Tension between Netanyahu and Lieberman

By Anshel Pfeffer, July 22, 2010
PM Netanyahu listens to Foreign Minister Lieberman in the Knesset.

PM Netanyahu listens to Foreign Minister Lieberman in the Knesset.

A late-night meeting between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has ended what is being seen as the coalition government's most serious crisis to date. However, the tension between the two is far from over.

Following a weekend of angry statements from Mr Lieberman and his party colleagues regarding the failure of the prime minister to honour his coalition commitments, the pair met on Monday for two hours and emerged promising to continue their partnership and improve co-operation.

Even before the meeting, the two sides had tried to lower the tension. The PM's Office issued a statement saying that "Yisrael Beiteinu is a central and important coalition partner", and Mr Lieberman responded by saying: "There is no crisis and we have no intention of leaving the government."

But those conciliatory statements followed a long round of inflammatory messages from both parties.

The catalyst was the ongoing dispute over the new Conversion Law, authored by Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem. The new law is part of the coalition agreement between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, but following pressure from Jewish organisations in the United States who oppose it, Mr Netanyahu has withdrawn his support.

Another bone of contention was the prime minister's approval of budget cuts for two departments headed by Yisrael Beiteinu ministers; Internal Security and Immigration.

The PM had his own accusations. The latest was the surprise appointment of the ambassador to Colombia, Meron Reuven, as the new, supposedly temporary, ambassador to the UN. Mr Netanyahu's aides told the press that the PM learnt of the posting, which traditionally is a joint appointment by the Foreign Minister and PM, from the newspapers.

In recent months, the two have found it increasingly hard to co-operate over foreign affairs. Three weeks ago, Mr Netanyahu failed to inform his foreign minister of a high-level meeting between another cabinet minister and Turkey's foreign minister. Mr Lieberman has steadily seen his ministerial position eroded as he has been excluded from most of the significant diplomatic activity.

The two politicians may have put their current disagreements behind them for now but most observers in the Knesset are convinced that Mr Lieberman's departure from the coalition is simply a matter of time.

He will have two potential chances. One is the culmination of the ongoing police probe into money-laundering allegations against him. Senior legal sources have been saying for months that a decision by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein on an indictment is just a matter of time. Once indicted, Mr Lieberman will be forced to resign and it is unlikely his party will remain in the coalition without him.

The government is also due to decide in September whether to continue the freeze on settlement building. Mr Lieberman has publicly opposed renewing the freeze since the Palestinians have yet to agree to direct talks with Israel.

Then again, Mr Lieberman may withdraw his party under an ideological pretext, knowing that he will be forced out anyway following an indictment.

Last updated: 2:57pm, July 22 2010