For Bibi, this is about staying king of the castle

The next Israeli general election may not take place until mid-2013, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is already trying to position himself.

On the one hand, he will contend again for the crown of the leader of the right. That is certainly where the rank-and-file of his party and the majority of the Likud parliamentary faction want him. On the other, he is trying to appeal to the centre-ground, in the knowledge that he must win enough votes from middle-Israel to ensure another term.

That is why, despite passionately endorsing the anti-boycott law last week, the very next day he announced his opposition to another law, which was defeated in the Knesset this week: a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the funding of human rights organisations.

Though many of them are proposed by members of his own party, Mr Netanyahu is no fan of these laws. He tried to postpone the vote on the boycott law and, after failing that, he absented himself from the vote. From his point of view, they only make it harder for him to fight the image of his government as anti-democratic. They serve to whet the appetite of the Likud hardliners for limiting his efforts to reach a compromise which will enable the renewal of the diplomatic process.

But the Prime Minister is not only worried about support within Likud, his long-term concern is his rival for right-wing hegemony, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Mr Lieberman this week attacked Mr Netanyahu indirectly for his "lack of collegiality and loyalty" and described the organisations that the proposed commission would investigate "not left-wing movements… but terror organisations."

Will Mr Netanyahu keep opposing more new laws from the right, including one designed to curtail the influence of the Supreme Court by requiring parliamentary hearings for judicial candidates? That depends mainly on the polling information he constantly reads, but elections may be closer than he hopes. In recent days, the Justice Ministry has set out the timetable for Mr Lieberman's indictment. He will have a hearing over tentative charges of money-laundering in four months, with a final decision to be given next April. Since an indictment is almost a foregone conclusion, forcing the Foreign Minister to resign, Mr Lieberman may be tempted to find a reason to withdraw from the coalition earlier and force an election.

Last updated: 1:44pm, July 21 2011