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Following the storm: Netanyahu is at the mercy of Lieberman

Ehud Barak has ended his days as an independent politician, the peace process is officially over, and the fate of Netanyahu’s government is now at the hands of Israel Beitenu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman. A few notes following the political earthquake at the Knesset today

1.    Ehud Barak. The former leader of Labor effectively joined the Likud today. He did register a new party called Atzmaut (Hebrew for “independence”) but nobody seriously thinks that Barak and the four backbenchers who left Labor with him would run on their own in the next elections. Barak is not a good campaigner, and even if he was, his public image is in an all-time low. Most pundits estimate that Barak already has a promise from Netnayhu to continue serving as Defense Minister if the Likud wins elections again. Whether or not it’s true, this is the end of the road for Ehud Barak as an independent politician; from now on, his political fate is at the hands of Netanyahu.

2.    Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is seen by some as the day’s winner, but in fact, all he did was cut his losses. Netanyahu needed Labor in his government to balance its rightwing elements and most notably, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu. Recently, the PM reached the conclusion that Labor won’t last in his coalition much longer, so he decided to keep a minimum of loyal supporters and not lose the entire party. Instead of the 13 seats Labor held (out of which 8-9 were loyal to the coalition), Netanyahu was left with five. Not enough to match Lieberman’s 15, but still, better than nothing.

Netanyahu will enjoy a more stable coalition now. Together with Barak and his 5 Knesset Members, he has 66 MKs behind him, and four more members of the radical rightwing Ihud Leumi party that could be made part of the government in case of political troubles. As long as Lieberman and his 15 votes are with him, Netanyahu is safe.

3.    Avigdor Lieberman is now the strongest politician in Israel. He holds what was the traditional position of the Orthodox parties: The block between the coalition and the opposition. Lieberman knows that, and he will make Netanyahu’s life miserable. Eventually, he might even bring the government down in a maneuver that should have more Likud votes go his way in the next elections. Polls have him approaching 20 seats, but Lieberman wants more. The wild card is the General Prosecutor’s decision whether to press charges against Lieberman, expected to be given in a few weeks. Lieberman, it seems, has already launched his counter-attack, claiming in a weekend interview to Yedioth Ahronoth that he is the victim of political persecution. Even if Lieberman is forced to resign, the fate of the government would remain in his hands.

4.    Labor might split again, with some members deserting to Meretz or forming a new political party. Anyway, Kadima will continue to be the strong center-left force in the Knesset, with one or two more parties to its left.

5.    The peace process is dead. In case anyone had any doubts, the day’s events made it clear that from now on, this government won’t be able to take even the tiniest step towards a peace settlement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has used his political credit: The slightest indication that he is willing to consider concessions, and the rightwing elements in his party would have the government fall. The PM has no room to maneuver.

To renew direct negotiations the Kadima-Left block would need to come closer to 60 seats in the next elections (it has 50 now). It could happen if international pressure on Israel continues, and if the Obama Administration reveals Netanyahu’s refusal to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians. This type of pressure could be effective, much in the way the confrontation with George Bush’s administration hurt PM Yitzhak Shamir in 1992’s elections and paved the way to Oslo.

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    1. Actually, Lieberman could end the coalition since this government was formed, since his 15 mandates where enough to topple a 74 MK coalition. The real winner here is Shas, who now also holds the power to topple the coalition.

      Reply to Comment
    2. theoretically it’s true, but its the dynamic that matters more than the numbers. Barak evaporated, so Lieberman now has total control.

      Shas won’t topple this government even if they appoint a Kosher pig as Chief of staff, mostly for internal reasons.

      Reply to Comment
    3. well, Lieberman was doing whatever he wanted anyway, so I don’t see changes there.
      as to Shas behaviour – we’ll have to wait and see. I think they’ll try to get more now.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Sol

      One must fully expect Avigdor Lieberman to seek the prime minister’s chair. Once Lieberman obtains control of Israel, he and Yisrael Beiteinu will mount either a direct or discreet attack against the United States or a U.S. outpost in the Middle East – if Obama remains as president.

      Avigdor Lieberman is, quite simply, the most dangerous man in the world.

      Reply to Comment
    5. maayan

      Probably an accurate analysis, although I suspect there is a possibility that Netanyahu is going to try to split Kadima. Kadima MKs now don’t have to go back to Likud, they can also join Atzmaut. With one third of Kadima, Netanyahu has an unassailable majority with Lieberman out of the picture. Considering that Kadima MKs are waking up this morning with the realization that they will be sitting in the opposition a long time, Netanyahu might be able to pull off a split in that party.

      There is also the possibility that Netanyahu and Barak have inside information that Lieberman will end up having to resign because of his police problems.

      As to your points about the peace process, it probably is dead. However, it isn’t Israel’s fault that it never got off the ground, even if a couple of Ha’aretz writers would rather not blame the Palestinians.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Maayan: I think the chances for a split in Kadima are actually lower. Kadima is going to get stronger in the next elections (a few more Labor votes will end up with the party), so there is no incentive for more than two-three MKs to leave the party – and this is not enough.
      Netanyahu could have had Kadima join his coalition or split a year ago. it’s probably too late now.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Richard Allen

      Noam, I thought we had all agreed that we would stop responding to Maayan and Anti-Israel/Blightuntothenations.
      Sol–let’s not freak out until it’s absolutely necesary.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Richard: I never agreed to such thing, certainly not on my own blog. I banned certain expressions, not people.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Arik Elman

      “It could happen if international pressure on Israel continues”

      You really don’t understand your country anymore, do you? Shamir had botched the absorption of the first wave of Soviet immigrants, he gave SHAS the immigration portfolio, Avoda had run a brilliant (and utterly mendacious) Russian campaign and got their votes. BTW, in 1999 “Russians” had rejected Netanyahu and elected Barak mainly for the same reasons. The idea that they will depose Netanyahu and Lieberman just to make Obama happy is, well, preposterous. And without getting at least 5 “Russian” mandates, the Left (from Kadima south) has got no chance of returning to power. Right now, after the wave of anti-“Russian” racial hatred that swept the Israeli “liberal” press, I rather think not.

      Reply to Comment
    10. maayan

      “Noam, I thought we had all agreed that we would stop responding to Maayan and Anti-Israel/Blightuntothenations”

      I’m sorry, did you just compare me to two neo-Nazis?

      Reply to Comment
    11. maayan

      Actually Richard, don’t bother responding.

      Noam, you have some partners here that are so extreme in their views that they consider anybody to the right of Meretz to be equivalent to actual antisemitic neo-Nazis. Since coming here, I’ve been labeled everything you can imagine primarily because I disagree with the positions of the people here. It’s safe to say that my views are to the left of mainstream Israel, which indicates where my critics on this site stand politically.
      I have concluded it’s dirty pool. It’s not just the labeling, it’s also the attempts to silence me. Your friends want to hear themselves in the echo chamber without disruption and are apparently incapable either of self-analysis or dialogue. Apparently anything that doesn’t comport with the views expressed in this blog is “hasbara.”
      This bodes ill for your movement to actually have any impact inside Israel. If you can’t listen to the Labor folks, much less anybody to their right, and can’t speak to them without comparing them directly to actual neo-Nazis, then the truth is you deserve to be the tiny minority you are. The writers here are indeed the “extreme” Left. A little historical research will show you that this isn’t a point of pride.

      I think it’s time to take my leave. I’ll try to come by your blog sometimes. Take care.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Maayan: having went through the same experience in “centrist” pro-Israeli blogs, I can understand how you feel. since I’m not going to start moderating the debate here, I guess this was inevitable. Again, the same “echo chamber” dynamic happens on both sides. this is both unfortunate and very natural.

      regarding your final comments, I am not afraid from the “radical” label. I try to look at events as they are, and draw my conclusions, that’s all (I must say I didn’t understand whether by ‘your friends’ you refer to writers or readers here). I know that in some of my views (not all of them) I represent a minority in Israel, but I must also say that the numbers at the polls are not all there is to politics.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Arik Elman: Sociological readings like the one you offered make assume that whatever happened in the past will occur in the future in the same way. reality is more dynamic and complicated than this. I think that the Israeli middle class won’t like the idea of having his country isolated, and this will be reflected in the polls, if not in a year than in five. Then you could come up with a new theory.

      Reply to Comment