VIDEO - Fifteen months after being sworn in, Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman and Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman announced Wednesday he was resigning his office and that his party was leaving the coalition.
The move, which was announced in a press conference, came just two weeks before the Winograd Commission, probing the Second Lebanon War, plans to release its final report; but the official reason behind the move was disagreements with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert regarding the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the core issues.
Lieberman told reporters he had given Olmert he letter of resignation, which will come into effect in 48 hours: "We haven't always seen eye-to-eye but we were always franks with each other," he said.
Lieberman's position as minister for strategic affairs was tailored specifically for him in exchange for Yisrael Beiteinu joining the collation, as he was made responsible for gathering "strategic intelligence" on Iran.
Besides Lieberman, Yisrael Beiteinu's Yitzhak Aharonovitch was named tourism minister and MK Stas Misezhnikov the head of the Knesset's Finance Committee.
Irreconcilable differences with Olmert (Photo: Channel 2)
The move, said Lieberman was made despite it's being contrary to the party's electoral interests: "Anyone who knows me, knows I'm not reckless… as I've said dozens of time, we have to do what we can to stop the Annapolis process."
Yisrael Beiteinu's contribution to the government, he added, should be measured by the bills it passed: "We allowed the IDF time to regroup by providing political stability… compared to the days after the Second Lebanon War, we now have a completely different military."
'Our problem is fanatic leadership in Knesset'
The negotiations with the Palestinians, said Lieberman, have already hit a dead-end: "Anyone believing the fight is about territory is kidding himself and others… if we adopt Beilin's way (Meretz-Yahad Chairman MK Yossi Beilin) and go back to the '67 line will the fighting stop? Will the terror stop?
"Israeli Arabs will keep their Palestinian citizenship and keep colleting their social security benefits from the State of Israel… they come right out and say 'we will not recognize Israel as a Jewish state and we want autonomy in the Negev and Galilee. That's what will happen if we go back to the borders of '67," he added.
"We find the entire principle of territories for peace wrong. It should be about the exchange of both territories and populations… Our problem is not Judea and Samaria but the fanatic leadership in the Knesset."
The Israeli people, he continued, are ready – now more than ever – to consider such an exchange: "There is no reason not to mention Israeli-Arabs, just like we mention the refugees… anyone who burn the Israeli flag on Independence Day, any professor who kicks out a reservist or won't let a student sporting the flag on his backpack into class – it's utter madness.
"Our biggest problem are (MK Ahmad) Tibi and (Hadash Chairman Mohammad) Barakeh, who are even more dangerous than (Hamas politburo chief Khaled) Mashaal and (Hizbullah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan) Nasrallah, because they work from the inside."
A shrinking coalition
With Yisrael Beiteinu's now a part of the opposition, Olmert's coalition will now number only 67 MKs and it may be shrinking further: Labor will decide its coalition future after the publication of the Winograd report, Shas is threatening to resign should the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations involve Jerusalem and the Pensioners Party's future is vague as well.
Olmert may try to reinforce his coalition by having the United Torah Judaism Party join his ranks – perhaps by offering it the now-vacant Knesset's Finance Committee chairmanship – and may try to gain the support of Meretz as well.
Yisrael Beiteinu's tenure in the coalition was a stormy one: Its initial joining of the coalition sparked a heated argument in Labor, which resulted in the resignation of MK Ophir Pines-Paz; and one of its senior members, would-be tourism minister MK Esterina Tattman, was implicated in falsifying academic degrees.
Lieberman himself sparked controversy numerous times, saying Amir Peretz' tenure as defense minister was "hazardous," calling for the segregation of Jews and Arabs, and referring to MK Raleb Majadele's (Labor) appointment to science, culture and sport minister as "unfit".
As for the speculations Yisrael Beiteinu will now join forces with the Likud, Lieberman said those prospects were "practically non-existent, although in politics we never say never."
Should the Likud agree to his party's four guidelines – preconditioning any negotiations with the Palestinians on the exchange of territories and populations; changing the government system to a presidential one; instituting civil marriages and changing the conversion procedures – an agreement nay be reached.
For the time being, stressed Lieberman, Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) is still head of the opposition, "as the people wanted."
Lieberman ended his statement by promising his constituents he will begin his efforts to bring down the government, starting tomorrow.