Is Lieberman Becoming Russian Again?

The fired transportation minister seems to be positioning himself once again to lead the Russian-speaking community, in an effort to take on the prime minister.

Two days after he was fired from his cabinet post, Avigdor Lieberman left for Moldavia. The chairman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party takes off to visit his homeland in two main instances: when things are very good, and when they're very bad. The trip this week belongs to the second category.

Before his trip, he prepared the ground for continued activity: In the Russian-language media, he was once again termed a "Russian leader," presenting himself as a victim of discrimination by the prime minister who sent him to the opposition, and he sharply attacked Ariel Sharon.

In between, he hinted to reporters in the Russian-language press that Sharon would soon fire Minister Natan Sharansky too - in other words, that this is not a political move directed only against Lieberman, but a collective attack on the entire community.

Lieberman is once again the Aryeh Deri of the Russian community.

At the same time, he made sure to strengthen the non-Russian axis of his party. He organized a large get-together of Yisrael Beiteinu activists in Tel Aviv, and did not limit himself to an attack on Sharon, but he presented the main points of his own diplomatic plan which is more popular among Israel's old right than among the new immigrants.

Among the immigrants, a majority supports disengagement. Similar gatherings can be expected in the future, painting a picture of a party that has already begun its election campaign.

These are the two positions that Lieberman will be taking until the picture becomes clearer - an immigrant leader and a leader of the right. Within the uncertainty, two facts stand out: Lieberman does not intend to disappear from political life, but does not plan to necessarily continue his career in the National Union.

The new members that have recently joined the chapters of Yisrael Beiteinu are strengthening the trend of disengagement from within the framework of the party. After all, even before the crisis, Lieberman was not particularly enjoying his partnership with the representatives of Moledet and Tekuma. Those surrounding him continue to radiate optimism, but Lieberman is in a difficult political situation.

Until recently, the joke making the rounds was that Lieberman has a party and a half: the entire National Union and half the Likud. Now the situation has changed. The half in the Likud will reevaluate its ties with the fired Lieberman, whose own party is in a state of disarray too.

In light of the disappointing results of the last Knesset elections, which also upset the internal balance between the various components of the National Union (Yisrael Beiteinu, Moledet and Tekuma), Lieberman gave up his Knesset seat in favor of MK Eliezer Cohen of his party. Now he is left without a ministry, without a Knesset seat and with a tottering party.

The National Union is more national than ever, but far less of a union. Broad hints are being heard from Yisrael Beiteinu about expected "structural changes." For now, the structural changes are being made at home. Although Lieberman brought most of the votes to the union of parties, the method used to compose the list left him with only three Knesset members. Now, at a particularly problematic time, Lieberman may find himself with only two - MK Yuri Stern and Cohen. The third, Michael Nudelman, has declared his independence.

Two months ago, Nudelman shook the dust off of "Aliya," the party he formed together with Stern in 1995, and decided to reactivate it. He convened its institutions, formulated a strategy and came out with public support for the prime minister's disengagement plan, in opposition to his party's position.

Some politicians are saying that MK Omri Sharon is behind Nudelman's declaration of independence, that he knew how to exploit an old feud between Nudelman and Stern in order to erode away at Lieberman's party. Nudelman has still not quit his faction, but the possibility that he will try to introduce a new party into the running is on the agenda.

In recent weeks, Nudelman began to send hints in this direction to the Russian-language media. Dr. Alex Feldman, a political commentator of the Russian-speaking community, says that he does not yet see a party, but preparations for the creation of a "political niche for sale to the highest bidder" are evident.

Aware of all the worrying signs, and expecting that he would soon be forced to resign, Lieberman sent up his first trial balloon three weeks ago. At a closed conference of immigrant activists that led the struggle against the disengagement plan, he spoke openly about a political partnership with Sharansky. The word "unity" cast a magic spell on the Russian-speaking community, and just mentioning it yielded political gains. Those associated with Sharansky and Lieberman talked of a golden opportunity. At one time, Sharansky was big and Lieberman small, then Lieberman was big and Sharansky small, a balance of power that prevented a joining of forces. Now, both are left with two Knesset members, a balance that makes it possible to create a partnership.

Over the years, they decided to "strengthen the level of coordination" between them, with "level of coordination" a code for a joint threat to Sharon. Although Sharon now enjoys a high level of popularity among the Russian-speaking community, he cannot afford a joint Russian front against him. He will find it difficult to explain to this community how, without batting an eye, he fired a minister whose work in the Ministry of Transportation he had so highly praised in the Russian press.

Polls show that the regard he showed Lieberman as an important leader in the Russian-speaking community helped Sharon no less than Lieberman. Now they are at loggerheads.

Sharon's associates began spreading rumors of Sharansky's upcoming appointment as chairman of the Jewish Agency, but it is unlikely the rumors are true. For now, they are mainly intended to serve a policy of divide and conquer that would prevent the creation of a Sharansky-Lieberman front.

In the first few days after Lieberman was fired, the Prime Minister's Office did not take seriously the implications that Lieberman's removal from the cabinet would have on the Russian-speaking public. The working assumption was that because over 60 percent of the immigrants support the disengagement plan, with support for Sharon at a similar level, there was no reason to worry.

To that should be added that in surveys that preceded the dismissal, most of the Russian-speaking public felt that Lieberman should not resign, but rather should fight from within. Lieberman knew this and hesitated. By firing him, Sharon did Lieberman a great service. Only in the past few days has the PMO realized the potential damage of this step among the Russian-speaking public.

Now Sharon is worried, and his associates have decided to take preventive measures. Instructions were given toward the end of last week by the PMO to emphasize in the Russian-language press that Sharansky is an integral part of the Likud, and that consequently there is no intention to fire him, just as there is no intention to fire any of the other Likud ministers who voted against the disengagement plan.

If that were not enough, the PMO realized that if Lieberman went back to being an "immigrant leader," he might also place the hardships of the Russian-speaking community on the agenda. Consequently, in the past few days, Sharon's associates have begun to feed reports to the Russian-language press that in view of the success of the economic program, the prime minister has instructed that all the cutbacks made to the absorption budget be restored - a nice move that contains three messages: Netanyahu took, Sharon will give back, and Lieberman will have nothing to say.

Under conditions of political uncertainty, all that is left for the members of the PMO is to keep track of the wedding and bar mitzvah index. There has recently been a dramatic increase in the number of invitations Sharansky has received to family affairs of members of the Likud Central Committee. At MK Gilad Erdan's wedding this week, Central Committee members whispered in the ears of politicians from Yisrael Beiteinu that they plan to support their party in the next elections.