Israeli PM in spat with hardline foreign minister

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is battling to control his coalition as he heads for a showdown with his hardline foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Mr Lieberman, leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party, has complained bitterly that his party has been sidelined in decision-making and blocked over key legislation. He is now on a collision course with the Prime Minister over a Jewish conversion bill that Mr Netanyahu says could tear the Jewish people apart.

The public spat underscores the fragility of Mr Netanyahu's right-wing ruling coalition, a collection of unlikely bedfellows each with the individual power to bring the government down.

While the foreign minister averted a domestic crisis this time by pledging to stay in the coalition, Israeli commentators suggest it is only a matter of time before Mr Lieberman either walks out or the Prime Minister is forced to forsake him and build a new coalition.

"We won't quit the government, but we also have no intention of surrendering," Mr Lieberman said at a press conference yesterday where he aired grievances over the budget and legislative issues. Mr Netanyahu was to meet with Mr Lieberman late yesterday at the Prime Minister's Jerusalem residence in an effort to patch up their differences.

"The Prime Minister sees Yisrael Beiteinu as an important part of his coalition, and he wants them to stay in," said an adviser to Mr Netanyahu.

Mr Lieberman demonstrated his anger when he flew to Kazakhstan last week, boycotting a night-long budget meeting where members of his party voted against the budget and harangued the Prime Minister for failing to allocate sufficient resources to the five ministries it controls. In an incendiary move, Mr Lieberman also appointed a relative unknown as the new acting ambassador to the United Nations, an appointment that requires prime ministerial approval.

The spat first erupted into the public domain several weeks ago when Mr Lieberman learned from press reports that Mr Netanyahu had sent an emissary to Brussels to hold clandestine talks with the Turks to try to heal a rift between the two countries.

Mr Lieberman, a Moldovan-born former nightclub bouncer who once called for Palestinian prisoners to be thrown into the sea, has ostracised many of his foreign counterparts, forcing Mr Netanyahu to sideline him for sensitive missions.

Now Mr Lieberman is pursuing a Jewish conversion bill that Israeli newspapers, citing political insiders, say would amount to an "act of war" with the Prime Minister.

The proposed bill, which has so far garnered little support in the Knesset, would effectively allow a handful of Orthodox rabbis to decide who is, and who is not, Jewish. The proposal has created a storm of anger among the Jewish diaspora, who fear it would create a divide among the Jewish people and throw into question their identity.

Mr Netanyahu responded with a stern riposte. "Efforts should be made to have this bill consensually taken off the agenda, but if it fails to be taken off, I will seek to have Likud [the ruling party] members and other coalition partners oppose it," he said. Israeli media reports suggested that Mr Netanyahu could give ground over the budget in return for Mr Lieberman's agreement to drop the conversion bill, which is unlikely in any case to be advanced ahead of the approaching summer recess.

If a clash is avoided over the conversion bill, Mr Netanyahu will face an even tougher test if he tries to extend a building freeze in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which is set to end in September. Mr Lieberman has delighted right-wing voters by vowing to start building as soon as the Washington-backed freeze expires.

It could be just the opportunity Mr Lieberman seeks to quit the coalition. "When he leaves, he will do so at the time of his choosing, over a ... national matter that is tearing the people apart," wrote Sima Kadmon in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

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