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Netanyahu’s Lieberman-Livni Trap

In an ideal world, a foreign minister who publicly repudiated his prime minister’s positions on a key foreign-policy issue from the podium of the UN General Assembly would be fired instantly. So why didn’t Benjamin Netanyahu fire Avigdor Lieberman when the latter repudiated his boss’s Palestinian policy in his UN address yesterday? There’s a two-word answer: Tzipi Livni.

Firing Lieberman would push his 15-man faction out of the coalition, leaving Netanyahu with a minority government. Even if such a government survived, it couldn’t accomplish anything. And it certainly wouldn’t have either the moral authority to conduct delicate and controversial negotiations or the political power to sell any deal to the public.

But the only possible replacement for Lieberman’s party is Kadima: the other non-coalition parties are five splinter factions, one far-left, one far-right, and three Arab. And Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni’s conditions for joining are so outrageous that even public humiliation by Lieberman is preferable.

When Netanyahu was elected last year, Kadima was actually his preferred coalition partner, because its views on many domestic issues resemble his. Since the “peace process” seemed to be going nowhere, he hoped Kadima would ally with his Likud to address crucial domestic problems that had been neglected for years as successive governments devoted themselves either to fruitless peace talks or to coping with the terror they inevitably spawned.

But in the ensuing coalition talks, Livni posed two unacceptable demands.

One was that she and Netanyahu should rotate the prime minister’s job, with each serving part of the term. Israel has had rotation governments before, when neither major party could form a coalition on its own. But in this case, the center-right bloc led by Netanyahu trounced Livni’s leftist bloc, 65 seats to 44. Thus Livni was essentially demanding that Netanyahu throw away his victory, overturn the will of the voters, and crown her prime minister instead — something no self-respecting politician could do.

Her second condition, however, was even worse: she demanded that during Netanyahu’s stint as prime minister, she, as foreign minister, should have sole and exclusive authority over Israeli-Palestinian talks. In other words, she wanted the elected prime minister to abdicate control over one of the most important issues in the government’s portfolio: negotiations that will determine Israel’s border, the status of its capital, security arrangements, and more.

That, too, is something to which no prime minister could consent — especially when Kadima’s views on the peace process are so radically opposed to Likud’s: The last Kadima-led government, in which Livni served as foreign minister, even offered to cede the Western Wall!

And if these were Livni’s demands when she knew Netanyahu had a viable alternative (the government he eventually formed), one can only imagine what her demands would be should Netanyahu oust Lieberman, leaving himself utterly dependent on her.

It’s a pity that Israel’s opposition leader is too egomaniacal, even by political standards, to be a viable partner. But in a reality where his only alternative is Livni’s exorbitant and dangerous substantive demands, Netanyahu has no choice but to swallow Lieberman’s insults and try to contain the diplomatic fallout.


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