The three big players in Israel’s leadership struggle first crossed paths in 1996 when a rising politician named Avigdor Lieberman helped a former intelligence agent land her first high-level government job.
Lieberman, who was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-hand man at the time, resigned the following year and became his bitter rival. But Lieberman and the ex-spy, Tzipi Livni, then both 39, remained friends.
Today Lieberman has the power to determine almost single-handedly who, Netanyahu or Livni, will become the next prime minister. Their tangled relationships in the intimate world of Israeli politics suggests that his choice is not clear-cut.
Both Netanyahu, the conservative opposition leader, and Livni, the more moderate foreign minister, are claiming victory in Tuesday’s election and feverishly courting Lieberman, whose ultranationalist party finished third. The bargaining intensifies this week as they compete to gather a majority of the 120 members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, into a governing coalition.
Whomever Lieberman sides with, if he sides with anyone, is almost certain to prevail.
“Both are promising the world,” said Danny Ayalon, who was elected to parliament on Lieberman’s ticket.
Netanyahu is said to have offered Lieberman any Cabinet post he wants. Livni has pledged to adopt key planks of his platform. Neither is deterred by a police investigation of Lieberman for alleged money laundering.
So far, the pivotal player is noncommittal.
In broad terms, the election result is seen as a triumph for right-wing and religious parties that prefer dealing with Israel’s adversaries by military force rather than negotiation.
Although Livni’s centrist Kadima party won 28 seats to finish first, the center-left majority that had sustained the Kadima-led coalition collapsed. Six parties identified with the right won a total of 65 seats, including 27 for Netanyahu’s Likud and 15 for Lieberman’s Israel Is Our Home.
Viewed close up, however, the picture is more complicated and less predictable. In Israel, feuds within the two ideological camps can be more vicious than feuds between them. It is an insular place of strange bedfellows and fragile coalitions.
Lieberman’s push for civil marriage and the sale of pork, for example, alienates the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Netanyahu wants both parties on his team, but the Shas spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said that anyone who supports Lieberman “will give strength to Satan” and be “punished more than he can bear.”
President Shimon Peres must decide whether to give Netanyahu, 59, or Livni, 50, the first shot at forming a government. He will start consulting Wednesday with heads of the 12 parties in parliament to figure out who has the better chance of success.
Conventional wisdom is that Lieberman, 50, will back Netanyahu, whose party is the largest in the right-wing camp.
But that is far from assured.
“Netanyahu’s prospects of forming a government are no doubt higher than ours, but things could change,” said Nachman Shai, a new member of parliament with Livni’s party. “We know Lieberman well. He’s not an easy politician to deal with.”
Lieberman put it bluntly last week. “I am not in Bibi’s pocket,” he told supporters, using his former boss’ nickname.
The two men deeply distrust each other, associates say. Lieberman, who was a nightclub bouncer in his native Moldova, alienated Netanyahu allies with his abrasive demeanor as director-general of the prime minister’s office.
He was forced out, but the political fallout lingered. Netanyahu’s government collapsed in 1999.
From Likud, Lieberman moved further to the right, founding Israel Is Our Home that year. Livni moved in the opposite direction, following then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 when he set up Kadima as a centrist ruling party. That left Netanyahu in charge of a shrunken Likud.
Ideology aside, Livni and Lieberman have remained on good terms. They refrained from criticizing each other in the recent campaign. When the daughter of an Israel Is Our Home activist who works in her office got married, Livni danced with Lieberman at the wedding.
Kadima operatives said Livni’s initial strategy is not so much to build a majority but to block Netanyahu from doing so by persuading Lieberman to withhold support.
“She is counting on the contempt in which Lieberman holds Netanyahu, on his aspiration to some day become the leader of the entire Israeli right,” wrote political columnist Nahum Barnea in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot.
Lieberman met with both candidates last week and demanded written pledges to support his pet legislative proposals as a price for his endorsement.
The two most controversial would institute civil marriage as an option and require that all Israelis, including Arab citizens, sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state.
The oath idea is anathema to Kadima and parties on the left, which consider it racist. But Ayalon, the Israel Is Our Home lawmaker, downplayed any difference between Lieberman and Livni on that issue, or on one that is important to Livni and the Obama administration: continued peace talks with the Palestinians.
On the other hand, he said, negotiations with Netanyahu hit “a major stumbling block” when the Likud leader balked on civil marriage, which Livni has endorsed.
Shas, Netanyahu’s firmest supporter so far, rejects the proposal because it would weaken the Orthodox rabbinate’s power in deciding who can wed. But it is important to Lieberman’s fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union, tens of thousands of whom are considered Jewish by the state that made them citizens but not by the rabbis who perform religious weddings.
“Bibi has a tough decision,” Ayalon said, noting that Lieberman’s party has 15 seats and Shas has 11. “Does he want us or the ultra-Orthodox?”
Likud officials say the gap is bridgeable. They believe Lieberman will come around and endorse their man or risk the wrath of his right-wing voters. “They’ll rebel if he goes with Livni,” a Netanyahu operative said.
But Stas Misezhnikov, Lieberman’s chief negotiator, told Channel 2 television that the ultranationalist leader might recommend a third option to the president: a triumvirate coalition that could be led by either Livni or Netanyahu, as long as Lieberman has a share of power.
“Tzipi and Bibi need to go into a room until the white smoke comes out, like they elect the pope, and decide which of them will lead,” Misezhnikov said.