NEW YORK – He was relaxed.
He was soft spoken. He was even a bit funny. And then Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman dropped two bombs at Sunday’s Jerusalem Post Annual Conference in New York.
It was vintage Liberman, or at least the new-vintage Liberman. The Liberman that emerged after his acquittal last November after many long, long years of police investigation.
Before November’s acquittal, it was said of the foreign minister that the Liberman behind a microphone is not the Liberman behind a desk, without the cameras and white lights on him. It was said that something happens to him when he steps up to a podium to speak, that he is transformed, that his calm and humorous side is completely overcome and that he turns into, well, a bulldog.
There was, indeed, something almost Ariel Sharon- like in the difference between the public persona he created for himself over all these years – tough, uncompromising, in-your-face – and the Liberman people met in one-on-one meetings with him. To the outside he was pugnacious; to those who met him privately he was charming – much like Sharon.
Now, following his acquittal, there is more often a fusion of the two sides. Yes, there is the tough, no-holdsbarred Liberman who can bare the fangs when he feels it necessary. But there is also the more personable Liberman.
Kind of a warm, cuddly bulldog.
And it was the new Liberman on display Sunday in New York when he was interviewed by Jerusalem Post editor- in-chief Steve Linde.
Joking that he came to New York to play tennis, acknowledging the frequent applause by the audience to his comments with a wide grin and a joke that he is talking to his constituency in New York, his newsworthy comments could have been easily lost in his calm demeanor.
But there is one thing that remains true about both the new and the old Liberman: he knows how to make news.
He knows how to use a speech to make headlines, and he knows how to be a minimalist: Saying just enough to get his point across, but not providing all that many details and leaving his comments hanging out there – fodder for speculation.
What did he mean? What is the significance of what he said? Few are the politicians whose almost every speech or press conference or briefing is well attended because reporters know that he is likely to “say something.” Liberman is one of those few.
Even what could have been expected to be a routine, given- it-a-million-times-before speech earlier this year to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in the Foreign Ministry was used by him as a vehicle to “make news.”
There he talked about a proposal for Israel to provide funds for Diaspora Jewish education, flipping on its head the accepted paradigm that American and Diaspora Jews give money to Israel, not vice-versa.
And the same was true Sunday in New York.
Discussing the crisis in the talks with the Palestinians, Liberman – seemingly out of nowhere – floated the idea of new elections. This, he said, was preferable to the other two options: returning to a package deal with the Palestinians that would include the release of terrorists, or a new coalition.
“So to clarify our position,” he said, “we will prefer new elections, but not a package deal, not a new coalition. And I think everybody must understand now it is serious.”
And that was that. He didn’t expand; he didn’t explain.
And with that brief remark he set the political landscape in Israel on fire. His first bomb.
His second bomb came with his remark, pregnant with more meaning than it appeared at first blush, that Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard is “an American issue.”
That is not a comment generally heard by Israeli politicians at Lieberman’s level, especially not since Israel acknowledged Pollard as an agent and granted him citizenship in the 1990s. Israel’s continuous pressure over the years at the highest levels – by succeeding prime ministers – to get him released shows that the government deems him an Israeli issue as well.
And then along comes Liberman and says his release is an “American issue.”
Granted, he said, he is a ‘huge” Israeli concern, and should be released for humanitarian reasons, but his release – ultimately – is an American issue.
The apparent subtext of that rare remark is that apples should not be mixed with oranges: That in his view Pollard should not be linked to the diplomatic process and that he should be released on humanitarian grounds, and not as part of some wider deal that will make it all look like some kind of prisoner exchange – Pollard for 426 terrorists.
It was all vintage Liberman: the new Liberman.