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The Arithmetic of Power Following the Annapolis Conference

Wednesday 16 January 2008, by Sergio Yahni

Fifteen months after being sworn in, Yisrael Beiteinu Party Chairman and Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman announced on Wednesday, 16 January that he was resigning his office and that his party was leaving the coalition.

The official reason behind the move, which was announced during a press conference, was disagreements with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert regarding the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the core issues.

With Yisrael Beiteinu becoming part of the opposition, Olmert’s coalition will number only 67 MKs (out of 120). In addition, the Labor Party will decide the coalition’s future following the upcoming publication of the Winograd report on Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon. The Shas Party is also threatening to resign from the government should the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations involve Jerusalem.

This week’s commencement of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations over the core issues of the peace process provided Avigdor Lieberman with a good excuse to quit the government. With falling rates of popular approval and harsh competition with Arkadi Gaydamak’s new “Social Justice” political party, Yisrael Beiteinu could not permit a situation in which the Labor Party quits the government coalition first upon publication of the Winograd report. This would have damaged the anti-establishment image promoted by the party’s chairman, Avigdor Lieberman.

The fact that Yisrael Beiteinu quit the government actually helps the Labor Party to resolve the major dilemma of whether to quit or not.

Ehud Barak was elected as chairman of the Labor Party after the failed war in Lebanon. Barak promised to leave the government following the publication of the Winograd inquiry commission final report.

With Yisrael Beiteinu on the opposition bench, Barak can claim that he remains in the government despite the Winograd report in order to move the Israeli/Palestinian negotiation process forward, as he was publicly requested by the leadership of Peace Now. If negotiations with the PA move forward, then Olmert’s government may also gain the support of Meretz and even Hadash, without the need to ask them to join the coalition.

For Ehud Barak, the alternative to quitting the coalition may be to call for early elections in late 2008 or early 2009 through the drafting of a law. In such a case, Ehud Olmert will be the head of a transitional government to which ministers cannot be added, nor can they resign.

The possibility of early elections may be appealing to most of the political parties in the Knesset who can run a long election campaign and improve their popular appeal. The alternative is to risk elections in 90 days if Ehud Olmert loses his parliamentary majority.

Ehud Olmert and Kadima’s only survival strategy right now is to move forward with the Annapolis process. If the process moves forward and an agreement with the Palestinians is reached, Kadima may make out of the elections a referendum for peace.

This could be achieved with a transitional government, which enjoys all executive powers, but can govern in minority. However if the process continues with a transitional government, the rightwing forces will be mobilized under the claim that all agreements signed are illegitimate. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the process will lead to an agreement with the Palestinians by the end of 2008.

It is still too early to assume that Ehud Olmert’s career has come to an end. He is an expert in political survival and knows that his only mistake would be to quit. Olmert managed to remain in power after the disastrous defeat in Lebanon and without any popularity; he managed to impose a friendly inquiry committee for that war, in the face of massive mobilization of soldiers who fought in Lebanon. Olmert will likely manage to survive the upcoming report of the Winograd committee.

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