Elections 2009 / 'Lieberman Is Holding Netanyahu Hostage'

Narrowing gap between Likud, Kadima has transformed Lieberman into the critical coalition axis.

With five days to go until the election, Likud and Kadima both admit Avigdor Lieberman will determine who forms the next government, assuming the polls predicting Yisrael Beiteinu will be the third largest party. Lieberman's meteoric rise and the narrowing gap between Likud and Kadima to a close battle, have transformed the sleepy 2009 race and made Lieberman into the critical axis, complicating coalition building.

The next government will likely include Lieberman despite his extreme stance on Israeli Arabs and the criminal investigations. The only partner to officially rule out Lieberman as a coalition partner is Meretz. Labor lawmakers are battling party chair Ehud Barak, who refuses to publicly vow not to sit with Lieberman, as he understands that Likud chair Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima chair Tzipi Livni will have a hard time giving up Lieberman, if the most recent polls prove true.

For this reason, Netanyahu is trying to embrace Lieberman and earlier this week promised he would be a senior cabinet minister in a Likud government. For this reason, Livni is not attacking Lieberman and her people mention the mutual civil agenda regarding civil unions and the system of government.

Yisrael Beiteinu chair Avigdor Lieberman is careful to remain vague and has not promised - as did Shas chair Eli Yishai - to throw his weight behind Netanyahu after the election. He is not attacking Livni and Kadima even though he has enough ammunition to do so. Lieberman's behavior makes Netanyahu nervous. According to a senior Likud official, "Lieberman is holding Netanyahu hostage. He will decide who forms the next government. He holds all the cards."

The same source said "Lieberman will prefer Netanyahu but will keep him on tenterhooks until the last minute in order to raise his price and demand more senior ministerial portfolios."

If Netanyahu gets to form the next coalition, he will be in a problematic situation: on the one hand he is committed to Shas, on the other he will want Lieberman. They haven't ruled each other out as coalition partners, but Lieberman's civil agenda is in direct contradiction to Shas' platform. Lieberman plans to force civil unions on the next prime minister.

Life will not be easy with Labor, the next partner, either. Netanyahu wants Barak as defense minister and Barak is interested, but senior Laborites will make trouble for such a partnership and will push to go into the opposition. Netanyahu can try to form a coalition: Likud, Kadima, Labor, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas - it will be a broad but unstable coalition as Labor and Kadima wobble.

If Livni puts together the next coalition, she will prefer Lieberman to Shas and bring in Likud and Labor as partners. According to a senior Kadima official, "if Lieberman is the third largest party, he cannot be ignored. He is legitimate because the public wants him in the government. He is a worthy partner."