tensions within it, to keep Netanyahu on top as long as possible. His acquittal brought relief to several ministers, who had been concerned that his resignation from the Knesset would have led to early elections, in an attempt by Lieberman to return in a leadership role.
At the same time, Opposition leader Shelly Yacimovitch (Labor) said Wednesday there was no chance that she would enter Netnayahu's coalition in order to balance it from the left. She harshly criticized Livni’s call for her to join the coalition, saying it was ‘intervening in Labor’s internal affairs.’
“What better alibi would the government have than having the Labor Party as a participating partner in the policy of deadlock," she asked rhetorically. "We’ve been through this before, with [Ehud] Barak and other Labor ministers sitting in the government… giving him (Netanyahu) an alibi for a total freeze, while committing political and moral suicide. This will not happen.”