‘A happy symphony of contrasting voices” is how one diplomatic official
charitably explained to a foreign correspondent this week the odd occurrence of
Israel’s prime minister saying that when the country’s foreign minister speaks,
he does not reflect the government’s policies.
Though one may take issue
with the characterization of the current coalition as a “happy symphony,” the
“contrasting voices” element of the statement – at least when it comes to the
diplomatic process with the Palestinians – is spot on.
Avigdor Liberman sent a letter this week to the Quartet laying down why he
believes the diplomatic process with the Palestinians is stymied. His overlying
argument is not new: The government has taken numerous steps to improve the
atmosphere with the Palestinian Authority, only to be slapped in the face time
and time again by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who, rather than reciprocating, is
waging war against Israel in the diplomatic and legal arenas.
Mahmoud Abbas’s unfortunate behavior indicated that he apparently is
uninterested or unable – due to his standing in the domestic Palestinian scene
vis-a-vis Hamas, and in light of the regional geopolitical situation – to reach
an agreement which would bring an end to the conflict, including addressing all
the core issues,” Liberman wrote. “Instead he is creating a culture of blaming
Israel for delaying the process, while attempting to achieve advantages without
negotiation via blackmailing and ongoing attempts to internationalize the
That sums up the diagnosis of the reason for the stalemate in
the diplomatic process extant in Jerusalem: Abbas, for a variety of reasons, is
unwilling to negotiate with the Netanyahu government. And that diagnosis
is accepted by the government’s “big three:” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu,
Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Liberman.
Where the “contrasting voices”
come into play is how to solve the problem. The differences are not over the
diagnosis, but rather the cure. And this is why Liberman’s letter has made
The cure he advocates is a simple one: hold long-overdue elections
in the PA – they were supposed to have been held in 2010 – and get rid of
“The Palestinian Authority is a despotic government riddled with
corruption,” he wrote. “Due to Abbas’s weak standing and his policy of not
renewing the negotiations, which is an obstacle to peace, the time has come to
consider a creative solution, to think ‘outside the box,’ in order to strengthen
the Palestinian leadership.”
“General elections in the PA should be
held,” he concluded “and a new, legitimate, hopefully realistic Palestinian
leadership should be elected.”
Wham! The reactions were as swift in
coming as they were predictable. The Palestinians, who just a month earlier
wrote a damning letter about Israel to the EU, urging it not to upgrade
relations with it because of a long litany of complaints, cried foul. One
Palestinian spokesman wrung his hands about how Israel could dare to interfere
in their internal affairs, and another said Liberman’s letter was nothing less
than incitement to kill Abbas.
Netanyahu also responded swiftly, with his office issuing a statement distancing
him far from Liberman’s conclusions.
The letter, said a source in the
Prime Minister’s Office, “does not reflect the position of Prime Minister
Netanyahu or the government as a whole.”
“It is not Israel’s policy to
interfere in the electoral process in other places,” the source said. He added
that while there was acknowledgement in Netanyahu’s office that the PA under
Abbas has created difficulties that have prevented the resumption of
negotiations, “we nevertheless remain committed to restarting the dialogue with
In other words, Netanyahu agrees with the diagnosis
but not the cure. Netanyahu’s office itself could have written the
Liberman letter detailing complaints of Abbas’s behavior – and certainly the
section of the letter where the foreign minister wrote that Abbas has
simplistically and erroneously turned the settlements into the main issue, when
they are not. But Netanyahu’s office would have stopped well short of
calling for new PA elections and the need to replace Abbas.
words Netanyahu has never said. Rather than dumping Abbas (what if Hamas wins
new elections, or Abbas is reelected?) the treatment Netanyahu favors is
Netanyahu believes the Quartet should use its
powers of persuasion to convince Abbas that his efforts at diplomatic guerrilla
warfare are going nowhere. He wants them to make clear to the Palestinian leader
that they will not extract him from the tall tree upon which he has climbed, but
rather that he himself must simply climb down and negotiate.
Barak, too, believes in the overall diagnosis that Abbas has not responded
sufficiently to what Israel and this government has done, including the 10-month
settlement freeze two years ago. But his solution – and he himself spoke
this week to Abbas as part of a round of what could be called Id al-Fitr phone
diplomacy – is that Israel should be more pro-active in moving the process
forward, even taking unilateral steps if necessary.
Same diagnosis, three
different cures. And this, obviously, can confuse those outside watching
to see what happens to the patient. Consider the following interchange at
the State Department’s daily briefing in Washington on Wednesday.
it concern you at all that your great ally in the Middle East has a government
that doesn’t seem to be able to speak with a unified voice, or is this just what
you would consider typical of an Israeli coalition government?” State Department
spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was asked by a reporter.
“Around the world,
there are governments where their multiple voices come out,” she replied. “We
ourselves are not always unified on all kinds of issues.” And then the
follow-up: “But is it safe to assume, though, that you’re going to take the
prime minister’s word as the word of the government and not his foreign
Nuland’s response: Netanyahu has “made clear that… he is the leading
voice on these issues.”
In other words, in this “happy symphony” that is
the current coalition; Liberman – at least in the eyes of the US – is not seen
as playing first violin. The US, and most of the world, knows how to
differentiate among the different instruments and distinguish which one is
Then why did Liberman write the letter, and what did it
First of all, he wrote it in response to the PA’s July letter to the
EU. That letter, which enraged both the Foreign Ministry and the Prime
Minister’s Office, accused Israel of all types of crimes – theft, exploitation
of resources, removal of communities, changing the demography of Jerusalem,
destruction of projects in Area C, torture and extra-judicial killings – and
called for the EU to freeze its level of ties with Israel. Not the type of
behavior, an Israeli official said at the time, one expects from a “peace
partner.” Liberman’s letter is one type of answer, showing Abbas that Israel,
too, can take its grievances in letter form to the international community to
the detriment of the other party.
He also wrote the letter because
September is just a week away, and with it what is turning into the annual rite
of the Palestinians going to the UN to ask for statehood recognition.
argument the PA is expected to use this time is that the diplomatic process is
going nowhere; Israel is responsible for the negotiations going nowhere; and
therefore the international community must step in and establish facts on the
ground by granting the Palestinians nonmember observer status as a state at the
Israel disputes one of the two premises; not that diplomatic process
is not moving – that is clear to all. Rather, Jerusalem says – and Liberman
spelled this out in his letter in some detail – that the process is not moving
because of Palestinian intransigence. Both Netanyahu and Liberman have been
saying this for months in different speeches and meetings. What the
letter did was concretize those ideas.
And, finally, the letter – and its
blatant interference in the domestic affairs of another entity – was a response
to what is viewed in Jerusalem as Abbas’s playing in Israeli and even US
There is a widely-held sense in Jerusalem that among
the reasons Abbas is refusing to meet with Netanyahu is because he is waiting
for one of two things to happen: Either he is waiting until after the American
elections on November 6 in the hope that US President Barack Obama will win and
then be freer to once again get more involved in the diplomatic process and turn
the screws on Israel; or he is waiting for new elections in Israel, hoping that
they could bring into power a more pliable Israeli government.
letter told the Palestinians simply: Get involved in our domestic politics, and
we will get involved in yours.
Indeed, the letter did put the PA election
issue on the agenda, at least for a moment.
“Aside from the source of the
letter,” the State Department’s Nuland was asked at her daily press briefing,
“don’t you agree that perhaps it is time for a Palestinian election to be held
and a new leadership chosen?”
Liberman knows full well what the answer will be:
that the US says it does not interfere in others’ politics. But what he wanted
to do was just get the question asked. This letter was Liberman’s signature way
of telling the Palestinians that two can play the game he believes the
Palestinians have been playing for months.
As for the prime minister’s
reservations? Again, what Netanyahu objected to was Liberman’s proposed cure,
not his overall diagnosis.