When there is a dispute between the unity of the nation or the unity of the land, the nation’s unity is more important… I’m willing to give up territory in the name of national unity.
– Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Tel Aviv, February 7
Several days after last Friday’s address by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman marking the 75th anniversary of the Industrial and Commercial Association, the political system is still abuzz, analyzing the significance of, and the motivations, for the sentiments and positions expressed in it.
On the surface, there was little to justify the brouhaha the speech aroused. For the most part it was more self-generated mediahype than anything substantive. Ostensibly, there was little in the basic positions that Liberman espoused on Friday that reflected a radical departure from those he espoused in the past.
He has been on record for several years as not being opposed to a two-state approach to the Palestinian issue, and as willing to trade land – indeed, even to give up his home in Nokdim, a Jewish community across the pre- 1967 lines – for a genuine peace deal with the Palestinians (whatever that might mean).
So under scrutiny, Liberman’s credentials as a hard-line hawk have always been a little questionable. He has not only been amenable to relinquishing significant parts of Judea-Samaria to a putative Palestinian state, but has advocated transferring parts of pre- 1967 Israel – albeit along with the Israeli Arab population resident in them – to Palestinian rule, in exchange for large settlement blocs across the Green Line.
The perception of him as an abrasive hard-liner, for which he was excoriated by the domestic and the foreign press, was due far more to his blunt statements regarding the loyalty (or rather, the lack thereof) of Israeli Arabs, particularly their parliamentary representatives, rather than to any territorial intransigence with regard to the Palestinian question.
Perhaps the only merit in his fanciful proposal for land-cum-population transfers, and stripping Israeli Arabs of their citizenship because of ethnic origins, is that it exposes the hypocrisy of their claims that they suffer gross discrimination. For whenever the possibility of removing their towns and villages from “discriminatory” Israeli jurisdiction and placing them under the “egalitarian” regime of their Palestinian kinfolk is raised, it is greeted with howls of dismay and decidedly perverse accusations of racism. (After all, what could possibly be racist about proposing that communities, that complain of ethnic discrimination at the hands of others, be governed by a regime of their ethnic kinfolk?? Go figure.)
All things to all people
In many ways Liberman’s address comprised a motley mélange, which could be seen as “all things for all people” and in which everybody could claim to find what he/she wished to find in it.
Those who want to cling to their perspective of “Yvette” (Liberman’s longstanding nickname) as a tough, no-nonsense hawk, whose seeming support for a peace agreement is merely a wily, tongue-in-cheek maneuver, could point to evidence supporting their view in his brusque condemnation of previous concessionary moves by Israel: “We don’t have to be suckers. It’s bad enough that we were suckers in the past.”
They might also claim that Liberman’s willingness “to give up my home in… Nokdim” was cleverly hedged by his stipulation that it would be contingent on clearly unattainable guarantees of “a genuine final arrangement… that guaranteed our security and national interests.” This, they could claim, would make his professed pliancy meaningless.
Others, who would prefer to believe that Liberman has undergone some dovish metamorphosis, could also find corroborating evidence to substantiate their perspective in his re-declared willingness to relinquish territory in the name of “unity”; and in his warm commendation of US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is frenetically attempting to recompress Israel back into its indefensible pre-1967 lines, as “a true friend of Israel.”
Liberman went so far as to approve of Kerry’s efforts, saying “he is leading the process correctly,” and took pains to distance himself from the head of the hawkish Bayit Yehudi party, Naftali Bennett, whom he criticized sharply for his censure of Kerry’s initiative.
C’est le ton qui fait la musique
In the wake of the furor his address ignited, Liberman tried to downplay the significance of his remarks. On Sunday, he declared: “There is no new Liberman, I’m not conciliatory or moderate.”
He went on to assert that “I have not changed a word from what I’ve said in the past. For example, I wrote about how the unity of the people is more important than the unity of the land in my book in 2004. I am in favor of a [peace] agreement, which I also said in 2009.”
While this might be technically true, it is substantively irrelevant.
For notwithstanding his protestations, Liberman’s words have taken on a life of their own – and in a world where perception and context are everything, that is what generates consequences, intended or otherwise.
It makes a great difference when and what things politicians say when making policy- oriented pronouncements. Expressions of hypothetical willingness for territorial withdrawals and concessionary peace accords made in 2004, while the second intifada was still raging; or in 2009, in the wake of Operation Cast Lead against Hamas in Gaza, when neither was a tangible prospect, is one thing. But when they are made in the midst of frenzied diplomatic efforts to achieve withdrawals and concessions, with all the weight and prestige of the US administration (or at least the State Department) behind it, it is a totally different kettle of fish.
The consequences of context
Add to this the warm endorsement of the diplomatic endeavors of what is arguably the most unsympathetic (indeed, antipathetic) American administration in history – and indisputably the most Islamophilic one – together with the caustic public denigration of hawkish ministerial colleagues, and one has all the props in place for the choreographing of a totally new political saga.
Whatever Liberman might have meant – or not meant – his statements were grist for the political mills of both hawks and doves, who began setting the stage for the new political realities they saw emerging.
The hawks, who had long seen (perhaps mistakenly) in Liberman a comrade-inarms, condemned him harshly, accusing him of cynical political zigzagging for personal political gain. They castigated him for veering – or rather lurching – leftward to secure new sources of electoral support, having been displaced by Bennett as the perceived leader of the political Right.
Whether these allegations are true or not, they reflect the interpretation of numerous other observers.
Thus, a headline in the recently established (2012) Al-Monitor blared: “Israeli foreign minister shifts to Center.” Echoing concerns of the Right, the article, by wellknown Israeli commentator Mazal Mualem, went on to speculate: “... the change in his behavior is so pronounced that it’s easy to imagine the political Left and Center embracing him in the near future.”
When ‘Haaretz’ commends Liberman…
The radically dovish Haaretz cooed: “Liberman’s remarks… continued the relatively moderate line he has been espousing since returning to the post of foreign minister last November.” When Haaretz endorses Liberman’s positions as “relatively moderate,” you have to wonder… Of course, Kerry’s State Department seized on Liberman’s perceived volte face with undisguised glee. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki enthused: “We certainly welcomed his remarks and his sentiment….it’s a reflection of… the belief of many people in Israel that a two-state solution is the right outcome at the end of this process.”
Seemingly cognizant of the potential significance of the foreign minister’s perceived tectonic shift, she added: “It certainly is a powerful statement and a powerful message given his history and his background on these issues and where his view was…” I do not know whether the praise showered on Liberman by his erstwhile critics in the wake of last Friday’s comments was the result of design or happenstance, but it seems virtually certain that their highly detrimental aftershock will reverberate for some time.
They will provide a strong tailwind for the advocates of continuing the dangerous territorial withdrawals that have caused so much death and destruction up to now. They, as will be seen, will serve to perpetuate the pernicious prevarications that perpetuate this perilous policy.
Kerry is no friend
Now while it may not be acceptable for the foreign minister to publicly harangue his US counterpart, Liberman’s characterization of Kerry as “a true friend of Israel” who “is leading the process correctly” was wildly inappropriate, unnecessary and inaccurate.
The policy Kerry is promoting has been tried and has failed with deadly consequences for thousands of Israelis. No one attempting to coerce Israel to rerun such a hazardous experiment, with such low probability of success, can be counted as a friend. No one advocating a policy that will involve placing all the kindergartens in Israel’s metropolis within range of the same weapons that bombard the kindergartens in Sderot (saved only by the Palestinian bad aim, not good intentions) is a true friend.
True friends do not threaten boycotts, as did Kerry, if their risk-fraught bidding is not done. The State Department’s indignant protests that all the secretary of state was doing was describing dangers for Israel that might arise from other sources if it did not comply with his ill-advised initiative, ring hollow and unconvincing.
In this regard Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan was spot on when he remarked that “it’s difficult to accept Kerry’s explanation that he was describing the situation as an onlooker. He appears more like someone trying to fan the flames of threats against Israel’s economy.”
And indeed he does. Kerry is not acting as a “true friend to Israel” and it is disingenuous, detrimental and a disservice to the nation to suggest that he is.
Wrong focus for unity
Liberman’s pronouncement that “when there is a dispute between the unity of the nation or the unity of the land, the nation’s unity is more important” is no less problematic. Implicit in this statement is the defeatist assumption that the unity of the nation and unity of the land are mutually exclusive. It implies that it is impossible to rally the nation around the unity of the land, but it is possible to do so over its division.
It implies the unity of the nation can only be achieved if opponents of territorial withdrawal defer to the dictates of the proponents of withdrawal.
This position flies in the face of rational analysis and practical experience. Over the past quarter-century the proponents of the land-for-peace paradigm have been proven consistently and catastrophically wrong, while all the warnings of the opponents of this failed formula have been proved continuously and consistently right (no pun intended).
So here’s the question. What possible merit is there in calling for the nation to rally around a position that has been proven consistently incorrect, rather than calling on it to rally around a position that has been proven consistently correct?
A question of courage
This leads directly to the question of courage and leadership, topics Liberman invoked in his address when he proclaimed: “What is needed is leadership with courage to make changes.” Given the context of his address the implication is clear. Courageous leadership is needed to unify the nation around the division of the land.
This of course is a curious interpretation of the concept of “courage” and looks suspiciously close to the countervailing concept of “cowardice.”
Surely courage involves defending positions, not abandoning them; holding firm despite pressures, not yielding to them; surely it entails defiance, not compliance; rebuffing adversarial demands, not submitting to them.
Surely leadership with courage would opt for unity based on Zionist creation, rather than Zionist capitulation.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Liberman’s remarks reflect the tacit deference by the political Right to the views of the political Left and implied acknowledgment of its moral superiority.
This is totally unfounded and unjustified – and dispelling this outrageously absurd illusion is the true challenge of “courageous leadership.”
Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.