Who's the Head Honcho Here?

Should the prime minister shuffle the coalition deck by co-opting Kadima and sidelining Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman's ascent to the leadership of the country's right may be expedited.

The story of the meeting this week between Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu came at a sensitive moment for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

For the past two or three weeks he has suspected that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is preparing for coalition changes in the form of the appropriation of Tzipi Livni and her Kadima Party - a move that would lead to the removal of, or would at least substantially weaken, Yisrael Beiteinu, the party Lieberman leads. He is wondering what Netanyahu and Livni discussed for two hours in a meeting a week ago, most of it in private. Lieberman listened in the Knesset as MK Dalia Itzik, the chairperson of the Kadima faction, intoned: "We want a unity government! For the sake of the country!" Furthermore, Lieberman is aware of the efforts by President Shimon Peres to expand the government, and knows Labor leader Ehud Barak's plans in this realm.

Lieberman is no introvert. A few days ago, he convened the nation's diplomatic correspondents and informed them that as far as he is concerned, on September 26 Israeli bulldozers will start laying the groundwork for building in the territories. And he added: "September will be a dramatic month."

The clearest indication that he is undergoing a transformation is his behavior in meetings of the ministerial forum of seven. For the past 15 months, since the formation of the Netanyahu government, Lieberman had acquired the reputation of being far less extreme than his public image would suggest - and was repeating, mantra-like, in meetings of the forum: "I don't think anything will come of it, but I will back it, I will not be an obstacle." No more.

But now, the members of the forum are discovering a Lieberman who is uncompromising in all things related to policy and security. Sometimes he even pounds the table with his fist.

Amos Biderman

This may coalition shuffle fever, or perhaps developments in the police investigation against him, as reported this week by the state prosecutor, are bothering him more these days. In any event, when a central coalition partner, and one with a proven record of resignations, is upset, the prime minister better be upset, too.

The growing distress palpable in Netanyahu's circles is heightened by threats in recent days from very senior sources in Yisrael Beiteinu: "If Netanyahu goes too far in this political process, we will leave the coalition immediately and bring about new elections. In those elections, we will draw the votes of the right-wing supporters of Likud and thereby become the biggest right-wing party."

That's a clear message, aimed right at the prime minister. A government figure who met recently with Netanyahu told an interlocutor that the premier said: "If I go too far, not only will I lose the coalition, I will also shatter Likud."

Lieberman dreams of being the leader of the right. In the 2006 elections, he almost realized that dream, when his party won 11 seats and Likud won 12. A difference of only about 115 votes prevented the opposite result.

Reasons to bolt

About a week ago, a few senior figures from Israel and the United States met somewhere across the sea. The Israelis wanted to know what Netanyahu should expect when he meets with President Barack Obama next week. The Americans were not unequivocal, but one of them did have an interesting insight.

"You have had a few prime ministers from Likud," the man said, more or less in these words. "Menachem Begin made peace with Egypt. He effectively stopped being a Likudnik. Yitzhak Shamir went to the Madrid Conference, but afterward reverted to his errant ways. Ariel Sharon made a sharp, extreme turn when he evacuated all the settlements in Gaza. He too ceased to be Likud. And you also had Ehud Olmert, who completely forgot that he was once Likud. We supported those people, we gave them backing, we ignored their tricks in the territories, because we understood the intensity of the ideological and mental upheaval they underwent. Netanyahu, in the meantime, is not creating any such impression. He wants to go on being a Likudnik. As long as he is in that place, we cannot go along with him."

Ministers in the forum of seven who were asked this week if they know what Netanyahu will say to Obama this Tuesday shrugged. In that body, the premier talks mainly about security matters. When it comes to the political process, however, he speaks with his senior ministers only one-on-one. Thus, it's a safe bet that what he says to Benny Begin and Moshe Ya'alon is not the same as what he says to Dan Meridor and Barak.

As became apparent this week, Netanyahu apparently does not tell Lieberman, in their weekly private rendezvous, what he is obliged to do according to their working relationship: The Prime Minister's Bureau admitted Wednesday night that Lieberman was not briefed in advance about Ben-Eliezer's meeting with the foreign minister's Turkish counterpart for a "technical" reason.

It's clear to Netanyahu, and even more so to Lieberman, that there will be a response to this humiliating situation. It's not certain that Lieberman wants to resign, not certain that he wants that now, if at all, but it's clear that if he wants to leave he has plenty of reasons for doing so. For example, the list of laws that Yisrael Beiteinu demanded that Likud pass in the Knesset by June 30 - i.e., Wednesday. It's easy to imagine Lieberman calling a press conference and announcing his resignation due to repeated violations of the coalition agreement by Likud. On that subject, he's in the right.

Terms of endearment

In all of Ehud Barak's tempestuous years as a politician, he always had at his side, both in victory and defeat, one person: Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon. It was a true friendship, based on unconditional love and esteem (well, at least from Simhon's side ). But on the night between June 16 and 17, Simhon cut the umbilical cord. He declared independence in regard to an internal Labor Party issue that is of no interest to 99.9 percent of the public: his candidacy to become chairman of the Jewish National Fund. Simhon was supposed to contest the post on behalf of the Labor faction in the recent meeting of the Zionist Congress, but things got tangled up for legal reasons. He then decided to run personally as the candidate of the Reform Movement and Meretz, and was elected by a large margin. But the appointment was delayed again by a court ruling in the wake of an appeal by the current chairman, Effi Stenzler.

As one of Simhon's friends put it: "It was the night when Ehud betrayed Shalom." Why? From the moment he decided to run independently, having no other choice, Barak turned against him. He demanded that Simhon not run, so that he, Barak, would not be perceived to be a leader without followers. Simhon went ahead anyway. Barak sicced the party's director general, Weizmann Shiri, on him; accordingly, Shiri sent him nasty SMS messages. Simhon did not respond. Barak himself called him dozens of times that night. Simhon did not answer. Even after he submitted his candidacy, Barak sent Prof. Shimon Shetreet to his house at 1 A.M. to persuade him to retract. Simhon stood firm.

The next morning there was a security cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. Simhon arrived in a state of exhaustion. At the door he ran into Avigdor Lieberman.

"Tell me, what happened?" Lieberman asked. "The head honcho says he lost control of you overnight."

Since then, Barak and Simhon have not been on speaking terms. Last Saturday, Channel 10 broadcast a bizarre show about famous couples. One of them was Ehud and Nili Barak. The "expert witness" was Simhon, for years a regular visitor to Barak's luxury apartment in Tel Aviv, who spoke warmly about the two. The interview was of course filmed before the rift. Barak didn't call to thank him after the broadcast.

On Monday, the Labor faction, chaired by Simhon, met in the Knesset for a routine session. Simhon invited Michal Biran to the meeting; she was elected head of the party's Young Guard two weeks earlier, defeating Barak's candidate, and with the support of Shelly Yachimovich and Isaac Herzog - two former Barak allies. As usual in such events, the newly elected person is invited to the faction to say a few ceremonious words. Ms. Biran did as well, and Barak spoke to her cordially and wished her success. While the faction was still meeting, however, a raucous quarrel erupted outside the room.

"You invited her to come in order to humiliate Ehud!" Barak's aides screamed at Simhon's stunned people. "How dare you!"

Simhon learned about the clash only later. What did I do, he wondered. All I did was invite a talented young person who was elected to head a party institution to greet the MKs and be greeted in return. After all, I am the chairman of the faction. I have a certain degree of independence, no? To which his interlocutor replied: No, you don't. Not with Ehud Barak.

On that night, between June 16 and 17, Barak thus lost the last and only politician who has always supported him. Even Matan Vilnai and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer have turned their backs on Barak in recent years. As Simhon sees it, Barak wasn't there for him, precisely when he needed him. The party leader will undoubtedly claim that it was Simhon who broke the rules of the game.

Simhon preferred not to be interviewed on this subject, but he did have an interesting description of the current situation between them: "There's no rift. We're just not speaking."