JERUSALEM – Ultra-nationalist politician Avigdor Lieberman endorsed Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu for the Israeli prime minister’s post Thursday, putting the conservative opposition leader in the driver’s seat to form a governing coalition.
Lieberman, who has assumed a de facto kingmaker’s role thanks to his party’s third-place finish in recent parliamentary elections, threw his support behind Netanyahu after meeting with President Shimon Peres, who ultimately must decide whether to ask Netanyahu or moderate Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to form a government.
Lieberman, whose Israel Is Our Home party captured 15 of 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, urged Netanyahu to form a broad unity government that included Likud, which won 27 seats, and Livni’s Kadima, which won 28 seats. Livni quickly replied that she would not serve in a “right-wing extremist government under Likud.”
Thursday’s developments increased the likelihood Netanyahu will run the government with a narrow right-wing coalition that observers predict would encourage the controversial growth of settlements in the occupied West Bank and clash with U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration over the pace and scope of peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
A Netanyahu/Lieberman-led government would be “a bad combination for America’s interests,” said Daniel Kurtzer a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt at a Georgetown University panel discussion this week. “It would be much more difficult for the right-wing, even with determined American leadership, to advance the peace process.”
Peres has been meeting with party leaders all week and could announce his decision on forming the government as soon as today. Whoever he chooses will have 42 days to assemble a coalition that receives 61 votes of approval in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Peres has until mid-week to pick either Livni or Netanyahu. He invited both party leaders to meet him separately today and could urge the pair to find a way to work together.
Livni and Netanyahu lay claim to the premiership – Livni by virtue of her narrow popular victory and Netanyahu because the rightist tilt of the post-election landscape gives him a better chance of gathering the necessary votes. Netanyahu has expressed a desire for a broad coalition including Kadima, but has been unwilling to meet Livni’s price of a rotating premiership, with each serving two years as prime minister.
Theoretically, a Netanyahu/Livni/Lieberman government could find common ground on domestic and social issues. All are secularists, particularly Lieberman whose mostly Russian immigrant support base wants to see civil marriage instituted in the Jewish state.
The trio’s positions diverge sharply on the issue of negotiations toward an independent Palestinian state. Livni backs continuing U.S.-endorsed peace negotiations and is willing to concede much of the West Bank and at least discuss the division of Jerusalem. As foreign minister under outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, she led a year of lackluster negotiations with the Palestinian Authority that showed few public signs of progress.
Netanyahu believes it’s too soon for final status negotiations and recommends years of economic development in the West Bank and strengthening the Palestinian Authority first. Lieberman technically supports the idea of a Palestinian state but is lukewarm on the current process; he recently courted accusations of racism by advocating that Israel’s 1.4 million Arab citizens be forced to take a loyalty oath.