(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Avigdor Lieberman's return to the cabinet has been met by a chorus of international disapproval. Editorials and news features have critically highlighted his staunch support of the West Bank settlement enterprise, his profound skepticism as to the prospects of negotiated progress with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future, his backing for a death penalty for Knesset members who meet with Hamas and Hizbullah. Writers have highlighted his early years in Moldova and questioned the depth of his commitment to democracy. Comparisons have even been drawn with Mussolini.
Sometimes his positions have been misrepresented, as in articles that emphasize his advocacy of Israel relinquishing control over some of its Arab citizens but fail to point out that his proposal is also to relinquish control of the territory in which they live. His stance on this issue is already complex and controversial; presenting it superficially and inaccurately hardly enables clarity of judgement.
In truth, some of the concerns raised about our latest minister are resonant, indeed. Lieberman has been a shoot-from-the-lip politician, given to a series of utterances that, if translated into policy, would have highly damaging consequences for Israel.
In the domestic context, to give just one example, there has been his injured-party talk of the need for greater controls and restrictions on the police force; in the regional context, there have been a litany of instinctive declarations of aggressive intent.
Ironically, however, while there has been much international dismay at the notion of so outspoken and declaredly militaristic a politician being given cabinet responsibility for regional "strategizing" - primarily in the context of Iran's determined drive to a nuclear capability - the Lieberman rejoining the Israeli cabinet of 2006 is speaking very differently from the 2001 model who urged the bombing of Teheran.
Interviewed by The Jerusalem Post last weekend, Lieberman now urged that the Iranian threat be handled discreetly. "We have to wait and see what the European Union, United States, Russia and China do about Iran," he asserted patiently. "We don't need to be on the front line on this issue. We just have to sit and wait."
Asked to explain why, while Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has so relentlessly cranked up the rhetoric delegitimizing Israel, he is now so dramatically toning down his utterances, Lieberman said only that "what was right five years ago is not necessarily right today."
Often when a big-talking politician's elevation to higher office is accompanied by a moderating of his or her public statements, the explanation is that "you see things from here that weren't apparent from there."
Yet the reverse process appears to be unfolding where Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is concerned. Until very recently, Olmert and the new model Lieberman might have reading from the same script. Olmert, too, was stressing a need for Israel to take a back seat on Teheran's nuclear drive, to give the international community time, to underline that this is by no means solely an Israeli problem.
But Olmert seems to be undergoing a shift - in the opposite direction to Lieberman's. In the last few days, he has placed Israel front and center in the effort to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions, publicly comparing the Iranian regime to the Nazis, castigating international indifference to Ahmadinejad's genocidal threats to the Jews, and directly warning Teheran that Israel "does not have the luxury" of allowing it to go nuclear. "When the head of a country says he wants to destroy us," the prime minister said while in Russia earlier this month, "it does not sound like an empty declaration, but something we must prepare to prevent through all acceptable and possible ways."
As Iran closes in on a nuclear capability week by week, that "luxury" of taking a back seat while the world does nothing to thwart the program becomes one that Israel can increasingly ill-afford. Israel, it must be stressed, does not seek military intervention in Iran. It has reasonably expected that the international community would internalize the threat posed by Teheran and would rapidly take concerted action short of military force to deter the Iranians.
But in the face of determined international foot-dragging, if not downright apathy, the last thing Israel can allow itself is to "wait and see" what, if anything, the EU, US, Russia and China intend to do. Time is running out, and Israel and others who recognize the threat owe it to themselves and to the rest of the international community to strenuously encourage non-military action before it is too late.
How ironic that new minister Lieberman is now attracting international criticism for past aggressive utterances at the very moment when he has opted for a softly-softly approach to the issue where he should be forcefully highlighting the dangers.