Biberman at the Gate

Netanyahu is wearing the cloak of a 'moderate leader' getting ready to do business with President Obama.

With the 18th Knesset elections around the corner, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, watching Kadima fall in the polls and Likud rise - but not by much and not irreversibly - decided to change his party's image. He pushed the Feiglins away and brightened up the decor with some new faces, among them Dan Meridor.

In the event of a unity government, Bibi says, Israel will be better off with him as prime minister than Tzipi Livni. Not because she is a woman, heaven forbid, but because she isn't strong enough. He, on the other hand, is both strong and a well-known moderate - so moderate that no one has ever heard the phrase "two countries for two peoples" roll off his lips.

In addition, Netanyahu has been dissociating himself from Avigdor Lieberman, a transparent ploy to pretend that he belongs to the peace camp, that he is more Kadima than Kadima. Wearing the cloak of a "moderate leader" getting ready to do business with President Obama, he is keeping a tactical distance from Lieberman.

The Yisrael Beiteinu chairman's crude remarks about Israeli Arabs are enough to make anyone shudder, but Bibi revealed his true face when he scolded Moshe Ya'alon in public for criticizing Lieberman's statements.

You don't have to have a PhD in psychology to understand that even without a formal union with Lieberman, the odd timing of the current police probe will only strengthen him, and he will back Likud, which was and continues to be a right-wing party. At the same time, it is important for parties in the race to maintain their individuality so that voters know the truth about who and what they are voting for.

Our good life with president Bush is over. We have grown accustomed, over the years, to the much ballyhooed peace process being mainly a "process." From Obama's statements in his first two days on the job, we can already tell that a process is not going to be enough for this president. He wants to see a Palestinian state established here within four years. He is demanding practical commitments, not talk.

Obama has surrounded himself with a number of Jewish advisers holding key posts, but it is no accident that the man he is sending as an envoy to Israel is a goy of Lebanese descent. We may remember him fondly as a senator, but his reports on the 2001 intifada were problematic for Israel. So we are looking at a president who, from his very first week in office, has shown that he is not going to be wrapped around our finger.

With presidents like that, you can't play games. Even Yitzhak Shamir, one of the most outspoken supporters of a Greater Israel, gave in to the demands of Bush senior and called off plans to bomb Iraq during the Gulf War. Willingly or not, he was also a participant in the first international peace conference in Madrid.

No U.S. administration has tolerated any threat to Israel's security or survival. While Obama has been very clear about continuing this policy, he expects Israel's next government to show that it is capable of dismantling settlements and outposts for the sake of an agreement.

Both the parties and the voters in the upcoming election must think carefully about which government is best for the country. In the wake of Operation Cast Lead, the polls are showing a slight rise in support for Ehud Barak, with Livni in second place and Netanyahu on top. But the gaps between Netanyahu and Livni are not irreversible. In the few days left before the elections, if it turns out Bibi is pulling someone's leg again, everything could change.

Livni, carrying on Ariel Sharon's legacy of giving up the dream of a Greater Israel, is convinced she can put together a centrist government willing to make concessions and strive for peace. She believed this when she won the Kadima nomination for prime minister, and from my impression when I talked with her yesterday, she still believes it now.

She believes that we have shared interests with Obama, both in the war on terror and moving toward peace, whereas Bibi opposes the principle of two countries for two peoples and no one has ever heard him put those two words together - a Palestinian state. In an article in the Washington Post this week, Jackson Diehl describes Netanyahu as a prime minister who both hurt the peace process and poisoned relations with Washington.

The Obama-Hillary Clinton team has put a confidence-building process into motion, and now the rest is up to us, says Livni.

In the third century BCE, Roman mothers used to say "Hannibal ad portas" - Hannibal is at the gate - to scare children who wouldn't eat. The threat on our doorstep today is the election of a Bibi-Lieberman government.

Watch out. A Biberman government is at the gate.