Washington Watch: Israel needs a real foreign minister

Only in this country could the leader of the PM’s largest coalition partner get away with promoting separate policies on several issues.

By D. BLOOMFIELD
October 6, 2010 23:07
4 minute read.
AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN, deputy prime minister and minis

Lieberman UN 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

It appears that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will once more be dragged kicking and screaming to the peace table. In exchange for briefly extending the settlement moratorium, he is expected to get a generous package of American military aid, weapons systems, security guarantees, and political backing for years.

All the Obama administration is asking for is 60 more days of a construction freeze. There was no indication whether Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will spark another crisis in two months over whether and where building can continue, nor how much it would cost US taxpayers to get them talking again.

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Settlements are an obstacle to peace, and that has long been the intention of their most ardent backers. But another major obstacle can be found in Netanyahu’s own cabinet, where a new poll indicates that half his ministers oppose the freeze. Heading that faction is Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister and leader of Netanyahu’s largest coalition partner, the ultranationalist Israel Beiteinu.

Although Lieberman also carries the title of deputy prime minister, he acts more like the leader of the opposition.

Making matters worse is Netanyahu’s bewildering failure to put an end to such behavior.

Some, like Daily Beast writer Peter Beinart, have suggested Netanyahu keeps Lieberman and other pro-settler figures in his cabinet to provide “political cover to do what he has wanted to do all along: Make a viable Palestinian state impossible.”

THE SINCERITY of Netanyahu’s commitment to reaching “an historic peace agreement” with the Palestinians within 12 months was brought into question again by his weak response to his foreign minister’s incendiary speech to the UN General Assembly last month.

That performance appeared designed to sabotage Netanyahu’s peace policy.

Lieberman said that instead of concluding a peace treaty in one year, “we should focus on a long-term intermediate agreement that could take decades.” The “guiding principle,” must not be land for peace but rather “exchange of populated territory.” But first, he said, the “Iranian issue must be resolved,” and Israeli Arabs, whom he wants to get rid of anyway, must swear loyalty to the Jewish state.

Even more amazing was Netanyahu’s feeble response. His office said he had not been consulted in advance and that he is “the one handling the negotiations on Israel’s behalf.”

No outrage. No denunciation. No contradiction. No demand for retraction. No firing.

No wonder questions are raised about Netanyahu’s true intentions. And Lieberman’s.

Was Lieberman playing bad cop to Netanyahu’s good cop by providing an excuse to let the peace talks die aborning? Or was his real target Netanyahu himself? Two Israeli papers, Haaretz on the left and Yediot Aharonot on the right, called on the PM to “fire Lieberman.”

Yediot said Lieberman’s “unpredictable and reckless” behavior would be intolerable “in a normal state,” and was a demonstration of “chutzpah and contempt” for the PM. His transfer proposals “undermine Israel’s image as a democratic, enlightened state.”

There is no clearer way for Netanyahu to demonstrate he is serious about peace than by dumping Lieberman and the rejectionists and forming a new coalition with the centrist Kadima, which has more seats than Israel Beiteinu and Shas combined.

Only in Israel’s dysfunctional government could the leader of the PM’s largest coalition partner get away with promoting separate policies on peace, foreign affairs, the budget, civil liberties and religious-secular affairs.

Washington is virtually off-limits to Lieberman, not because the Obama administration says he is unwelcome but because his own government fears he’ll do more harm than good, as he demonstrated at the UN.

Lieberman’s only role in the peace process has been negative, embarrassing and opposing Netanyahu, who lacks the courage or the will to dump him.

He has been the target of “rebukes and censures” by foreign governments and leaders, and many avoid meeting with him, said Haaretz. The vacuum is filled by the prime minister, defense minister, trade and industry minister and even the country’s president.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit has said Lieberman “talks a lot” but says nothing of importance. Israel’s chief diplomat is unwelcome in Egypt, having told President Hosni Mubarak to “go to hell.”

Israel deserves a foreign minister who can be respected at home, abroad and in his own ministry – someone in the mold of Abba Eban, Moshe Sharett, Yigal Allon, Moshe Arens or Shimon Peres – not a racist and parochial political hack.

Israeli political analyst Aluf Benn noted that “Netanyahu invested a great deal of effort in trying to convince world leaders that he is serious about peace with the Palestinians. And now comes Lieberman, and tells all those leaders it’s all crap.” Lieberman “made him out to be a liar.”

If Netanyahu’s commitment to peace with the Palestinians is genuine, the best way to begin is by replacing the rejectionists with a centrist government and a foreign minister who support compromise and can help repair Israel’s international stature.

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