Analysis: Lieberman's last cabinet meeting?

By Anshel Pfeffer, August 6, 2009

Yisrael Beiteinu may have 15 Knesset members, as well as several ministries and parliamentary committees, but is still essentially a one-man party.

Avigdor Lieberman handpicked the candidates, decided which spot they would receive on the list and who would become a minister.

But now, he is learning the limitations of his power.

After an investigation which seemed never ending, the police this week recommended pressing charges against Israel’s foreign minister for allegedly money laundering over NIS 10 million (£1.5 million).

Mr Lieberman thought he could browbeat his investigators forever, accusing them of systematic persecution, hinting at Russophobia and kicking up more clouds of dust to hide any evidence.

And meanwhile, his party went from strength to strength.

But now, all that is needed is the attorney general’s blessing, and Mr Lieberman will be forced to resign. And with that comes questions.

Will this mean the end of his iron rule in Yisrael Beiteinu, with the MKs beginning to act, for the first time, of their own volition?

Will Lieberman, no longer foreign minister and fighting criminal charges, have much interest in keeping the Netanyahu coalition afloat?

Who will replace him at the foreign ministry — will it be just a caretaker or a stooge?

And what will this mean for the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians?

So many fateful matters rest on the whim of one suspected money-launderer.

Binyamin Netanyahu, for one, is extremely aware of the fragility of his government’s parliamentary base. It is not just Yisrael Beiteinu, the second largest party in his coalition, which is looking increasingly shaky.

The two other major partners are also faltering.

Labour is disintegrating before our eyes, with a full-scale insurrection against Defence Minister Ehud Barak on its backbenches.

Rumblings of discord can be heard from the direction of Shas, with the prodigal son Arieh Deri on the scene once again.

Not to mention the small rebellions that Netanyahu has to stamp out within Likud on a weekly basis.

That is why it was so important for him to bludgeon his “Mofaz Law” through the Knesset this week, at the very last moment before the long summer and chagim recess.

Unofficially named after the disgruntled Kadima number two, Shaul Mofaz, the law would make it much easier for members of one of the big parties to form their own breakaway faction.

This is Mr Netanyahu’s ace-in-the-hole. If one or more of his current partners threaten to jump ship, he believes that it will enable him to entice a sizable number of Kadima MKs to replace them.

Mr Mofaz has repeatedly said that he is against the law named after him, and has no plans to split the party which he wants to lead instead of Tzipi Livni. But Mr Netanyahu is betting otherwise.

And the diplomatic process? One interesting detail that was not lost on many was that in the flurry of diplomatic activity last week, with three senior American representatives visiting Israel and a compromise between Israel and the United States over the settlements almost completed, one major player was missing.

Mr Lieberman was quietly visiting Latin America, far from the spotlight. And the diplomatic business was actually going along much faster in the absence of the foreign minister.

The money laundering trial, whenever it begins, will certainly not be an open and shut case.

Whoever will be appointed in Mr Lieberman’s stead, until he is sentenced or — as he insists will happen — exonerated, will be foreign minister in title only.

The Prime Minister will run all the important diplomatic activity from his office, as has happened often before in Israeli governments.

Mr Lieberman, with his parliamentary clout, will still wield considerable power. Shorn of his job, he may try and put obstacles in the course of any American-brokered compromise.

Once again, this is where a migration of Kadima MKs into the government could save Mr Netanyahu and cause another setback to Mr Lieberman’s designs on power.

Anshel Pfeffer is the JC’s special correspondent in Israel

Last updated: 4:06pm, August 6 2009