In making good on his threat to pull his right-wing party out of Israel’s coalition government, Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman on Wednesday started the “clock ticking” on the coalition’s future, according to a prominent Israeli analyst.
“It will take extraordinary maneuvering to keep this government alive,” said the analyst, Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and co-editor of the bitterlemons.org family of Internet publications.
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and Likud Party leader, said he too believes “the countdown towards the disintegration of this government has started.”
Although some argue that Lieberman’s withdrawal puts more pressure on the Labor Party to remain in the coalition to ensure the continuation of the peace talks, Shoval said it could also push the party to withdraw from the government. He explained that Labor would be in a better position if it were to run in the next election as an opposition party rather than as part of the government.
“The only way to fight Bibi [Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu] is from the opposition,” he insisted.
The political maneuvering came as Palestinian rocket fire continued for a second straight day from the Gaza Strip. About 30 rockets were fired on Tuesday, some hitting the nearby Israeli community of Sderot and injuring five residents including a mother and child.
“We have a war here,” Yossi Cohen, a mayoral assistant, said by phone from Sederot Tuesday evening. “This has been going on for a long time and we accept it. It’s very bad here. All of the people in the city are in their homes; they don’t go out.”
In response, the Israel Defense Forces killed 19 terrorists in targeted attacks, including the son of a founder of Hamas. And the Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, was quoted as saying his men were engaged in “real fighting” and that it may be necessary to expand military operations in the strip.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, pointed out that Hamas claimed responsibility for some of the rocket attacks and for the sniper killing of a 20-year-old Ecuadorian volunteer as he worked in the field.
“There has been a huge jump in the level of violence and it required a response,” he said. “The government is trying to prevent a full-scale invasion of the Gaza Strip by increasing the number of in-and-out forays that last 24 or 48 hours.”
Yaakov Shamir, a senior fellow at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute, said the government is refraining from an all-out attack because of the experience during the Lebanon War two years ago and although it is “known how to get in, you don’t always know how to get out. … These limited operations are meant to handicap Hamas’ capabilities. You have to analyze the increased attacks against the backdrop of the renewed peace process, which Hamas is trying to sabotage, and with the shaky Israeli government.”
Even without Lieberman’s party, the coalition government still has 67 votes — it needs a minimum of 61. Netanyahu is now expected to exert all his pressure to convince the coalition’s other rightwing party, Shas, to withdraw. Shas leaders have promised to do so if serious talks begin about dividing Jerusalem, which the Palestinians also want as their capital.
But Shamir said Barak is reluctant to have new elections now. Netanyahu is still favored in the polls to win. And Shamir said Shas is also hesitant to pull out after just receiving the Ministry of Religious Affairs portfolio.
“They haven’t exploited it yet,” he said.
Lieberman has said “there is almost no chance” of his party running together with Likud in the next elections. Shamir agreed, saying that with the Israeli public “gravitating towards the middle,” Netanyahu is going to “have difficulty trying to get back Likud voters” who switched to the new Kadima Party of Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon.
And Fred Lazin, chair and professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said Lieberman would do well to run on his own because he has broad support among Russian Jews and some in the rightwing.
“He has come across as being a little more moderate than an ideologue,” Lazin said. “He is willing to give up parts of the West Bank for a final settlement that would involve an exchange of populations. Some people call him a racist, but he has some support among normal rightwingers.”
There have been efforts by Kadima to entice the United Torah Judaism party to join the coalition, but Steinberg said such a government would be “unstable.”
“Any kind of religious issue would cause UTJ and Shas to leave,” he said. “Any government in which the two have participated has been unstable. If they have the power to bring down the government, they could.”
There has also been talk of adding the leftwing Meretz Party to the coalition, but Steinberg said that would change the complexion of the government.
“Labor and Kadima are centrists and adding Meretz would move the government to the left,” he explained. “I also believe that Tzipi Livni [the foreign minister and number two in the government] would leave. She is as left as she is going to get.”
Lieberman had promised that he would pull his party and its 11 seats in the Knesset out of the government if Olmert began negotiating the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians — Jerusalem, borders and refugees. But prompted by President George W. Bush, those talks began Monday.
Lieberman met with Olmert on Tuesday and associates of both men were quoted as saying that Olmert simply repeated that he was serious about wanting to sign a final-status agreement with the Palestinians within a year and that the core issues therefore had to be negotiated.
In a press conference Wednesday, Lieberman said he is still opposed to the concept of land for peace and believes instead in “exchanges of territory and population” in order to place as many Israeli Arabs as possible in the new Palestinian state.
His fear, he said, is that once there is a Palestinian state, Israel’s 1.2 million Arab citizens will ask for Palestinian citizenship and “continue to receive social security payments from the State of Israel.”
”We can’t accept the assymetry of a Palestinian state without a single Jew, and Israel becoming a binational state with more than 20 percent minorities,” Lieberman was quoted as saying.
As he struggles to keep his coalition in power, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may even be forced to consider negotiating with the Arab parties that together have 10 seats in the Knesset, Alpher said. Olmert would not bring them into his government but he could “buy their votes” in order to count on them for support.
Alpher noted that both former Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Yitzchak Rabin did the same thing on occasion.
“The question is does it become a way of long-term survival or just something to be used once or twice,” he said. “Olmert has to retain legitimacy in the eyes [of the Israeli people]. And this would be problematic if it was the only way his government could survive votes of no confidence and move ahead with peace negotiations. … There would be a cry from the rightwing that Olmert is giving away Jerusalem with Arab help.”