Rift in Israeli politics serious, but no crisis - yet

Rift in Israeli politics serious, but no crisis - yet

It was a marriage made not so much in heaven as in a room filled with politicians negotiating a governing coalition, DPA reported.

And now, it may be coming apart.

Relations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his former loyal aide and current politcal bedfellow and rival, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have deteriorated in recent weeks to such an extent that the latter felt obliged to tell a news conference Monday that "there is no coalition crisis."

He did, however, admit that "there is a serious disagreement on at least two issues - budget and legislation," but denied any plans to take his ultra-nationalist Yisrael B'Teinu party out of the cabinet.

And he did not spare criticism of the way he feels treated by Netanyahu, the man he helped to the premiership in 1996, and for whom he served as a loyal, if not always popular, bureau chief, before going his own political way in 1999.

At the centre of the current contretemps between the two is controversial legislation, proposed by Lieberman's party and opposed by the premier, which would give the Israel Chief Rabbinate a monopoly on all conversions to Judaism. A further issue are the budget cuts in ministries controlled by Yisrael B'Teinu.

But the latest dispute really began some weeks ago when, unbeknownst to the Foreign Minister, Netanyahu sent another minister to Turkey in an effort - so far seemingly unsuccessful - to repair ruptured relations with Ankara.

It was exacerbated when Lieberman appointed a veteran diplomat to the prestigious post of United Nations Ambassador, apparently without informing Netanyahu, although the foreign minister insists that the premier did know in advance of the appointment.

Netanyahu and Lieberman were slated to have another clear-the-air meeting Monday, and commentators speculated that the final break between the two would be postponed, but not cancelled.

According to Sima Kadmon, a political analyst for the Yediot Ahronoth daily, "Lieberman is still not ready to quit. It is not his time yet."

Should Lieberman go back on his promise Monday and decide to pull his 15 seat party out of the coalition, Netanyahu would be left at the helm of a minority government, which, in Israel's fractured polity, would not be able to govern for long.

The premier could receive a lifeline from the centrist Kadima party led by Tzipi Livni.

But this could cause problems with Netanyahu's other right-wing coalition partners, not to mention within the premier's own Likud party, who all view Kadima's views on the peace process with the Palestinians with emotions ranging from dislike to downright scornful hostility.

Livni has been vocal about what she sees as Netanyahu's lack of initiative toward the peace process with the Palestinians. She would want to accelerate the process, whereas the right-wingers in the coalition prefer, at best, that the status quo remain.

Nor is it a given that Livni would want to join the coalition. Her party actually won more seats in the February 2009 election, but Netanyahu got the premiership nod because he had the best chance of forming a coalition. Livni may be gambling that should new elections be held, she could emerge from them with the premiership secure.

From Netanyahu's point of view, the departure of Lieberman would go some way toward alleviating the diplomatic pressure on Israel, especially if he is replaced by Livni, who is regarded as a moderate.

Lieberman is not popular in several key countries and his famously sceptical views on the peace process make it difficult for Netanyahu to convince others that his government wants an agreement with the Palestinians.

But, according to Kadmon, "Lieberman knows that Netanyahu will find it very difficult to end his partnership with him. To dismantle his right-wing government, toss aside his natural partners, and bring Kadima into his government."

When Lieberman does decide to leave the coalition, Kadmon says, "he will do so at a time of his choosing, over a real ideological issue." Lieberman, she says, "will not quit in any way that make him look weak, lacking influence, or like someone who was forced to resign."

The mass-circulation Ma'ariv daily quoted "senior sources" in Lieberman's party as saying that while the Foreign Minister did not have "much respect" for Netanyahu, "they both realise they can't survive without each other."

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