Lieberman Beat Netanyahu to Coalition

By joining Olmert's government, Yisrael Beitenu outmanuevered a brief bid on the part of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud to do the same.

Yisrael Beitenu's joining Ehud Olmert's coalition outflanked a brief Likud bid to do the same. Olmert and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu had been in tentative talks on the possibility.

A private party close to both Olmert and Netanyahu served as mediator between the two. Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, who makes no secret of her desire to add the Likud to the coalition, helped bring the parties together.

Some two weeks ago, the mediator approached Netanyahu and suggested he meet Olmert and discuss the Likud's joining the government.

Netanyahu replied that he had "problems with this government" and that he sees himself and the Likud as an alternative, senior Likud sources said. However, he did not dismiss the initiative.

A few days later, the go-between told Olmert that he believed Netanyahu would not refuse to meet him to "discuss political issues." Olmert agreed to meet and the mediator told Netanyahu that he believed there was a chance of Olmert appointing him defense minister instead of Amir Peretz.

Netanyahu asked if Olmert had proposed this. A Likud source said the mediator "let it be understood" that Olmert was willing to consider this favorably. However, a source close to Olmert denied that the two had discussed any portfolios.

The mediator returned to Olmert and persuaded him to schedule a meeting with Netanyahu. However, just before the meeting took place, it transpired that the talks between Olmert and Lieberman were serious.

Netanyahu suspected that Olmert was using him as a threat against both Lieberman and Labor. He contacted the mediator and canceled the meeting. The mediator called Olmert and told him Netanyahu was not coming.

Neither side denies having begun preliminary talks about the Likud's joining the government.

Various political sources believe Olmert was seriously considering adding the Likud to the government, but changed his mind at the last moment and opted for Lieberman alone.

Perhaps Lieberman heard of the talks and decided to reduce his price to a minimum to preempt Netanyahu and the Likud. In any case, Olmert won. As of this week, he will head a 78-strong coalition, assuming Labor's Central Committee meeting does not move to quit the government.

Should this happen, Olmert may have to ask Netanyahu to join his government after all. This time he would have to do so in person, not by proxy.