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Lieberman is resolved to end the Netanyahu era, so his ultimatum is easier for Gantz to countenance

Two months after the election, the Yisrael Beiteinu leader remains the kingmaker of a future government

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Avigdor Lieberman has claimed since the election in September not to care who serves as the next prime minister, be it Benjamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz.

“As far as I’m concerned, they can flip a coin,” he has said at least once. The only thing that’s important, he says repeatedly, is the next prime minister leads a “liberal national unity government” in which the ultra-religious parties will not hold sway.

But just about everyone who has spoken to him privately in the past six months has come away with the clear impression that Mr Lieberman is resolved to end the Netanyahu era in Israeli politics.

An ultimatum he posed both candidates on Saturday night was also worded in seemingly equal terms, but is almost certainly designed to put much more pressure on the prime minister.

Of the Likud leader, Mr Lieberman demanded he agree to joining the government with his party only and to desist from negotiating as representative of the entire bloc of right-wing and religious parties. Of Blue & White, he demanded it accept the framework devised by President Reuven Rivlin where Mr Netanyahu can serve as prime minister as long as he commits to suspending himself if he is indicted by the courts.

If either side refuses, Mr Lieberman warned his Yisrael Beitenu party could the other.

On the face of it, the Lieberman ultimatum means both leaders giving up on their main bargaining position.

But it will be much easier for Mr Gantz to publicly countenance the proposal. For Mr Netanyahu, even the slightest hint that he would be prepared to break with his bloc is tantamount to political suicide.

The Netanyahu coalition has survived for the past 11 years thanks to his loyalty to Strictly Orthodox allies he has been forced to abandon just once (in the short-lived government of 2013-2014). Despite not having a majority with them anymore, he continues to cling to them in the hope of preventing any other government from being formed.  

Meanwhile, though Mr Gantz and his Blue & White colleagues have been adamant that they will not serve under Mr Netanyahu, and have unofficially rejected the Rivlin Framework, he can still discuss the matter with Mr Lieberman.

The devil is in the details. Likud may have officially accepted the framework, but there is no clear idea of when Mr Netanyahu would have to suspend himself: would it be upon announcement of the indictments, or only when the court case begins many months later?

And then there is the question of what suspension would entail: complete detachment from matters of state, or would he remain unofficially in power? There is much to quibble about here that gives Mr Gantz cover to not reject the Lieberman ultimatum outright.

With next week’s deadline to form a coalition looming large, Likudniks are growing increasingly suspicious that the ultimatum is Mr Lieberman’s excuse to back down from his commitment to a unity government and support a minority government led by Mr Gantz.

This is still not a simple prospect as any such government would have to be supported, from the outside at least, by both Yisrael Beiteinu and the Arab Joint List.

Even tacit cooperation between the two parties who are implacably opposed to each other still seems unthinkable, but Mr Lieberman has already upended Israeli politics this year once. A second bombshell could be on the way.

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