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(photo credit: AP)
If you enjoy political drama, the new government may be your cup of tea.The problem is, the drama isn't on stage, but here and now. And the disappointment may be greater than popcorn with too much salt.
The opening scene was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman giving his first speech in office on Wednesday. To take him at his word, he will change the rules of the game. The time of one-sided Israeli concessions is over. They have not brought peace. Palestinians and other Arabs will have to match Israel with concessions.
Lieberman did not denounce the goal of a Palestinian state, but seemed to be pushing it somewhere over the horizon. He will welcome peace with Syria, but not at the cost of withdrawing from the Golan Heights. He respects Egypt as an important force that works to stabilize the Middle East, but the era of Israeli foreign ministers visiting Egypt, when Egyptian leaders cannot tarnish their reputations by visiting Israel, is over.
Counterthrusts in this drama were not long in coming. US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown took a few moments from their meeting on the world economy to indicate that their governments stand by the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. A Palestinian spokesman said no one could force the Palestinians to sit around the negotiating table with a racist like Lieberman. A leader of the opposition MKs of the Labor Party (i.e., those opposed to their colleagues who joined the Netanyahu government) said the country's chief diplomat was using his first speech to speak about war. An Egyptian spokesman reiterated that Lieberman would get no invitation to visit Egypt until he apologized appropriately for his earlier insult to President Hosni Mubarak.
ONE CAN view Lieberman's remarks as (A) a refreshing wind that might clear the air of a "peace process" that has not accomplished much in 16 years since the Oslo Accords, as (B) the first step in a dangerous descent to catastrophe, or as (C) not much of anything.
A) The peace process is stale. As best can be judged from what gets to the media, the Palestinians are stuck in a mode of feeling that they have a monopoly on historical justice. It was their land. Israel took it, and continues to take it piece by piece with expanding settlements. It is "moderate" of them to demand a return to an earlier division of the land, prior to the 1967 war. They must have a just solution for refugees from 1948.In such a mode, their demand is for Israeli concessions. They seem hard-pressed to accept historical changes on the ground, and to admit that the refugees and their descendants will not return to what they claim as their homes. They are willing to renounce violence, but have not shown themselves capable or willing to resist those Palestinians who continue on the path of violence. Even more problematic is the posture of the Palestinians in control of the Gaza half of Palestine, who will not recognize Israel's legitimacy.
B) The slippery slope may not only lead to an escalation in terror, a bloody Israeli response and who knows what from other Arab countries and Iran. Undesirable responses may come from Europe and the United States, with a lack of invitations for leading officials, harsh words from world leaders, no cultural exchanges and a cold shoulder the next time Israel wants support in an international forum, an additional dollop of financial aid or guarantees of its loans and favorable trade terms.
C) There are several reasons for thinking that not much may come from Lieberman's tenure. The police continue to investigate his financial dealings. Should they reach the point where they recommend an indictment, and the attorney-general agrees, Lieberman will have to vacate his office.If he manages to remain in office, Lieberman's appearance on the international stage comes when the great powers have little time for Israel and Palestine. They are busy with their own economic problems. Moreover, they recognize that the Israel-Palestine process is stale. The two-state solution will not disappear, but those attending the theater may welcome a different performance. At least until the people in Gaza alter their posture toward Israel, there is not much point in pushing hard against the Israelis or the people in the West Bank.
Finally, Lieberman's prime minister is well-known for getting Teddy Roosevelt's slogan backward. Instead of speaking softly but carrying a big stick, Netanyahu is known for talking tough and acting like a mouse. With all the good reasons for a fresh breeze in the peace process, he may cave in to the first signs of contrary sentiments from the great powers. He has already said that he will work assiduously for peace. With Netanyahu, it is hard to know what he means.
The writer is a Hebrew University Political Science professor.