His Country. Right - or Wrong

While the attorney general ponders whether to convict Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister may be mulling over ways to bring about early elections and topple Netanyahu.

At long last, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is supposed to decide next week on Avigdor Lieberman's criminal investigation. Should the foreign minister not be indicted, he will doubtless clothe himself in victim's garb the way Alfred Dreyfus did. If that happens, will Lieberman work toward bringing about early elections - or honor his declaration that the Netanyahu government will serve out its term, and sit quietly in the Foreign Ministry until then? Alternatively, if the attorney general decides to indict him, will the accused find a pretext to break up the government and bring early elections, before his trial begins?

Lieberman has stuck a hefty number of loaded topics on the public agenda, particularly his antireligious bills. All he needs to do is choose one or two and bring them up for a vote next month, the last month of the 18th Knesset's winter session.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman.
Amos Biderman

Should the minister demand a hearing prior to an indictment, the process would probably last a year. His defense team would need three months to copy the mountains of investigative material, and another four or five to review them. Then the hearing would be held, and another month or two would pass before a final decision would be reached.

Over the past few weeks, Lieberman has tossed out a slew of contradictory messages. On one occasion he warned members of his Yisrael Beiteinu faction that the price of fulfilling their promises to voters would be dismantling the government coalition. On another occasion he spoke about Israel's need for stability, and about how holding elections every two years is not good for the country, adding that he has no intention of breaking everything up.

This week, the day Netanyahu scuttled the proposal for establishing a parliamentary committee to investigate left-wing organizations' funding, Lieberman was representing Israel in Brussels. Lieberman did not comment on developments at home, but faction members warned that he might seek vengeance, perhaps by quitting the coalition. However, the foreign minister apparently did not view Netanyahu's move, which was coordinated with Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, as an attack against him, but rather as an internal Likud matter, designed to preempt a party fracture.

There is no argument about one thing: Lieberman's ultimate objective is to be the leader of Israel's right wing. He would trample Netanyahu to get what he wants. And the prime minister does not make life easy for him: Each day, he veers farther to the right. Netanyahu's address in the Knesset on Wednesday was rife with apocalyptic, security-oriented messages. The prime minister warned about regional instability that might last years. He warned about leaving the territories, which could be seized by Iran. He spoke about security arrangements, about arms-building, about large security budgets and about missiles in every corner. As an appropriate final chord for this speech, a rocket fell on Be'er Sheva that night.

Until his address at Bar-Ilan University more than a year and a half ago, Netanyahu's public pronouncements were scripted with classic right-wing cadences. After that speech, and as exemplified by the settlement freeze, Netanyahu adopted a more moderate lexicon. In recent weeks, he has gone back to being Bibi the right-winger. The current situation makes it easy for a person like him to return to his natural place on the chessboard - that of a conservative right-wing politician.

Anyone who still dreams that Netanyahu will reveal an innovative peace plan in the coming months should read articles in Israel Hayom by his choice for National Security Council head: Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yaakov Amidror. Someone like Amidror, who looks at the Middle East through the crosshairs of a gun, is not brought into such a post by a leader who seeks to formulate an impasse-breaking peace proposal.

Kadima's kingmaker

It's not every day that the Knesset accords honors like those it furnished this week on former MK Tzachi Hanegbi, who spent five years as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. On Monday, he sat next to his successor, MK Shaul Mofaz, at a celebratory session for outgoing Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. The honor accorded to Hanegbi seemed especially incongruous, given his inglorious Knesset resignation after being convicted of charges involving moral turpitude.

More than anyone else, Hanegbi and Mofaz's Kadima mates were surprised by the former MK's appearance at the committee session. Some were aware that 14 hours earlier, Hanegbi and Mofaz sat side by side at a Binyamina meeting of young party members, offering their views on peace and security matters. Some 50 people were in attendance. About half were regulars; the others were simply concerned citizens. The two men appeared to be at ease with one another, participants reported.

Mofaz was behind Hanegbi's invitation to Ashkenazi's farewell session. Minutes after the November 9 court ruling forced Hanegbi to quit the parliament, he declared publicly that he would pass the prestigious committee chairmanship to Mofaz, a former chief of staff and defense minister.

Mofaz let Hanegbi speak at the farewell event even before he allowed the head of his own party, opposition leader Tzipi Livni, to have her turn. Livni kept a poker face, and later held a private meeting with Hanegbi.

In the September 2008 Kadima primaries, Hanegbi supported Livni. She defeated Mofaz by a whisker; possible irregularities have never been clarified. Without Hanegbi's help, Livni would not have been elected. She knows that; so does Mofaz.

In the next race between the two Kadima leaders, Hanegbi might again be the kingmaker. Livni anticipates he will help her. This time around, Mofaz expects Hanegbi to be in his corner, and there is evidence that he is lobbying hard for Hanegbi's support.

Meanwhile, Mofaz is confident he can beat Livni. He expresses this confidence in discussions with associates from various political parties. He has three explanations for his claim: 1 ) that only he can bring votes from renegade Likud members; leftists who flee Kadima because of him will join Labor or Meretz, but will remain in the center; and he thinks Livni cannot get a single vote from the right; 2 ) that he would have a better chance than Livni of establishing a stable government, since unlike her, he has not been creating antagonism with the Orthodox parties; and 3 ) that it's his turn to form a government because Livni tried twice and failed.

New advisers

People who have discussed politics with Hanegbi say he denies having an alliance with Mofaz, or intentions to form one. Yet he also is not hinting whom he will support in the next Kadima primary.

National Security Council head Dr. Uzi Arad tried to resign multiple times over the past two years. His request was repeatedly rejected. This time, Netanyahu assented.

As far as Arad is concerned, the straw that broke the camel's back was the farce surrounding his potential appointment as Israel's ambassador to Britain - an appointment born in a newspaper report and put to rest in an angry press conference by the foreign minister. Arad expected the prime minister to fight Lieberman; that didn't happen. In addition, the media were saturated with reports about how officials around the prime minister would be happy to get rid of Arad. Netanyahu also chose not to respond to these reports. Arad then announced his intention to return to academia. It seems Lieberman was a convenient excuse for Netanyahu and Arad, policy partners for 18 years, to separate.

In recent weeks, several of Netanyahu's seven senior advisers have left: media adviser Nir Hefetz, political consultant Shalom Shlomo and now Arad. Hefetz was replaced by his deputy, Gidi Shmerling; Shlomo has no designated replacement yet, and may not be replaced. Bureau chef Nathan Eshel was replaced by Gil Shefer. Shefer, responsible for the office's appointments, has created order after the chaos and false alarms from the time when Eshel ran the show. Now government meetings start on time, as do inner cabinet meetings. The prime minister's timetable is no longer a loose set of recommendations, detached from reality.

As stated, Arad's slated replacement is Yaakov Amidror. Amidror's arrival creates an unprecedented lineup in the history of the prime minister's office: Three of the seven top spots will be filled by religious skullcap wearing Jews, namely Shefer, political adviser Ron Dermer and Amidror himself.

Could it be that in the Middle East, where scarcely a second goes by without a leader needing to exchange a word with an adviser, that the prime minister will not be able to speak with several of his top advisers on the Sabbath? Do Sabbath observers know what's going on during their day of rest? They cannot watch television, use the Internet or listen to radio. It doesn't make sense for Netanyahu to brief his advisers on Saturday nights regarding the events of the past 25 hours. But then again, that's not the only illogical thing going on in the Prime Minister's Office.