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By Barry Rubin
It is being widely reported that Benyamin Netanyahu is making Avigdor Lieberman Israel’s foreign minister in his coalition plan.

Maybe; maybe not.

This story should be looked at as a ploy in the maneuvering over Israel’s next government. It may be brilliant for Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, it may more likely be a disaster for Netanyahu and the country.

Netanyahu is offering a bluff, saying to Kadima: “Hey, guys, look! If you don’t make a coalition deal with us in which I am the sole prime minister we will form a coalition with the right wing and make Lieberman foreign minister! Are you scared yet?”

And Tsipi Livni, leader of the Kadima party, responds: “Nope, not me! If you go with that government and make Lieberman foreign minister, Israel will be bashed by the world and the coalition won’t last long, so ha!”

Livni would rather have a government that is bad for Israel than play second-fiddle for four years to Netanyahu; Netanyahu is threatening to have a government coalition that is bad and for himself rather than have Livni be prime minister for the second half of the government’s term.

I tell everyone: ignore all the stories on the government formation until the first week of April. This is all maneuvering, public relations, and bluffing until the very last minute. When the clock runs out on Netanyahu’s time to form a coalition with a parliamentary majority, he will be motivated to offer his best deal. And if Livni doesn’t want to be left out, she will have to respond with her best offer.

That will be the moment of truth, but not yet.

The problem with Lieberman as foreign minister is not that he is a monster but for four really obvious reasons:

  • He is demonized and disliked internationally so his term will be doomed to failure, damaging Israel’s relations and prestige. To some extent this is unfair—Lieberman even favors a two-state solution though the Western media will probably report that rarely or never—but it is still true. 
  • He is temperamentally unsuited for that job because he is deliberately outspoken and insulting.
  • He has no experience and is likely to be the equivalent of Amir Peretz as defense minister, which damaged Israel’s interests and cost lives in the 2006 war with Hizballah. 
  • Liberman’s legal problems may not land him in jail but will be a source of continual humiliation for Israel, giving it an image as a corrupt country headed by leaders who fit the nasty stereotype the anti-Israel forces are purveying

If Livni lets a coalition take office that is dependent on right-wing support and including Lieberman as foreign minister (that doesn’t mean he might not be safely put in a different job), she will be hurting the country. But she will also be hurting herself. Can Kadima really survive in the opposition? Can she really remain head of the party under such circumstances when she has not shown herself to be a great leader?

People can ask: why should we vote for you if you are willing to let a government like this take power because of your own ego?

But if Netanyahu leads such a coalition, it is likely to fall apart before too long. People can then ask him: why should we vote for you when you campaigned as a centrist but let the far right have so much influence. And why should we vote for you if you are willing to lead a government like this because of your own ego?

Politics are not completely rational but Israel needs a national unity coalition. I care who is prime minister far less than whether the country’s leaders show a regard for national interests and rational policies.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org

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